How important are reference letters when hiring a candidate?

By Robert Half on 19 May 2023
Estimated Read Time: 3 minutes

It’s no secret that finding the ideal employee can be challenging, which is why organisations invest a lot of time and energy into the hiring process. As a key element of this process, reference letters have long been utilised by employers to guide them towards the ideal candidate from the sea of applicants. However, with the overwhelming majority of references providing a positive and often glowing review, just how much value do they really add?

If you’re an employer in charge of the hiring process, you may be asking yourself this very question. So, to help you understand if this is one aspect of the hiring process that does add value and is worthy of continual focus, in this blog we take a closer look at the relevance of reference letters in Hong Kong today.

How important are reference letters to employers today?

When comparing candidates, employers are generally guided first by the skills and experience listed on the resume, and secondly by the strength of the cover letter in demonstrating the applicant’s genuine interest. From there, a shortlist of candidates is compiled, and the interview process follows, which will hopefully uncover a handful of quality applicants that stand out from the pack as key contenders. It’s at this point, as you prepare to make the final selection, that the reference letter can really shine.

As Jessica Yeung, Associate Director and specialised financial services recruiter at Robert Half Hong Kong explains, ‘While a resume provides you with important facts about a candidate’s skills and achievements, and the interview allows you to meet them face to face, a reference provides some key additional details that complete the picture. The ability to hear a reputable third party’s perspective of the person’s professional capabilities adds another layer of detail that is extremely valuable in pinpointing the right candidate for your role.’

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Are reference letters losing their importance?

With most reference letters delivering overwhelmingly favourable reports, some employers wonder if this diminishes their relevance or importance. The short answer to this is largely no, as while references are no doubt geared towards the positives, they still offer plenty of valuable insight on the candidate’s strengths and talents.

However, if (like most employers) you are looking for a more complete and balanced view, it is essential you pick up the phone and call the referee, so long as you have permission to do so. Talking to the referee directly allows you to ask them any burning questions you have about the candidate’s strengths and weaknesses, and to dive deeper into the specific skills and attributes they can bring to the role.

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How and when to ask candidates for reference letters

How and when you ask candidates for reference letters depends on a range of factors. While it is most common to request them during the interview process, in some circumstances you may ask interested candidates to submit their reference letters with their job application.

For example, if you’re advertising a high-level senior role, it is expected that the application includes a higher level of detail, so requesting reference letters along with the application would not seem out of place. In these circumstances, having the reference letter early on can also provide essential information that will help you decide which candidates to progress to the interview stage.

On the other hand, if the role is an entry level position, it would likely be more beneficial to request the reference letter after you have narrowed down the applications and have a shortlist. This is because the additional level of detail provided in a reference letter is unlikely to be necessary during the initial vetting stage, as the resume and cover letter should provide you with the information you need to finalise the shortlist of candidates to be interviewed. In this case the reference letter is more helpful during the final stage when you are ready to make your decision.

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What should you do with the information provided?

Whichever stage of the hiring process you receive the reference letters, getting maximum value from the information provided is key. In most situations, while the letter may answer some of the questions you have about the candidate’s suitability for the role, there will generally be specific areas that are not covered. If you have permission to do so, contacting the referee via phone can help you fill in the gaps.

Before you make the call, compile a list of questions you would like to ask, ideally using open-ended prompts to encourage a more detailed response. Also try to zone in on the details that matter, pinpointing the areas that will really see a person succeed in the role. Ideally, you want to walk away from the conversation feeling confident that the candidate is either a great fit for the position and your organisation or be comfortable knowing their talents are better suited elsewhere.

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Don’t discount the importance of reference letters

While it’s clear that reference letters are not guaranteed to always tell the full story, they still offer valuable insight into a candidate’s suitability – especially when backed up by a phone conversation with the referee. The insight of a third party who knows the candidate well and has seen them perform in their previous role adds another layer of information to the hiring process that can really help to highlight the best person for the position.

“In summary, reference checks are a great tool for any organization to ensure that the applicants that they are considering for hire are top-notch and will be able to accomplish the essential duties and responsibilities that their job demands,” concluded Jessica.

At Robert Half, we can help you land you find the ideal candidate for your organisation. Talk to our experienced Hong Kong recruitment team today or request talent online and we’ll be in touch.

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