Verbal vs Digital References

Avatar of Elise


11 Sep 2021

Image of someone doing verbal reference and a digital reference

As Recruitment is heading further into the digital age, the way we do things is constantly changing and evolving. Even just two years ago most companies insisted that interviews had to be done in person! But then COVID-19 hit and people had to adapt, now Zoom, Teams and Skype interviews seem to be the norm. The same goes for reference checks. I know in the past, companies that I’ve worked for thought it was necessary to do an reference over the phone, an email or online reference wouldn’t cut it. But that is changing too.

There are definitely benefits to both digital and verbal references. To help you decide what is the best way forward, I’ve laid out the pros and cons from my experience with both.

Verbal References


The first issue I know all recruiters will attest to is getting the right time to talk. Calling and no one is answering, leaving a message but no call back, sending a text and no response. Then the most frustrating one of all, you finally get hold of them and they’re busy and ask that you call back later. Finding the right time to talk is definitely the biggest challenge for verbal references.

Another issue I often face is people not opening up as much over the phone. Some people are great at it, but some people need time to reflect on what they want to say and how they say it. Especially if they’re giving negative feedback. For some people, having to answer on the spot can be difficult so the answers you get might not be as honest as you’d hope.

Lastly, the paper trail. Taking notes while listening can be difficult but it's something Recruiters are usually good at. But even if you're great at it, it’s still never 100% accurate. It can also interrupt the natural flow of conversation if you’re needing to pause and make notes. Plus you have a less definite paper trail on record. Yes, you can keep the verbal notes on file, but if there was an issue that arises later and you need to refer to those notes, it can become a he said she said game.


Definitely the best part about verbal references for me is hearing the tone of voice. This can say so much about a situation. For example, you ask, ‘What areas could the candidate improve on?’ They answer, ‘Time management.’ Now, they could say this with a tone that is blunt and frustrated, suggesting that this was a massive pain point for them. Or they could say it with a slight laugh, suggesting it wasn’t an issue.

Another great part about verbal references is follow up questions. If you ask a reference, ‘Would you hire them again?’ and they say ‘No’ you can follow up with ‘Why is that?’. People will often share more specific examples when it’s over the phone, for example, you ask about what they’re good at. They answer with customer service and they often go into a story about when they went above and beyond for a customer. It’s that deeper level you can find on a verbal reference that you don’t always get with a digital reference.

Digital References


This relates directly to the pros of the verbal references but I find the worst part of digital references is no tone. Some questions or answers might be misinterpreted in the process. One of my best examples of this is I had a digital reference where I asked ‘Would you hire them again?’ and they answered ‘ . ’. Yep, you saw that right, they answered with a full stop. I immediately thought that was bad, they didn’t want to have this person back so I decided to jump on the phone to ask them more about it. On the phone they told me that they weren’t comfortable answering that question because it had been a long time since they had worked with them. The employee now had a different skill set and higher ambitions so they couldn’t see them working together again.

This to me was them misinterpreting the question completely so I followed up with, ‘Would you recommend that we hire them in this position?’. They were extremely positive and thought they were a fantastic employee and would suit the position very well. This shows how much of a difference tone and rephrasing certain questions can make a world of difference.


The biggest pro of digital references for me is time saving. When doing a verbal reference I can spend 10 minutes a day trying to get a hold of the reference so that can build up over time. Then when you finally do get hold of them it can take a good 10 to 15 minutes on the phone talking with them. With digital references, it’s 30 seconds to send the reference, then two minutes to read it when it’s returned.

It also offers great flexibility for the referee. They can do it after work, between meetings, on the train, whenever! And the best part is, THEY get to decide when they do it. I find that digital references are returned much faster for this reason as people will often do it the same day when they find a spare minute, rather than missing calls and trying to find a time to call back.

It also offers great flexibility for timing. You might have a referee that is overseas, works nights or perhaps the candidate hasn’t resigned yet so they don’t want to be heard in the office giving a reference for a candidate that still works there. Completing a digital reference makes it much easier for them.

My last point might be the most important, referees can think about their answers. Since switching to digital references, I find that I get a lot more negative feedback about candidates. People often feel more comfortable giving negative feedback when they can think about how to say it. Plus they might think of more details along the way, for example, you might ask ‘What are the candidate's strengths?’. On the phone they answer with the first few words that come to their head. When writing, people will take the time to think about what the employee was really great at and have more of an opportunity to expand on their answer.

So what should I choose?

It depends on what you value from your references. For some recruiters, they might want to ask more intense questions that require a conversation rather than a form. I do high volume recruitment so for me, digital references are the way to go. The time saved is super valuable and I also like that referees are generally more honest, it helps me to make hiring decisions quickly. I'd suggest giving digital references a try if you're on the fence about it. You may end up finding them as valuable as I do.

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