Reference Checks 2.0: Reimagining Vetting in the Social Media Era

Reference Checks 2.0: Reimagining Vetting in the Social Media Era

Exploring creative methods to vet candidates and their employment experiences

Before the arrival of the digital age, it was common practice to get a letter or phone reference to help validate the character traits and employment experiences of potential employees from former employers. Normally, three references of this type would provide adequate assurance to future employers that they were hiring a person of integrity and that the candidate’s previous employment experience outlined on his or her resume closely reflected their actual responsibilities and accomplishments.

Now fast track ahead several decades. As far as reference checks go, not much seems to have changed with the exception of email, which helps speed up the transmission of this information and provides a slightly higher form of integrity through the domain name validation (e.g.,, which is more difficult to forge or replicate than a company’s letterhead.

But I often wonder when performing reference checks of potential candidates, are we really getting a complete picture of the candidate’s true character or a comprehensive understanding of his or her responsibilities and accomplishments? I raise this question because it is common for candidates to provide employment references of individuals that are amicable or most supportive to their progress. Really, why would a candidate actually provide the name of a reference if they weren’t convinced he or she would provide positive feedback?

So are reference checks really effective or are they redundant? Can we actually explore novel ways, especially in the digital age, to attain the desired information about a candidate’s character and previous employment experience with a higher level of objectivity and integrity?

Reference Checks 2.0: Getting More Creative & Objective

Let’s look at two ways in which technology can help facilitate the acquisition of this information through a more objective lens.

1) Searching for Digital Footprints

Depending on the nature of an individual’s previous role or responsibilities, there is a chance that some of their accomplishments may have digital footprints that can be identified through creative online searches. This can help validate whether the respective accomplishment, as mentioned by the candidate, ever occurred or was as significant (in size and scale) as the candidate made out to believe. The accomplishment may have even resulted in press releases, whereby additional names and contact information can be derived to validate the significance of the candidate’s involvement and contribution.

As more information becomes published online through a growing number of channels, the greater the likelihood that many significant accomplishments in an employee’s career will leave behind some form of digital trail.

2) Evaluating Connections through Social Media

For the past several years, companies have been utilizing Facebook, Twitter, and other social media to observe and evaluate the actions and behaviors of current and potential employees. We have seen famous examples of hiring and firing (mostly firing) stemming from social media activities that either epitomize or oppose the mission and values of companies. These channels continue to be used in the present day to evaluate the integrity and character of candidates by obtaining a deeper understanding of their relationships and affiliations with other individuals and organizations, as well how their personal values either align or conflict with those of the organization.

Note of Caution

Despite the advantages that technology provides in this respect, it is just as important to remember that not everything that is written about someone online or attributed to them is true or accurate. Those performing reference checks must continue to be critical in this regard and aim to seek out as much information as possible before formulating opinions or conclusions about potential candidates. Perhaps having a chat with a colleague or acquaintance, most commonly referred to as a “backdoor reference”, might still be the simplest and most accurate way of validating a person’s character.


The examples illustrated above provide some ways for companies to evaluate the character traits and employment experiences of potential employees. How does your organization perform reference checks? Can you think of some innovative methods for performing these checks in the digital era?

Head of People Operations
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