In any industry there are hold over processes that have embedded themselves in the operational psyche of that discipline. Though there may be better solutions, a more efficient process or service, we maintain these old conceptual ideals. One I always seem to find in my industry of Recruiting and Human Resources is the Reference Check.
Now back when a hardline telephone, a typewriter and a stack of resumes sitting on your desk was the norm, perhaps the reference check made more sense. In those times we only had the sought out word of others, co-workers, supervisors and friends with which to work. But even then the system was gamed. It's never been difficult and that is why the Reference Check has never been a valid operational process in any pre-hiring workflow.
By "gamed" I mean there is one simplistic thing that happens with a reference check that makes it instantaneously invalid. It is requested from the individual under consideration or judgment, if you will. I am in no way implying that an applicant is being dishonest when they provide references. On the contrary, they are doing exactly what you've asked.
"Provide 3 or more people we can call and ask about your work." Now think about that for a second. Step out of the process you've had ingrained into your Paleocortex and really use your NeoCortex to analyze what you are doing here. You are requesting from a person, whom is trying to get a job with your company, people to contact about how good this person is for you to hire. What are the odds they are going to give you someone who does not think they've done a good job? Zero, Nada, None. Isn't going to happen. So then what is the real value in a reference check?
How many times have you called to verify a reference and they've said you shouldn't hire the candidate? How many times in verifying the reference have you heard, "Well they do great work, but they have a really bad drinking problem so they might not be very reliable?" Never, because who is going to provide a reference that would say such a thing?
In order to get a more rounded view of your candidate, perhaps you should ask for two positive and two negative references. That way, you can have two views that provide you with a sophist comfort. Then you have two views of value, where you can measure the potential risk in hire. Decide where the holes or faults lie and make sure you have appropriate coverage and personnel development plan in place. These will give you a true view of the problems that might arise with the potential hire.
On the business side, you have your in-house recruiters working hard to find you people and generate savings against the potential of agency fees. Sometimes, you pay them well for their services. Every hour, every second they are not saving you money, they are an overhead, creating cost. So why would you spend this valuable time having them chase lip-service for a candidate you could vet with more substantial qualifiers?
Now enter the world of 21st century technology for recruiting white and blue collar workers. The NSA realizations aside, most people, especially millennials maintain at least 2 active Social Network or SocNet accounts. Additionally, a majority of online users have commented on a blog posting in the last month. Much of this activity is moving to mobile. So what does all this combine to and how does it relate to reference checks?
You now have a voluntary profile from which you can aggregate the public information and analyze for potential behavioral traits. This is Big Data leveraged for recruiting. There are some companies that offer services around attaching users professional information to their SocNet profiles. But they don't seem to leverage this information further to analyze potentials and behavioral aptitudes. One company that would appear to be approaching this potential is Gild. They have begun the race for machines to aggregate broad reaching information from semi-unrelated sources to generate a Potentials Profile of candidates. Combine this with the fine tuning of a "music match" algorithm and you could focus the system to provide only the lowest risk, highest potential people available for your needs. Almost the Holy Grail of Sourcing Tools one might say.
In closing, let me say, you may find some value in your reference checks. It may provide you with some sense of validation in your interest in hiring someone. Is it actual validation? Just keep in mind, when doing any kind of survey, scientific process teaches us, that we need to consider our sample source. In the Reference Check Survey probably the only thing that is usually not considered and researched for validity is the Reference itself.