Diligence Partners, Inc.
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Reference checking is both a science and an art. Everyone does it a bit differently. But there are a handful of rules that help in the construction of a good reference checking process.

1. Insist on a “full” list of names. Candidates obviously want to  provide only those people who will give positive references, but just as obviously it is necessary to speak with others. Our approach is to insist on a 360º view: all subordinates (including those who were  fired or quit), all closely-related peers, and all bosses for quite a distance backward in time. In some cases it will be appropriate to get names of customers, suppliers, and outside consultants used by the candidate. If the candidate wants to provide disclaimers about some of these, fine. But the list must be complete and we must be free to call any who will not compromise the candidate’s current job.

2. Do careful source evaluation. A reference from someone at a company with a tough and confrontational culture must be  interpreted differently than a reference from a company with a collaborative culture. Likewise sources from large companies    versus entrepreneurial ones. And to the extent possible, source evaluation of the individual giving the reference also must be done. This is more difficult and usually requires some cooperation from other references (e.g., when a peer says that the candidate’s boss has a particular style, it becomes easier to evaluate the comments from that boss). Sometimes it is necessary to check a reference’s references to be able to interpret what you are hearing.

3. Triangulate, triangulate, triangulate. When we hear something from one reference which does not fit with something from another reference, it is essential to bridge that gap. Typically this requires calling back a reference previously contacted, sometimes more than once. While it is possible for two people to have widely divergent opinions of a third person, more often the divergence is caused by information being withheld or colored rather than by a substantial difference in perception.

4. Don’t take “no” for an answer. Although some companies have old-fashioned “name, rank, and serial number” rules on references, it is rare indeed to get a refusal on an executive level reference. There are ways to make the reference understand that absolute refusal can only be interpreted as totally damning to the candidate, and probably will prevent the candidate from getting the job. In over 25 years of checking references we can count on one hand the number of references who truly refused to speak with us.

5. References are about facts as well as about opinions. It is not enough to find out about someone’s management style, or work ethic, or interpersonal skills. It is equally important to determine if they were successful. Did they meet expectations? Make money? Outperform others in the same role? Are the claims on the résumé truthful? Great form without substance does not make for a good candidate.

6. Listen carefully for evasions, tone of voice, and code words.  “Mutual agreement” almost always means “fired”. “Likes to have a good time” often means a drinking problem. Hesitation in answering always requires deeper digging. Good reference checkers try to hear the words between the lines and then insist on discussing them.