Are traditional references a thing of the past? Can candidates build their personal brands to secure job offers?

Requesting references for new hires from their current or most recent employer has been a standard practice in the hiring process for many years. However, as references have become less about how a person has performed in their role, and more about ticking boxes to confirm that ‘yes, they worked here between those dates, under that job title’, is there really any value added to a candidate search by seeking out references?

Nowadays, as people, we are a lot more visible than previous generations before us. LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram – and even YouTube and TikTok – means that many people have a strong online presence where our educational and professional backgrounds are on display.

So, are we seeing a shift away from traditional references, and towards the need for individuals to build a solid, engaging and endearing personal brand online to support their career moves and progression?

Could a strong online personal brand provide more value or insight to a candidate’s ability or suitability to your company?

In some industries, a portfolio is key to showing talent. This has moved online with the technological revolution. Think videographers, designers, architects, and writers, to name just a few. However, more and more, people are turning to LinkedIn to showcase their knowledge, viewpoint, and career progression, and keeping their job roles, key achievements, and recommendations up to date regularly.

This adds a human element to a candidate’s application, but also a more broad and diverse reflection of their skills, connections and how they work; a LinkedIn profile can reflect information about hobbies, interests or extra-curricular activities that may take up precious room on a CV.

In addition to this, many people may run a blog, YouTube channel or contribute to industry-specific websites or publications. Whether they do this in a professional capacity or related to something they enjoy in their leisure time, it adds to their online presence and personal brand. It also demonstrates key soft skills desirable in many job roles, such as planning, research, marketing, time management/debating, and persuasion skills – not to mention a reflection of their dedication to topics or industries they are interested in.

As well as determining whether someone will be able to perform a role you’re recruiting for by reviewing their online brand, it also offers more of an insight into their personality, how they work, and whether they’ll be a good cultural fit at your company.

Why might a company still want traditional references?

There was a time when a candidate’s referee would tell you everything and anything you wanted to know about a person. Some still do, however many companies choose to stick to cold hard facts; namely the dates between which someone worked for them and their job title whilst they were there. What’s more, previous employers are under no obligation to provide a reference for an individual at all if it is not in their contract. Some regulators do require it, however, such as the Financial Conduct Authority. It may also be common to have more in-depth references in sectors such as childcare, teaching, healthcare or social care.

But if a previous employer is so limited on what they’re willing to share in most industries, is it worth the time for HR teams or hiring managers to follow up on references for a candidate’s previous roles? Would that time be better spent asking the candidate to complete a task or by asking to see examples of their work or projects they’ve managed? And for candidates, if they can share this information and insight easily online through their personal brand (be it on LinkedIn, YouTube, Google Drive, Drop Box or anywhere else they may keep examples of their achievements) does that give a better, truer vision of themselves and of the output and impact they achieve at work?

Will the traditional reference become obsolete?

Although they’re a lot less in-depth and descriptive than they used to be, traditional references do pay a purpose when it comes to confirming that someone has held the job position they claim to have done. Also, as already mentioned, they are a requirement in some sectors, too.

It is a commonly shared statistic that candidates may stretch or bend the truth when it comes to their CV – particularly with regards to their school or university grades as employers rarely ever (never?!) ask to see education certificates. Therefore, there is still some gravitas in following up on references, even it if it is solely to confirm that the job title and dates are accurate.

As well as this, be sure to check out a candidate’s LinkedIn profile and ask applicants to share links to profiles or any other documents that may support their application. This gives you a more rounded view of their talent, abilities and personality, and helps you make the right decision when it comes to choosing who to hire.

About the Author

Nel Woolcott

Nel Woolcott

Recruitment Partner

Heading up the recruitment partner team and overseeing operational activity here at ACR, Nel has experience in permanent and temporary recruitment in a wide range of industries and sectors. In her blogs, Nel offers her tips and advice to candidates and employers, drawing on her expertise and knowledge in all areas of recruitment.