References as a Service?

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“May I use you as a reference?”

The request, a friend (call her June James) told me, came from a strong performer (call him John Jones) who had worked for her a few years ago.

Shortly after she agreed, she received an anonymous text that said, “John Jones notes you consent to a txt msg to provide reference feedback. Txt Y to continue or N to stop txts. Msg&data rates may apply.”

My friend isn’t in the habit of replying to anonymous texts on the grounds that she isn’t an idiot. She ignored it, other than letting Jones know what was going on. Jones confirmed that he had shared her email address and mobile number (for texting).

Shortly thereafter she received an email, edited here for length:

From: John Jones <donotreply@skillsurvey.com>

Sent: <Date>

To: June James <June.James@emailprovider.com>

Subject: John Jones Reference Request

Dear June,

I am pursuing a career opportunity and I’m asking you, as well as several other individuals, to complete this request as a professional reference. Please complete this short (less than 30 questions), confidential, web-based survey regarding my skills.

You will not be identified as having written the individual responses because the system averages the responses from all of my references to produce one summary report that is confidential in accordance with the applicable Privacy Policy.

Please note that you will be responding as an individual, not as a representative of any company or organization. Also, I have executed a legally binding agreement that releases you, as well as any organization with which you are now affiliated or have been affiliated in the past, from any potential liability for providing this information.

The process is quick and easy. Please click or paste this link into your browser:


If you have any questions, you can contact me at John.Jones@emailprovider.com.

Thank you for your time,

John Jones

Worst part first: “… less than 30 questions?” Please. Anyone with a gram of grammar savvy knows it should read “… fewer than 30 questions.”

My friend is more bad-grammar-tolerant than I am. She’s no more tolerant, though, of a claim that a 30-question survey qualifies as short. She was also hesitant to encourage a request that pretended to be from one source when in fact it came from a different source; and that concealed the identity of the hiring company.

Nevertheless, to help out someone worth helping out, she completed the thirty-three question survey, at the end of which the hiring company’s name was not only revealed — it encouraged her to apply for a position, too.

Which led to the anticlimactic piece de resistance, a follow-up email from SkillSurvey (not reproduced here because really, you and I are friends) promoting SkillSurvey’s services should she have a need for them in her own recruiting.

What, my friend asked, did I think of this approach to reference checks?


First: Starting the conversation with an anonymous text in this day and age? Really?

Second: Sending an email that pretends to be from the applicant when it actually comes from a third-party agent of the hiring company suggests to me that this isn’t a company I can trust to keep my identity and responses confidential. I’d probably let the requester know, with regrets, that while I’d be happy to talk with the hiring manager directly I’m not willing to respond to the on-line survey.

But what do I think of the approach?

Hiring decisions are the most important decisions managers make. References are one of the most important tools managers have for getting a handle on what it will be like to work with an applicant over the long haul — information that’s just as importance as the applicant’s raw competence.

Not that it’s all that easy to get that information: Usually, when asked to be a reference, the requestee asks something along the lines of, “What would you like me to say?”

When speaking with a reference, hiring managers need to penetrate beyond good/bad questions (Q: “Is Fred a strong project manager?” A: “Oh, yes, one of the very best!”) to a more nuanced sense of what the applicant is like as a person and co-worker; what it’s like to interact with them day-to-day; what they’re like when the chips are down … stuff like that.

No survey will get you there. That takes a conversation between two human beings about another human being.

When you’re evaluating a job applicant would you substitute a survey for interviewing them face to face?

That’s how I look at survey-based reference checks.

Comments (14)

  • Totally bone-headed approach to checking references.

  • its clearly some lazy HR person covering their butt and using this as a way to filter possible applicants

  • Well said, Bob.

    This is strictly a misuse of technology to address a problem that is very relational in nature.

  • That is one of the more bizarre things I’ve seen come up. Thanks for sharing. For me, it’s an extension of how people avoid real conversation today. Anything but a face-to-face (or even phone-to-phone voice) interaction. Is it generational? I don’t know. I’ve seen it at both ends of the age spectrum. I’ve largely given up engaging conversation at the gym or elsewhere because if I do, they just pull out one ear bud, pause the video, and ask “Huh?”.

  • I would presume they are just using it as a tool to reduce the pile of applicants for the next stage of processing (which might involve a human doing some decision)

    • Probably not. This process involved an applicant’s references and followed a bunch of interviews.

      So the only next stage is drug testing and background checks following the decision to hire.

      • Bob – did your friend say that interviews had taken place? the part about the end of the survey asking if she wanted to apply, sounded as Malcom suggested – a way to winnow down the applicants who passed some initial resume review. The actual interviews are the most time intensive part of the process, and, for efficiency sake, some organizations do the ‘reference checks’ first.

      • The interviews had already taken place. The reference check survey occupied the usual slot in the overall recruiting sequence.

        My friend actually thought it was quite ingenious for a growing company to ask people who had been identified as references if they’d be interested in joining the company as well. It’s a way to use job applicants for qualified referrals.

        She thought it was ingenious, but not so ingenious that she was tempted.

  • Look at the bright side – it could have been a bot instead of a survey. This is the classic solution looking for a problem. The human experience cannot be emulated by a survey and analytics (trust me that they take the answers and spit out some type of match score). One of my rips with HR is trying to use metrics to determine human success.

    Then again, I see a serious business opportunity here Bob. Developing a bot that can reply to these questions and guarantee success.

  • And do you want to work for an entity that outsources reference checks to a bot?

  • HR already has taught us to use education as a proxy for aptitude and understanding and years of experience as a proxy for expertise and competence.

    Why not use surveys as a proxy for drawing insight from human interaction?

    In HR’s defense (I offer this grudgingly), they probably have learned the hard way that most hiring managers can’t interview their way out of a paper bag and (so I’ve been told) most companies decline to answer any questions that might provide a useful insight about a former employee (because lawsuits), so they may be thinking that ANYTHING they can glean from a survey is better than nothing.

    What I’ve observed, though, is that using proxies is a make-believe game that results in a “good hire” as often as using a coin toss would (actually, probably less often).

  • I think references are a waste of time, unless you know who the referrer is. Otherwise, now you’ve got two people you know nothing about saying stuff.

    I know many folks who ask friends if their doctor or dentist is “any good?”
    How would they know if he’s a good dentist or doctor?
    They know if he’s a good conversationalist and bills them properly and treats them nice, but as far as their doctoring skills, how would a patient really know?

    The person you’re talking to for the reference. What do you know about them? Would you hire them? Why would you believe them? Why would you think they know what they’re talking about?

    You think these are dumb questions? How many people in your organization, the one you work in right now, could actually give a valid, spot-on reference about any of your other co-workers?

    (I perform analysis by assuming most places/people are similar to most other places/people).

  • I know that there are corporations in which the policy is to allow confirmation of the former employee’s work history but to not allow direct references. Perhaps this is an attempt to work around that sort of a restriction. It still doesn’t provide the depth or nuance that an actual conversation would. Is it better than nothing? I’m not sure.

    • Most companies these days provide confirmation of employment and nothing more. Nothing more would include this sort of survey … include it out, that is.

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