eyeroll

You’ve probably all been there. You’ve found the perfect candidate to fill a vacancy or a new gig in your company. Their interview was great, their resumé impressive, their rapport with you and your team terrific. Seems a no-brainer, right? So you proceed to the next level in the way that everyone seems to—you ask for a list of references.

The job candidate will hand over a few names, and you’ll dutifully call each of them. Unless the candidate is completely clueless, they’ll have asked only their fans to be references. And that leads to you listening to someone prattle on about how marvellous and wonderful this golden hire is—often, with eye-rolling effusiveness.

It’s a nice affirmation, to be sure. But I think there’s a strong case to be made that it’s also a giant waste of time.

And I’m not alone. I was recently talking with Cameron Taylor, CEO of BOATsmart! in Peterborough, Ont., and he shared my skepticism. “I don’t put any weight in employee references,” he told me. “I don’t feel they’re objective at all. Why would anyone give you a reference who’d say anything but positive things?”

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His comments echoed another recent conversation I had, this time with Marty Parker, chairman and CEO of Mississauga, Ont.-based recruiting firm Waterstone Human Capital. In Parker’s view, the prevailing reference-check system is broken. Why? “Candidates are only going to give you people who’ll say good things about them,” he says. And this means you’ll be getting what you want to hear, instead of what you need to hear.

The problem, Parker says, is that employers are enamoured with the idea of hiring the perfect employee—and, when they hear nothing but glowing reviews of a candidate, it creates false expectations that no employee can meet. “It’s not possible for someone to have fit in perfectly everywhere they’ve worked. Some people you jive with, some you don’t,” he says. “When you hear nothing but wonderful things about someone, that’s not useful.”

Sure, sometimes you’ll luck out and get a reference who will speak in unbiased terms about a candidate’s strengths and weaknesses. But I’d argue that those are rare exceptions.

As a result, in most cases employee-supplied references tell you little about the person you’re about to bring into the company. Parker suggests an alternative, and I think it’s a smart one. He’ll sit with a candidate and ask them to explain their relationship with their bosses and colleagues at each of their past workplaces—stressing that it’s OK to talk about the good and the bad. Their response, he says, is telling: they’ll tell you things like, “You know what? He and I never really clicked” or “I’m an introvert, and it was hard for me to fit in in there because most of my colleagues were extroverts.”

The employee would likely never offer anyone from these organizations as references. But Parker argues that forcing job candidates to talk about their relationships with their colleagues will give you insight into how they actually work with others—something a glowing reference seldom offers. And it’s a great way to suss out employees with high levels of self-awareness, honesty and clarity.

Read: The Top 5 Hiring Mistakes

Of course, if someone points out problems with every past employer, that’s a red flag. But one or two instances of a less-than-stellar tenure shouldn’t be enough to blackball an otherwise excellent candidate.

I don’t want to suggest that you shouldn’t do your homework when making a hire. But there are better ways to do it than talking to acandidate-supplied superfan. Parker’s approach is a great tactic. So too are psychological and/or personality tests and culture-fit interviews (look for more of this in the October 2013 issue of PROFIT). Each of these will give you a sense of who you’re really hiring—not the airbrushed version you’ll get from a reference.

Deborah Aarts is an award-winning senior editor at PROFIT Magazine. Her coverage of opportunities and challenges for Canada’s entrepreneurial innovators covers HR, leadership, sales and international trade, among other topics.

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Do you feel that reference checks are still valuable? If so, why? Share your thoughts by commenting below.

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