The Importance of Reference Checks

Posted: 01.24.2023
In a recent episode on The Staffing Show, Brian Vesce, CEO of RefAssured, and People and Operations Leader Mike McSally discussed the importance of reference checks.

In this article, we are going to highlight some key points mentioned in this episode.

What is a reference check?

Vesce: “A reference check is a way to leverage sort of unbiased information or data on candidates, past roles, responsibilities, to really determine if they’re a fit for a new role, which typically involves getting that applicant’s or that candidate’s work histories, their skills and their abilities really through former managers, peers, colleagues, direct reports.”

What is the current state of reference checks in the staffing firm industry?

Vesce: “We run into customers that are on both ends of that spectrum. Ones that are doing it, firmly understand the value and have established where within that recruiting life cycle it should be done. And then there are ones that maybe have done it in the past or have sort of dabbled in a process that really establishes a framework to use this and optimize this but aren’t necessarily fully there.”

McSally: “It’s done way too late in the process. So at the end of the day, if requirements have been open two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine weeks, and you think you have a candidate and you’re hoping that this candidate is a good fit, my research shows, and the research I did for years shows, you’re very, very reluctant to really look for what you need to be looking for. Because at the 11th hour, if this candidate is not right and you’ve been at it for 10, 12, 13 weeks, you got to start all over again. So it’s really a double-edged sword.”

Where should staffing firms put reference checks into place?

McSally: “It’s pre-submittal. If I, in good conscience, was going to call [my client] and expect to charge him a premium for my service, I need to be able to say, “[…] here’s a candidate by the name of so-and-so. Here’s the stability that this person has. These are the organizations they worked at. And when I read your job description that you and I put together, this is what one of your peers, […] the VP of apps development or the head of PMO, when I read this job spec, this is what they said about my candidate’s ability to do your job. I’m not saying that you would run away and get married to this candidate, but I at least know in good conscience he or she is worthy of 45 minutes of your time.”

Is there data showing how early reference checks impacts the likelihood of somebody getting placed on assignment?

McSally: “The research through the roof, […] the reality of what we were able to do when we provided two references that were applicable to the job from managerial people in nature, somebody that our candidate reported to, our favorability score was 87% versus when we didn’t do it.”

So if the data is there, why isn’t every staffing firm doing it?

Vesce: “It really just comes down to speed and establishing the right process to get this. And so there are certainly firms out there that want to but just need assistance in understanding, “Where in the recruiting funnel should we do it?” [McSally] already talked about this. If you’re doing it after they’ve said, “Hey, we’re interested in making this candidate an offer,” it’s too late. What happens if something comes up on those reference checks? And then you got to unwind the whole thing and start over.”
What are some of the other areas or benefits of actually putting a standardized reference check process in place?

McSally: “It’s our job as recruiters, there’s a huge gap between sourcing and recruiting. Very, very, very, very, very different. And [Vesce] alluded to it is, we fall victim as an industry to the speed to market. Like, “Ah, if I don’t get this guy over there, the other agencies are going to submit him.” Well, okay, we got to believe that the other agencies really know what they’re doing and they’ve screened the people really well.”

“So the other thing I will share with you, […] Candidates say the worst thing that could ever happen to them after they’re submitted is they never hear back. So look, if people are willing to do the hard work and we’re willing to accelerate feedback time and interview time and interview time and offer time because we did due diligence, what more could a candidate ask for?”

Vesce: “A lot of candidates are saying, “I don’t want to be a number, I don’t want to get you my information and then wait forever or worse, never hear back.” So it’s really important that sales and recruiting educates candidates as to the value associated with doing this earlier in the process, creating a very well-formed presentation around that candidate’s strengths, their experiences. Why? So that the end client can look at that, it separates that candidate amongst all the other candidates that just have a LinkedIn profile or a resume out there and helps set them apart.”

When it comes to actual reference checks, what information do you recommend agencies collect throughout this process?

Vesce: “So there’s overall performance-related attributes, soft skill rating attributes, team skill rating attributes. And one of the ways that we go about it is we’re asking that reference giver to provide a rating on that individual against other people that they’ve managed and the best ever in each of those attributes. So sometimes you’re asking references in an arbitrary way to provide a reference on someone.”

“So if you look at it through the lens of being able to provide those questions, those attribute questions, and then rating them against other people that they’ve managed or that they’ve worked with, it certainly provides, one, stronger data to support strengths and weaknesses. And two, sort of better understanding of how we’re going about measuring that talent’s capabilities.”

Who should be actually thinking about reference checks today and who should care about these the most?

Vesce: “For the staffing agency, it positively impacts all the stakeholders. Front-office recruiting, it helps pre-screening, it helps understand alignment on the job to candidate. Sales, it becomes a new tool for them to separate the talent that they’re providing to the client. Compliance, regardless of the sector within staffing, whether it be IT or healthcare or finance, accounting and operations, a lot of times there is a compliance, especially within healthcare. It positively impacts the candidates, certainly the customers, and then even the executive leadership, you start to get a lot more data around the candidates that you’re representing and how those candidates work out with their customers from a quality of higher perspective. So, first and foremost, it’s something that interfaces with every facet of the staffing agency to include their customers.”

What are your thoughts on automating the process?

Vesce: “It’s clear that automation is going to help them considerably, especially as it relates to taking these manual tasks, eliminating it from the daily activities from the front-office people, and reallocating that time into other revenue generating areas or just making the work-life balance better for those individuals.”

To listen to the full episode and view the full show notes, you can click here.

What are your thoughts on reference checks? Let us know by emailing

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