5 Reference Checking Myths Debunked

Reference checking Carl-Johan Holmberg

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There are a lot of misconceptions about reference checking and questions as to whether third-person insights can really provide value. In this article, we debunk five of the most common myths about reference checking!

1. Reference Checks Have Low Validity

The rumour that reference checks have low validity probably comes from scientific studies published in the 20th century. In a frequently cited article, Schmidt and Hunter (1998) summarised scientific findings on how well different personnel selection procedures predict work performance. Compared to other personnel selection procedures, Schmidt and Hunter (1998) found that reference checks have relatively low validity. However, as Zimmerman et al. (2010) pointed out, the studies conducted during the 20th century mainly used unstructured reference checks.

Few people seem to know that during the 21st century, new studies have instead investigated the validity of structured reference checks. These new studies (e.g., Hedricks et al., 2013; Taylor et al., 2004; Zimmerman et al., 2010) have shown strong correlations between reference checks and work performance. Thus, the available research suggests that reference checking can be a valid predictor of work performance if it is conducted in a structured way. If you want to know how you can achieve structure in your reference checks, you can download our free white paper.

2. Reference Checking is Only a Compliance Activity

In the United States, if an employer fails to do a proper reference check of a potential employee, the employer may be guilty of negligent hiring if the new employee causes harm to others (Gusdorf, 2008; Igwebuike & Isaac, 2014).

Recently, the largest verdict in American history in negligent hiring was delivered, ordering an employer to pay more than $1 billion for the murder of an elderly woman who was killed by a service technician in her home (Ars Technica, 2022; NBC News, 2022; XpertHR, 2022). According to the plaintiff's attorneys, a routine reference check would have revealed that the service technician had a work history of harassment and falsifying documents. Had a proper reference check been conducted, the attorneys' said it would have disqualified him from employment. Thus, reference checking is not just a compliance activity. It is a valid predictor of work performance and can also reduce the risk of hiring someone who harms others.

3. Reference Checks Are Useless Because the References Are Nominated by the Job Applicants Themselves

Job applicants who select their references are apt to choose raters who are likely to give the applicants’ the highest scores. Therefore, there is a question as to whether there will be enough variance in applicants’ scores received from applicant-selected observers to allow for meaningful prediction of performance criteria. To answer this question, Zimmerman et al. (2010) created a structured reference check which included measures of the personality constructs Conscientiousness and Emotional Stability. The results showed that although the job applicants chose their raters, there was still enough variance to allow for the structured reference check to be a valid predictor of work performance.windows-hNiNxhUfCfQ-unsplash (1)

Meta-analyses have shown that observer ratings of personality outperform self-reported personality in predicting work performance (Connelly & Ones, 2010; Oh et al., 2011). Thus, the insights that can be gained from people who have observed an individual may be more useful than the information provided by the individual.

It is also worth mentioning that reference checking is the only aspect of a recruitment process where the information does not come directly from the job applicants. If the references are apt to say positive things about the job applicants, consider how inclined the job applicants are to present themselves positively (e.g., during the job interview). In their study, Weiss and Feldman (2006) found that 81% of job applicants lied at least once during a job interview. Still, job interviews continue to be one of the most frequently used methods to assess job applicants (Macan, 2009).

4. If You Need to Do Reference Checks, You Didn't Do a Good Enough Job Earlier in the Process

Since reference checking is the only aspect of a personnel selection procedure where someone other than the job applicants themselves provide information about their behaviour, reference checks can add information that helps recruiters paint a better picture of the applicants. For example, during a job interview, few applicants would say that they are usually late for work. Such information may only be gathered by contacting former employers and colleagues.

5. A Job Applicant's Behaviour in a Previous Organisation is Irrelevant Because the Organisational Contexts Differ

Meta-analyses have shown that measures of personality traits can be used to predict work performance (Ones et al., 2007) and other outcomes that organisations care about, including organisational commitment (Choi et al., 2015) and employee engagement (Young et al., 2018). A defining feature of personality traits is that they are stable (Boyd & Pennebaker, 2017; Briley & Tucker-Drob, 2014).

Personality differences between individuals contribute to the explanation of why one individual behaves differently from another individual in a comparable situation (Shweder, 1975). Thus, if you observe a group of people, their personalities will influence them to behave differently from each other, regardless of the organisational context. Because personality traits are stable, observer ratings of applicants’ personalities in previous organisations can be used to predict behaviours in other organisations.

We hope you found this article insightful! If you are interested in learning more about the potential of reference checking, visit Refapp, start a free trial or get in touch! 



Ars Technica. (2022). Judge rules Charter must pay $1.1 billion after murder of cable customer. https://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2022/09/judge-rules-charter-must-pay-1-1-billion-after-murder-of-cable-customer/

Boyd, R. L., & Pennebaker, J. W. (2017). Language-based personality: a new approach to personality in a digital world. Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, 18, 63-68.

Briley, D. A., & Tucker-Drob, E. M. (2014). Genetic and environmental continuity in personality development: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 140(5), 1303-1331.

Choi, D., Oh, I. S., & Colbert, A. E. (2015). Understanding organizational commitment: A meta-analytic examination of the roles of the five-factor model of personality and culture. Journal of Applied Psychology, 100(5), 1542-1667.

Connelly, B. S., & Ones, D. S. (2010). An other perspective on personality: meta-analytic integration of observers' accuracy and predictive validity. Psychological Bulletin, 136(6), 1092-1122.

Gusdorf, M. L. (2008). Recruitment and selection: Hiring the right person. Society for Human Resource Management.

Hedricks, C. A., Robie, C., & Oswald, F. L. (2013). Web-based multisource reference checking: An investigation of psychometric integrity and applied benefits. International Journal of Selection and Assessment, 21(1), 99-110.

Igwebuike, J. G., & Isaac, K. D. (2014). Employer implications of conducting background checks in the post-911 environment. Labor & Employment Law Forum, 4(1), 46-65.

Macan, T. (2009). The employment interview: A review of current studies and directions for future research. Human Resource Management Review, 19(3), 203-218.

NBC New. (2022). Cable company ordered to pay over $7 billion in damages to family of Texas grandmother murdered by employee.


Oh, I. S., Wang, G., & Mount, M. K. (2011). Validity of observer ratings of the five-factor model of personality traits: a meta-analysis. Journal of Applied Psychology, 96(4), 762-773.

Ones, D. S., Dilchert, S., Viswesvaran, C., & Judge, T. A. (2007). In support of personality assessment in organizational settings. Personnel Psychology, 60(4), 995-1027.

Shweder, R. A. (1975). How relevant is an individual difference theory of personality? Journal of Personality, 43(3), 455-484.

Taylor, P. J., Pajo, K., Cheung, G. W., & Stringfield, P. (2004). Dimensionality and validity of a structured telephone reference check procedure. Personnel Psychology, 57(3), 745- 772.

Weiss, B., & Feldman, R. S. (2006). Looking good and lying to do it: Deception as an impression management strategy in job interviews. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 36(4), 1070-1086.

XpertHR. (2022). Texas Negligent Hiring Case Nets $7 Billion-Plus Award. https://www.xperthr.com/news/texas-negligent-hiring-case-nets-usd7-billion-plus-award/51877/

Young, H. R., Glerum, D. R., Wang, W., & Joseph, D. L. (2018). Who are the most engaged at work? A meta-analysis of personality and employee engagement. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 39(10), 1330-1346.

Zimmerman, R. D., Triana, M. D. C., & Barrick, M. R. (2010). Predictive criterion-related validity of observer ratings of personality and job-related competencies using multiple raters and multiple performance criteria. Human Performance, 23(4), 361-378.