For many companies, reference checks are a critical component of the hiring process. On the surface, it seems like the most obvious way to avoid a costly mistake. But the truth is that there’s a pretty finite amount of information you’ll learn from most reference calls. From the candidate’s standpoint, it can be a frustrating experience to cobble together a list of professional references after a long interview process.
I reached out to a couple developers to ask a simple question: "Are reference checks necessary?" Here's what they had to say.
Joe Novalany, a web developer with ten years of experience, tells us that professional references don’t provide a lot of insight when you’re interviewing a candidate who hasn’t worked with your tech stack. He says, “A position as a web developer, and a subsequent positive review by their reference, doesn't necessarily mean that person’s skills will translate to an iOS/Android app developer position.”
On the flipside, he says that someone who receives a terrible review from a previous employer is not a good enough reason on its own to rule that candidate out. Novalany adds, “It may have been a temporary job in an area they knew they weren't skilled in just to get by or the reference might have a personal reason to give a bad review.”
While reference checks during the interview process aren’t always the most reliable, they can be useful if you understand which questions you should ask. Novalany says he has used reference calls to find out more about the type of environment a candidate worked in and the projects he or she was involved with. “I’d ask professional references about the other team member’s personalities, the kinds of development and debugging tools used, and how deadlines were scheduled,” he says, “When I noticed there were lots of differences between my organization and theirs, I took it with a grain of salt. Alternatively, if the previous employer seemed to work as I do, the reference would carry a lot more weight at that point.”
Our CEO Joel Spolsky once wrote that the majority of a technical interview should be spent letting the candidate prove that he or she can write quality code. Based on what we learned from the developers we spoke to, it’s clear that this sentiment should extend into the final stages of the interview process, whether or not they include reference checks. Some recruiters are starting to take steps to ensure they don’t cross the line when they check a candidate’s references. However, Max Horstmann, a full-stack developer at Stack Overflow, tells us that his advice to employers would be to keep the primary focus on whether or not a developer can write code that your company needs.