HOW TO TELL IF A REFERENCE ISN’T BEING HONEST
Despite the obvious importance of carefully checking a candidate’s references, how can a prospective employer tell if a reference is being less than honest?
First, listen for vague answers to specific questions. For example, let’s assume the question is, “Can you tell me what so-and-so’s responsibilities were on the job?” A legitimate reference, who has actually worked with the candidate, ought to be able to be pretty specific. If the reference replies with something like, “Gee, it’s been a couple of years since we worked together. I can’t really recall any specific tasks he did, but I know his performance was outstanding.” Or if the reply is, “Well, he did lots of different jobs, but he did them all well,” I would be pretty suspicious about how well the reference really knew the candidate.
Second, if a reference claims to have worked with the candidate for any significant length of time, but can’t recall things like his job title or approximately how long he and the candidate worked together, I would be even more suspicious of the reference’s honesty.
Third, if the reference not only seems vague about specifics, but also offers a glowing assessment of every aspect of the candidate’s job performance, my suspicions about his honesty would be significant – the point being that nobody is perfect and there’s always something everyone can do better. If, for example, the question is, “What do you think so-and-so needs to do to advance his career?” and the answer is along the lines of, “Oh, he was outstanding at everything he was given to do,” or “There’s really nothing he needs to do to improve. He’s ready for any task he’s assigned,” I would be extremely suspicious of responses like those.
Fourth, when a reference is asked why the candidate left or is planning to leave his present position and I get an answer like, “You’d better ask him that,” a rather huge red flag would immediately go up. Most legitimate references have a pretty good idea of why someone is looking for another job!
Fifth, and perhaps most revealing, is a question like, “How do you know so-and-so?” I usually ask a question like that at the beginning of the conversation, because the answer will often alter or color every other response from the reference. Furthermore, it’s often the point at which a bogus reference slips up most quickly. Assuming the question has just been asked and the response is something like, “We play golf together,” or “He’s my neighbor,” or “We went to school together,” or, worst of all, if I get an answer like, “He’s my nephew,” I know that it’s going to be a very short conversation, polite, but short.”
Finally, it’s important to keep in mind that most people who have agreed to be a reference for a friend just want to help him or her land a job and aren’t being maliciously dishonest. The problem with references who really don’t know much about the candidate’s actual job performance is that the comments aren’t going to be of much use in helping the prospective employer make a well-informed hiring decision.