This post is for anyone who has ever said or secretly thought that reference-checking is a waste of time.
Not long ago, I had a job candidate on the verge of being hired. He had wowed everyone in the interview and clearly had the skills to the do the job well.
Something was strange about his reference list, though: The references he offered were from several jobs back; his list didn’t contain anyone from either of his last two jobs, even though he said his current boss knew he was looking. And one was a former professor, although he’d had several jobs since school. Red flag or someone who just didn’t know how to put together a good reference list?
We asked him to put us in touch with two recent managers, and he did. Okay, I thought, his lack of push-back or caveats could be a good sign.
And then we called them.
We found out that he’d been fired for theft and fraud at both of his last two jobs, and even served time in jail for one of those cases.
Imagine if we, like some employers, hadn’t bothered to check references at all, or hadn’t pushed back to get more relevant and recent ones. More to the point, would your reference-checking practices have kept this from happening to you, or would this guy now be working down the hall from you, defrauding you too?
* Don’t limit yourself only to the candidate’s list of references. If the candidate has offered peers (or professors or “personal” references) rather than managers, or people who haven’t worked with her recently, ask to be put in touch with the specific people you want to talk to.
* Call main switchboard numbers. If you know the reference works at XYZ Company, look up the company’s main number online, call that, and ask to be transferred to the person, rather than just calling the direct number you were given. It’s not unheard of for candidates to give you a friend’s phone number so the friend can pose as the former boss. [Or even to pose as the reference themselves; see the incredible comment from MJB on this post (toward the end of the comments list).]
* Ask the right questions. If you just run through a perfunctory list of questions, you may never get to the most useful information. Rather than asking questions like “Is there anything Joe could improve in?” (to which a lot of references might respond “nothing comes to mind”), ask, “If you had to pick two ways Joe could improve, what would they be?” Also, you can provide options where there’s no “bad” choice and ask the reference to select the choice that sounds most like the candidate. For instance, “Some people thrive in fast-paced environments but might err on the side of losing precision, whereas others are incredibly precise but do better when there’s more time to focus on their work. Which sounds more like Joe?” (If you want a list of great questions, here’s a really good one from The Management Center.)
References are only a waste of time if you treat them like just an item to check off your list, rather than as a genuinely valuable part of your assessment process.