Reference Checks


 In a previous article, I talked about the advantages of using an e-Reference to obtain information about a candidate for employment.  They included economy, one less task for busy HR people, making references more comfortable responding to reference questions via the keyboard, and the fact that doing an e-Reference is better than doing nothing.

 But what’s the biggest limitation to an e-Reference?  In my opinion it’s the lack of real interaction between the prospective employer and the reference.  But, one may argue, completing an e-Reference isn’t really much different from exchanging e-mail messages.  While that may be true, there are a couple of important elements missing from both; and those are listening to the reference’s tone of voice and the real-time opportunity to ask the reference to expand on or clarify a response.
 Think for a minute about the nuance of meaning that’s lost when a reference writes that the quality of the candidate’s overall job performance was “pretty good.”  The real meaning of the words lies in the way the words are said.  The words “pretty good” could be a red-flag if said in a half-hearted way; or, stated with enthusiasm and conviction, “pretty good” could be a solid endorsement of a candidate’s performance on the job.  Furthermore, without hearing how the words are said, there’s very little that can be learned about what the reference meant! 

If the reference is on the phone, however, there’s an instant opportunity to ask for some clarification.  “You don’t sound all that enthusiastic about so-and-so’s overall performance.  Do you think he/she could have done better?”  Or, “You sound very enthusiastic about so-and-so’s performance.  Can you give me some examples that might illustrate the quality of his/her performance?”

 Or take a question like, “Was there anything you think so-and-so could have done to get even better results on the job?”  Using the e-Reference approach, the response could easily be “Nothing.”  What does that mean?  Does it mean the candidate’s performance was so poor that nothing could have improved it?  Or does it mean that the candidate’s performance was so outstanding that there really wasn’t any aspect of the job that needed improvement!  Without the ability to hear how the word “nothing” is said, there’s no way to know.  Worse yet, there’s no way to ask in a real-time way.  The point is an e-Reference, by its very nature, leaves a lot of room for interpretation by the prospective employer.

 There is one way, however, to infer the meaning behind an e-Reference response,and that’s by looking at all the responses to an e-Reference as a unit.  By reading over all the responses quickly, it is often possible to infer the meaning of the reference.  If, for example, all the responses are short, abrupt, and only a few words long, it may be possible to deduce something less than a positive review.  If, on the other hand, the responses are more detailed and unequivocal, it would not be unreasonable to deduce a very positive review.
 If all else fails, however, a quick call ostensibly to thank the reference for taking the time to respond via e-Reference may provide an opportunity to follow up with a few questions to clarify what was meant in the e-Reference.  For instance, “You indicated there was nothing so-and-so could have done to improve his/her job performance.  May I ask you how you meant that?”  Then it will be possible not only to hear the answer, but also to listen to how it’s said.

Even if the follow-up call isn’t an option, an e-Reference is still better than not checking at all.  Just be sure you understand its limitations.