Man Bui worked as an Uber driver and warehouse associate before getting his master’s degree in computer science in 2020. When it came time to apply for jobs, the only engineering experience he could point to was designing his own mobile app.
“When I filled out the applications at big tech companies, if they asked for references, I just left it blank,” says Mr. Bui, a 31-year-old in Portland, Ore. “I didn’t have any.” He still became a finalist for roles at Amazon and Apple, both of which gave him at-home coding assignments to test his skills. He eventually got an offer at Apple in March.
References have become much less important to hiring for all kinds of jobs in recent years, says Peter Cappelli, a management professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. “Many think that the people you list as references are already cued to say nice things about you, and there are so many other ways to get information about a candidate now.”
Personalized job references are no longer essential to understanding the qualifications of a job applicant: the internet, social media and technical interview assignments, especially in STEM fields, all do some of that work now. Some 62% of 1,686 organizations surveyed by the background check company HireRight in spring 2020 said they performed background checks on prospective hires, down from 72% in the same report in 2017.
So are references destined to go the way of the fax machine, especially as more millennials who grew up on the internet start making hiring decisions? Not quite.
Many bosses, especially at small companies, still think they’re useful, especially in the age of pandemic-influenced remote interviews. And if you happen to have a high-profile reference like a CEO or some other rock star in your field whose name you can drop in your application, it doesn’t hurt to include it in a competitive job market.
Katherine Winston, head of digital marketing at a Seattle-area real estate startup called Plunk, still considers references essential to her hiring process. She helped hire five colleagues this year, from a creative producer to an engineer, and finalists for each role had to provide three to five references. She called them all herself.
“Keep in mind, we didn’t meet many of these folks in person until we hired them. That’s why I feel like, these days especially, getting references is no longer a formality. It’s a necessity,” she says.
She tries to dive a little deeper with her questions about applicants than just inquiring about their strengths and weaknesses. She will ask references to recreate personal scenarios where they worked with the candidate, or to give specific examples of problems candidates have solved.