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  • Writer's pictureBen Kettle

What Are You Referencing?

Updated: Jan 3, 2022

It's time to update our thinking on background checks.

Hey everyone, before we talk about references, I wanted to thank you for the notes about the Monthly Roll Up last week. In short, it’s an experiment (isn’t everything?) and I’ll be making changes with the goal of making it more valuable for you, your career, and your organization. Thanks again, the feedback is invaluable.

Also, please consider subscribing to Lying To Ourselves if you haven’t already. Here are the value propositions:

  • You’ll get better at hiring, which will make your workplace more enjoyable and you more successful.

  • I won’t spam you, give away, sell your email address. Ever.

  • I’ll keep it short and sweet (for the most part).


What Are You Referencing?

This week we will be looking at the 2nd worse predictor of candidate success,¹ the omnipresent reference check. Like “Years Work Experience,” “reference checks” mean different things to different people, and therein lies the rub. For you, the key is to figure out what you want from the reference check. So let’s start with a simple question:

What are you referencing?

Reference Check = Background Check

If you’re like most organizations when you say “reference checks” you really mean “background checks,”, particularly for wage and lower-level employees. And the number one reason you conduct background checks? To protect your current employees, customers, and yourself from possible criminal, behavioral, and regulatory risks (according to

Top reasons to conduct background checks

Which makes sense. No one wants to accidentally hire someone convicted of a violent crime to run a daycare.

But please know what you’re protecting. I have, and I’m sure you have encountered, plenty of great coworkers who wouldn’t pass your typical background check. Almost universally these people have some sort of drug charge on their record and it’s more than likely nonviolent and marijuana-related. After all, even in a country where two-thirds of the population supports the legalization of cannabis, there were 545,602 Americans arrested for cannabis-related crimes in 2019 and 92% of those were for minor possession.

If you deny every candidate with an unfavorable, nonviolent, background check there’s a good chance that you’re protecting yourself from a fictional risk. Considering that Amazon is no longer concerned with pot use amongst their employees and that the majority of drug-related arrests are for small amounts of marijuana - it appears as though you’re protecting yourself from an entirely competent candidate pool that just so happens (or used) to get high from time to time.²

Further, people of color are disproportionately arrested for minor, marijuana-related offenses so if you ding an applicant for any nonviolent drug offense it’s highly likely that you’re unnecessarily limiting your candidate pool in ways that undermine your efforts to build a diverse workforce.

I’m not naive. I know that many organizations are beholden to insurance regulations, client service level requirements, and other external factors. But the bottom line is that if you’re going to run background checks to protect your employees, customers, and business, make it very clear what you’re protecting them from. Violent criminals? Yes, by all means, protect your current employees. Someone who lies about their employment history? Probably don’t want them either. But one of the hundreds of thousands of people busted for minor marijuana possession? It’s time to rethink that policy.

Next week I’ll talk about using references to improve the quality of your hires. Thankfully, many smarter people than I have spoken and written about it - I’m looking forward to sharing.

In the meantime, please share Lying to Ourselves with a friend or colleague who understands that the best way to advance their career is to surround themselves with great people, and thank you again for reading and subscribing!


1 Reference checks come in at an unimpressive 7%. Yikes.

2 Doesn’t it seem like people started using cannabis a lot more during the pandemic? Oh wait, they did.

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