Reference Checks


The most accurate answer to the question in the title of this piece is, “it depends.”  And what it depends on is how the release which the candidate has signed is worded.  From the standpoint of the prospective employer, the release should contain a sentence that reads something like, “I hereby give express permission to the XYZ Company to contact the references I have provided and anyone else familiar with my job performance at any of the companies listed in my work history.”  A sentence like that broadens the scope the prospective employer has regarding the contact of others not necessarily listed as references by the candidate seeking employment.

Why would a prospective employer need to seek out others for additional job performance information when the job seeker has provided appropriate names of specific references?  There are really only two reasons: first, if the prospective employer believes that references provided by the candidate are likely to have been coached to say only positive things about the candidate or, second, if the references themselves cannot provide responses sufficiently detailed for the prospective employer to draw any reasonable conclusions about the candidate’s overall job performance.

In the first instance, coached or not, someone trained in careful reference checking normally won’t have any trouble getting past a “coached” response.  The way to do it is to ask open-ended questions that don’t lend themselves to an obvious answer.  For example, instead of asking if so-and-so was a “hands-on” manager, the question should be asked as follows: “How would you describe so-and-so’s management style?”  There’s no way a reference can second-guess what sort of answer the prospective employer is looking for, regardless of whether he has been coached or not!  Here’s another example, instead of asking if the candidate did tasks A, B, and C as part of his overall job responsibilities, ask the question this way: “What were so-and-so’s primary responsibilities on the job?”  Again, even a coached reference is going to have a very difficult time doing anything but answering the question honestly – because the question doesn’t ask for a subjective evaluation of how well the candidate did the tasks the job required.

Generally speaking, however, the primary reason for contacting “developed” references is to seek clarification or explanation of responses that are vague or which fall into the category of a “glittering generality,” such as, “Oh, Charlie did everything well.”  In a situation like this, it might be wise, at the end of the conversation, to ask the reference who else at the XYZ company might be familiar with so-and-so’s responsibilities on the job.  Most of the time, the reference will suggest making contact with another person who worked with the candidate.  Then, when the call is placed to that individual, the approach is to say something like, “Your name was suggested as a reference for so-and-so, and I was wondering if we could chat about him for a few minutes.  He’s being considered for a position with our company.”  It’s in situations like these where it makes sense to seek out “developed references” to get more thorough information to make a better, more accurate, and more objective assessment of the candidate’s past job performance.