The Game of Reference Letters

One rather annoyed colleague asked me about the real need and purpose of reference letters in the recruiting process especially given the fact that people who are looking for a new job cannot expect or rely on the goodwill of their current or past employers.

Here is my opinion.  As a person who has played on both sides of the game of referencing crosswords ..

The recruiting process is a lot like dating.  Two parties who have not been introduced to one another participate in a professional courtship.  This starts off by a job ad which is then being replied to by candidates who are interested in the message behind the usually stiff and standard wording.

At this point the two parties assume that the ad and the resume are truthful completely reflecting their position and interests.  This assumption, if not confirmed, is one of the major mistakes of this process that will surely lead to bitter dissatisfaction (and costs) to either or both parties when detected later.  That is why the potential employer goes further in its investigation and asks for references.  Letters of reference are increasingly becoming outdated when compared to the new forensics opportunity provided freely to both parties by social media (company or personal sites, social media pages, forums, etc.) – an opportunity which more and more employers are keen to survey.

Coming back to my comparison between recruiting and dating, any party is free and should be interested to search for other types of information not provided in the resumes which are also usually placid and sanitized just like the job ads.  This is interestingly similar to the process of starting a new business partnership: each side scrutinizes its potential counterparty and obviously searches for additional information from people who may know more than the polished websites or presentations.

In the recruiting process the good old references (whether verbal or written) require the candidate to look back in this career and choose people who were relevant for his/her history and whose opinions could be convincing for the new potential employer.  To some/many this retrospection is overwhelming.  They simply do not know where to start, feel extremely uncomfortable to approach such persons, and obtain the needed benefit from this exercise.  In fact this exercise is an acid test of work relationships.

Tangible results at work are effective ways to get rewards: bonuses, promotions, or at least preserving the job.  But it is also extremely valuable to have and keep friendly relationships with co-workers.  For somebody who has understood the value of networking inside the companies they work for, providing reference letters is a snap (Internal Networking article).  The good news is that there are many people that can satisfy the request for their recommendation – some will do you this favor to simply help you, while others will react positively to your implicit flattery.  I believe appreciation is the one crown jewel all of us always pursue throughout our lives.  Reference letters are just symbols of how people appreciated us – like a verbal/written award we never asked for or received.

Unfortunately the stress placed on candidates to provide references is not always compensated by an appropriate usage of such sensible information.  Often the references are not in fact read or corroborated with the resume or even worse: the discretion and the goodwill implied by such testimonies which involve third party accountability are too frequently abused by the same recruiters who simply wanted to cross off another item required by the recruiting folder.  At the same time references in written form are more often than not drafted by the candidates themselves and then swiftly signed off by the witnesses to their performance or attitude – due to the eternal lack of time.

It appears that the entire game of asking and providing references is like a theatrical ceremony where people rarely get a glimpse of the reality behind masks.  That’s unfortunate as the quality and duration of the relationship to be entered depends a whole lot on the honesty, goodwill, and mutual respect.  And the references with their valuable insights become just a useless nuisance for either party.