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
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.
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.
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.
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.