Reference Checking – Is it a Lost Art?


Do you check the references of someone you’re about to hire?  Or do you give up after you’ve only been able to obtain the candidate’s job title and length of service?

In Inc., Laura Smoliar in ‘Entrepreneurship for the Rest of Us’ on September 20, 2012 writes:

“No one wants to give a bad reference. For one thing, people do not want to be sued! You may think that calling every reference on a list means you’ve been diligent, but are you digging enough to get past the surface veneer? Open-ended questions, such as these, can uncover a variety of troublesome behaviors, not matter what their cause:

  • Tell me about a time when the candidate had a conflict with a co-worker. How did the situation unfold?
  • What kind of schedule did the candidate keep? Did co-workers ever have trouble working with him or her because of schedule issues? Tell me about a time when this was a problem.
  • Tell me about a time when the candidate surprised you. What were the circumstances? What did he/she do?
  • If you were to hire the candidate again, what role do you think would be ideal? What role would not be a good fit, and why?
  • We all get frustrated with each other from time to time. Tell me about a time you were really frustrated with the candidate.
  • In which situations does the candidate really shine? Tell me about an example.

I have also learned to listen for euphemisms. If former colleagues describe someone as “erratic,” that could indicate a more serious problem.

Find third-party references. Can you talk to someone who hasn’t been prepped to be a reference for your candidate? If you can, you are more likely to get a spontaneous answer to your questions rather than a polished, prepared one. Some companies have policies against giving references beyond confirming dates of employment, so finding someone who has moved on to another job since working with your candidate can often be a better source of information. Find out how your candidate interacted with colleagues. Was he or she a team player, prima donna, or lone wolf?

Why did your candidate leave each position listed on the resumé? This is a key question, especially for someone with a lot of job changes. In the “old days,” a series of job changes was a red flag for a serious problem. If someone hopped from job to job, you wondered if he or she had trouble getting along with others. Now, you could just be interviewing a hot software engineer who legitimately jumps at new opportunities every year (or less!).”

The HRmeister recommends that you probe those you are lucky enough to get to talk to you about your candidate.  Back in the day, I remember calling the former manager of a candidate for a reference.  He replied that his company had a policy against his supplying any information.  He added that he did not believe that it prevented him from asking me a question.  Thinking that to be an odd response, I decided to play along.  He said his one question for me was, “Did the candidate list me (him) as a reference”?  I quickly got his drift, and thanked him for asking me a question, and hung up.  The candidate had already supplied me with a list of references.  This man, her most recent manager from her previous company, was not listed.  Needless to say, we did not hire this candidate.