Quarsh Blog

What LinkedIn Reference Search Tells Us About Modern Recruitment


“Get the real story on any candidate” is what you greets you on the ‘reference search’ landing page (presumably because all candidates are liars by default..?). Finally, a way to expose the CV fabricators, the gossip instigators and those who are productively challenged, leaving only the very best talent behind! Don't get too carried away, though - it seems that getting the “real story” can prove to be troublesome.

Last month, four jobseekers filed a class-action lawsuit against the powerhouse business network that is LinkedIn, claiming that the social media giant’s reference search feature, which allows premium account holders to access a candidate’s network and search for people who have worked with them, had a negative impact on their job search and cost them opportunities. LinkedIn released the following statement in response to the claims: “A reference search, which is only available to premium account holders, simply lets a searcher locate people in their network who have worked at the same company during the same time period as a member they would like to learn more about. A reference search does not reveal any of that member’s non-public information.” The case has been well documented over the last week, so I’ll avoid blogging parrot-fashion on the legalities. Instead, our discussions in the office have been more focussed around the principles surrounding the case; how do you determine what is appropriate content to access beyond what the candidate has been willing to provide?

Using social media during the recruitment process is still a largely contentious subject because there are no definitive boundaries. How do you define private v professional, and what content is appropriate to access in a professional capacity if it’s already technically in the public domain? Generally, the onus falls on the individual to police the process and decide what is suitable. LinkedIn has been blamed in this instance for creating a feature which facilitates the concerning practice of fishing for (damning) information, and although I would argue that any action which might negatively impact on the candidate experience can't be a good thing, they are simply acting as an enabler. After reading around, it seems that manually identifying and contacting references beyond those provided by the candidate is – alarmingly – already ‘common hiring practice’, with or without the help of the LinkedIn feature. I find this bonkers.

The recruiters and hiring managers carrying out these searches seem to be neglecting the fact that hiring is a two-way process – companies have as much to prove to candidates as candidates do to companies. If through proper screening and competency-based interviewing you still have uncertainties about the individual, then references can be enlightening – but they shouldn’t be approached as an exposé tool. What if the person contacted through the search happened to be the candidate’s direct source of competition in the office? What if the person just happened to be someone who didn’t like the candidate? Or what if they are a colleague who isn’t aware that the candidate is looking to move? I’m hearing alarm bells. This kind of practice is sneaky, opportunistic and undermines the very trust relations that recruitment should be built around. It plays up to the untrusting predisposition which already exists between employers and jobseekers, emphasising the cynical and cupidinous nature of the industry.

Instead, recruiters should be looking to maximise the effectiveness of the process which precedes the reference check. By developing a solid understanding of the organisation that they are representing, they should be able to target recruitment marketing material accordingly and gauge the competencies and cultural compatibility of candidates in the screening stage of the process. Competency-based interviewing should also be an essential part of the structure. What has the candidate done previously? What have they actually achieved, and how? This interviewing style provides employers with insight into how the candidate has behaved before, and how they are likely to behave in the future. Asking questions in the style of “Can you give me an example of when you have…” means the candidate has to provide demonstrable examples, rather than having to invent hypothetical answers based on what they think the recruiter wants to hear.  

Of course, the candidate also has a responsibility to provide a set of references that are actually relevant when it comes to it. They should be citing people who have worked with them directly, are of some authority to provide a supervisory perspective and are still contactable using the details provided. There’s absolutely no harm in reaffirming this. But even after all of this, there is a degree of risk associated with every hiring decision, regardless of how watertight the process is, and you can never truly know how a candidate will respond to your culture and perform within your organisation until they are embedded within it. Employers are right to want to conduct thorough checks on prospective hires, but a dependence on technology that supposedly makes the process “easier” coupled with a disregard for principled recruiting further widens the gap between doing the job quickly and doing it right, and as the ‘Sweet v LinkedIn’ case has shown us, the consequences can be ethically and legally incriminating.

Companies must emphasise the importance of a process based on integrity, ensuring recruiters are equipped to conduct thorough interviews, and they must be shown how to handle sensitive data appropriately. All of this, along with experience, should mean that a good recruiter will be able to judge a candidate’s credentials for themselves, instead of having to rely on the assessments of unverified, sought-out third parties. Far less likely to get sued this way too.