During the course of my career as a consultant, I’ve filled out numerous applications, given countless interviews, and had my resume scanned by more people than I care to know about. You would think that I would have become desensitized to the whole process by now.

But there’s still one part of this process I’ll never see the value of: the request for personal references. In my opinion, contacting references is an archaic way to judge a consultant’s worthiness. In this article, I’ll explain why, and I’ll offer some alternatives to personal references.

Be stingy with references
If a request is made for references, at what point do you supply them and to whom? Should you be willing to hand them over to a headhunter, or should you save that information for the potential client? I believe references should be guarded, like one’s social security number, and only given out in the possibility of a real job offer—certainly not before a final interview and never to recruiters. Too many unwanted and unwarranted calls to your references could be detrimental to your relationship with them.

Supplying references can be dangerous in other ways as well. For example, I’ve amassed a network of contacts to whom I multicast my availability when I’m seeking employment. If I use one of these contacts as a reference, they will likely assume if they’re contacted that I’ve been offered a position elsewhere and will probably take me off their list of potential candidates for other work. So if I don’t receive an offer, I’ve lost out on two opportunities.

Keeping up with your references
In today’s labor market, especially in IT, many people change jobs almost weekly, making it rather arduous to keep your reference list up-to-date. You are either forced to track these people, continually updating their information, or eliminate them as contacts.

And often all your efforts to keep an updated reference list just end up being a waste of time. Recently, I was asked to supply three references during a second interview with a potential client. In my attempt to be accommodating, I gave them a dozen names. Not one reference was contacted. For that matter, neither was I. The potential client chose to change direction and never bothered to notify me.

It seems as though some potential employers request references just to see if the candidate can supply them, with no intention of ever making contact. If you’re polite enough to let your references know when they might be contacted—and you should be—they may begin to wonder if they never receive a call.

References can be unreliable
If I’m asked to give references, I list people who have either given me positive references in the past or, if they are new references, those who I’m fairly certain will give me a glowing recommendation. I also make sure to ask them in advance for their permission to use them as a reference so they’re not caught off guard when they receive a call.

However, human nature is unpredictable. For example, there’s always a possibility that, unbeknownst to you, a coworker could have formulated a derogatory opinion of you after you’ve left the company based on personal feelings, not on job performance. This fact alone renders the use of references inconsequential. In addition, it may take you awhile, and you may have many missed opportunities before you are able to determine where the unflattering reference is coming from.

Advice for recruiters
Hiring a good consultant today is a hit-and-miss proposition at best. Inevitably, someone slips through the myriad of safeguards and employment screens and is later found to be a poor fit for the job. After all, with a little work, almost anyone can write a stellar resume and give a convincing interview.

A good reference does not necessarily denote a good employee—and the same holds true of a bad reference. It could be that those references had nothing to do with job performance but were just expressions of someone’s personal feelings or mood at that moment. It would naturally behoove any hiring manager not to base any decision on references—good or bad—but to concentrate on investigating the person’s qualifications and education and judge their fitness for the position based on those more fact-based measurements.

I suggest that, instead of being influenced by personal references, recruiters follow these steps to gain more fact-based information to use in hiring consultants and contractors.

  • Do a cursory reading of the resume for obvious mistakes, i.e., overlapping employment dates, incorrect information, spelling, and so on. If an applicant cannot, or will not, take the time to get the resume right, the applicant is insulting the hiring manager’s intelligence.
  • Take into account any career objectives that the candidate has stated on the resume. Is the position for which you’re hiring the same type being sought by the applicant?
  • Next, closely evaluate the candidate’s experience to verify that his or her skill set is in line with the position’s qualifications. Look at the applicant’s level of responsibility in past positions. Has it increased over time? Decreased? What is the width and breadth of that experience?
  • In addition, ask if the person initiated his or her own education (including certifications and licenses) outside of the confines of the job, or was it mandatory? This is a good indication of initiative or lack of it.
  • If after the interview you feel the candidate is worthy of further consideration, call to make sure he or she is still available and interested in the position and ask for his or her desired compensation level.
  • Only after the final interview and a discussion of compensation between yourself and the applicant have taken place should you make calls to past employers or educational institutions for verification. You should only ask past employers to verify employment dates and job titles.
  • Of course, at no time during the hiring process should you consider a candidate’s age, gender, religion, race, or sexual preference. This is an obvious point, but many recruiters still tend to let personal stereotypes influence their decision.

Hiring managers should strive to look beyond the surface of a candidate’s resume or application and truly read between the lines—not simply pull a resume from a database by simply using a keyword, a practice that is often used because of the sheer number of resumes in an employer’s database. This method is adequate perhaps for the initial screening, but once a pool of candidates has been established, further investigation into their true qualifications is essential.
Should a candidate for an IT consultant position be expected to supply personal references? Will it cast a poor light on a candidate if he or she refuses to give references? Post a comment below or send us a note.