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Five Secrets About Checking References

Question: I've come to the conclusion that asking job applicants for references is about the dumbest thing we can do in the hiring process.

First, I believe that any prior employer is only obligated to give the dates you worked and at what salary. They don't like to give any qualitative assessment because there are potential liability issues involved. Second, who is going to give a personal reference that would not describe you in laudatory terms? I think references are just another personnel department make-work project! There’s no value in them. What do you think?

Nick Corcodilos: If I were to check your references, I'd get good, solid information about you. And I might not ever call anyone on the list you gave me. I'll use my contacts to triangulate on your reputation. Will someone try to torpedo you? Possibly, but that's quite rare. More likely, I'll turn something up that makes me want to get to know you better, to assess you more carefully. The trouble is, good reference checks are rarely done. Hence, most reference information is pure garbage, as you suggest. And this hurts good workers just as it hurts good employers.

One of the very best ways to size up a job candidate is to consider the opinions of the professional community about the person. While references should not trump your own face-to-face assessment, employers who ignore peer review take unnecessary risks when hiring. But that's where today's reference-checking practices have led us.

Asking for references seems dumb because it has been made trivial, so trivial that companies routinely outsource reference checks rather than do it themselves. They're going to judge you based on a routine set of questions that someone else asks a bunch of people on a list. How ludicrous is that?

Employers have bought into the idea that a reference check is like a credit check, but it's not. A credit check digs up objective information: numbers, loan payment dates, defaults. A reference check is largely subjective. A reference source is a mushy human being who may be in a good mood or a bad mood, who may know you well--or not.

The "reference and investigations" industry may be able to turn up criminal records and such, but you can't tell me that a researcher is going to elicit a subtle judgment of a job candidate by calling a name on a list. If you’re going to rely on a third party to talk to references, then why not just let someone else do all the interviewing for you, too? Please think about that. (See “Automated Reference Checks: You should be very worried.”) You, the hiring manager, have to do it yourself.

Here’s how I check references—and any patient manager can do the same:

1. Don’t rely only on the list of references provided in the job application. Find your own. (You’re right: When you contact those HR departments provided by the applicant, you’ll be talking to bureaucrats who use a checklist.)

2. Make some best guesses about who knows someone who knows the candidate, and call those people. Track down first-level contacts and talk to them yourself. References respond most thoughtfully when they’re talking to the actual hiring manager.

3. Whether you’re talking to a reference from the candidate’s list or one you found yourself, assure the reference that your conversation is strictly confidential and that you’d be glad to return the favor later. This is what keeps references candid.

4. Ask about the person’s intelligence, work ethic, honesty, reliability, persistence at getting the job done, and ability to deliver profitable results. Don’t rush this part.

5. At the end of the conversation, pause. Then ask one final question: If you could hire this person (or hire the person again, if the person worked for you), would you do it? The answer doesn’t matter as much as the delay before the answer. Hesitation signals there’s a problem. I can’t emphasize how meaningful the reaction time to that question is.

Did I just break five laws? That's only because the bureaucracy (and industry) that has grown around reference investigations requires regulation. It's because employers are no longer good at teasing apart credible references from spiteful or sugar-coated ones. They want to put the legal liability for making judgments of character on someone else.

If you want to get truly useful references, you must check them yourself, respect confidentiality, and apply your good judgment to suss out the truth. Bad references require you to do twice as much work to get the truth: Always give the candidate the benefit of the doubt. Verify negative stories through additional references or don’t believe them. (What if you’re the one applying for the job? See “Three Ways To Beat Bad References.”)

The two most important things when checking references are:

1. Do it yourself, and
2. Listen carefully.

Consider how much hinges on doing this right.

When you rely on your HR department or on commercial reference checkers, you’re probably wasting your time (and money) because they don’t know your business, they don’t have any real skin in the game, and they gather facts and quotes. You, on the other hand, are uniquely positioned to understand the details in the comments and to interpret the nuances, the tone, and the emotion in the message.

In the end, all we have to go on is the opinion of our professional community. Stifle it, and the community suffers the consequences. Let someone else do it, and you suffer the consequences.

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