Often, when a hiring manager is considering a candidate, it's not just the candidate they want to "interview."
This is just one reason letters of reference, which usually contain little information about candidates other than the title and duration of a position they've previously held, are often seen as having limited value in today's hiring practices.
"I will always call the reference so I can ask questions and delve more between the lines," says Cissy Pau, principal consultant at Vancouver-based Clear HR Consulting. "I can almost 'interview' the reference that way," she says, adding that she doesn't give much weight to letters of reference on their own.
Lynn Brown, managing director of Toronto-based human resources firm Brown Consulting Group, says letters of reference don't hurt, but she also always calls the reference, rather than relying on just the letter. "I would want to verify other things that aren't covered in the letter," she says. In fact, she estimates she asks as many as 20 questions when speaking with a reference.
She and Ms. Pau agree that the main purpose of talking to a reference is to seek out information about the candidate related to the particular job they're being considered for, and that's something that generally no letter of reference, no matter how detailed, can deliver.
Both Ms. Brown and Ms. Pau are seeing fewer letters of reference these days. One reason for this, Ms. Brown says, is because increasingly job applications are submitted online, leaving no opportunity for the candidate to include a letter of reference.
Ms. Pau has also found that social media is helping to replace reference letters, which she calls "a throwback to a different time."
"People are now providing more LinkedIn recommendations," she says, referring to the professional networking site, where contacts can write recommendations for each other online.
Another potential reason for the decline in reference letters is that some companies simply won't provide references at all (either by letter or telephone) because they are concerned about legal ramifications. Ms. Brown referred to situations where a company has given a former employee a positive reference and later was sued by the new employer because the employee didn't perform as expected.
Both Ms. Brown and Ms. Pau also point out that it's easy enough to provide false reference letters. "Anybody can write a letter," Ms. Pau says. "But if I call and I ask questions, I'll get much more reliable information."
In her more than 30 years in human resources, Ms. Brown has occasionally seen candidates submit false letters of references. "They are very easy to falsify, so I always check," she says.
The only purpose letters of reference serve, both experts say, is that they can act as an introduction to the reference. But some candidates, Ms. Pau adds, fail to consider that the hiring manger may want to phone the reference after seeing their letter.
"You'd be surprised how often I have called references and the person that I've called doesn't recall the employee," she says, referring not just to references provided in letters but also those for which the candidate has submitted a phone number. "I find that just appalling. If you're going to give someone as a reference, you should be preparing that person for a phone call in advance."
In some cases, candidates will provide references they may not have spoken to in several months or even years. Simply getting in touch to let the person know that he or she may hear from a potential employer during a job search allows them to be prepared for that phone call.
If job seekers are going to go through the process of securing letters of reference, Ms. Pau suggests they contain more than just confirmation of their position and time at the job. "I want to see what their strengths and achievements are," she says.
Ms. Brown suggests that having a senior person write the letter of reference will give it more clout, and she seconds Ms. Pau's desire to see information specific to the candidate's strengths. "A lot of times, the letters are just very general – just that the person is wonderful to work with, but I'd rather see concrete examples of specific achievements," Ms. Brown says.
But, Ms. Pau emphasizes, simply providing the phone numbers of references – and giving them a heads up that they could get a call – is the way to go. "I would spend more time doing that than having a reference write a letter," she says.