Al Pittampalli

Are You Persuadable?

Stop Asking for References

Asking candidates to supply them can lead to bad hiring decisions.

Posted Jun 22, 2016

One day, several years ago, I got a call from a business owner who was looking to hire a video editor. He told me the editor, let’s call him Arnie, had put me down as a reference.

To this day, I have no earthly idea why Arnie chose me. I’d had a terrible experience with him: Arnie’s work was shoddy, his communication nonexistent, and he ended up charging way more than our agreed upon budget. So, although I took no satisfaction in it, I told the business owner the truth about my negative experience. The owner listened politely, thanked me for my time, and then hung up the phone.

The next day, I got an e-mail from Arnie. To my shock, he wasn’t angry. He was jubilated. The first line read, “Thank you!”

Turns out, the business owner had hired Arnie just a couple hours after our call.

The Real Reason We Ask for References

References are supposed to lead to better hiring decisions. The thinking goes, what better way to get information about the effectiveness of a candidate than to talk with people they’ve interacted with in the past?

The problem with this strategy is what’s known as sampling bias. The reality is, we’re forced to rely on the candidate to provide their references. So, even if 98% of people have terrible things to say about them, they’re sure to pass along the 2% that give praise. Even the Unabomber could’ve found a few people to vouch for his character. Because of this unrepresentative sample, references seldom lead to better hiring decisions. Indeed, a 2005 meta-analysis conducted by Aamodt and Williams showed the practice to be largely unsuccessful in predicting future employee success.

So why do we ask for them? For most people who seek references, making a better decision isn’t the primary goal. Validation is.

Looking back, it’s easy to see that the aforementioned business owner wasn’t interested in my help making his decision. When he ignored my warnings, he revealed his true motivation: he was trying to feel better about the decision he had effectively already made.

It’s difficult not to empathize with him. We’ve all experienced the intolerable anxiety of not knowing whether or not we’re making the right decision. When this happens, it’s tempting to find ways to reduce that anxiety. Just think of the last time you went to a particular friend or colleague for advice, because you knew they would tell you what you wanted to hear. This validation gives you the confidence boost you were looking for.

While that confidence boost might make you feel better, it comes with a cost. You end up distancing yourself from reality. After all, believing you’re right, doesn’t make you right. And an artificially inflated sense of confidence can make it more difficult to realize when you’re headed off a cliff.

At this point, you’re no doubt thinking: if asking for references is unproductive, what can I do instead to ensure I’m making the right decision?

That, my friend, is the wrong question.

We can never ensure we’re making the right decision, as most decisions are inherently uncertain. Rather than trying to eliminate that fact by asking for references or seeking out biased advice, better to embrace it. That’s what effective leadership is all about.

Al Pittampalli is the bestselling author of Persuadable: How Great Leaders Change Their Minds to Change the World.