There are several things employers can do to increase the likelihood of getting honest responses from references on job performance questions:
•Always ask job seekers to provide a resume that contains a complete work history, including job title, responsibilities, and dates of employment for every job held.
•Ask every job seeker to provide the name of the person to whom they directly reported for every job held. (This should be done regardless of whether it was the chair of the church board, the school principal, a production line supervisor, or the name of the landlord who collected the rent.
•If the list of references doesn’t include at least one person to whom the candidate reported, a red flag should go up in the prospective employer’s mind. (Some job seekers will legitimately contend they didn’t list a previous supervisor as a reference because the two of them didn’t get along. That’s understandable because not one of us gets along with everybody all of the time. But throughout an individual’s work history, there ought to be at least one supervisor who can be asked to serve as a reference. If the candidate has never gotten along with any supervisor ever, that should be a major red flag!)
•When contacting the job seeker’s references by telephone, use the information on the resume to cross-check what the references have to say about the job seeker’s job title, actual job responsibilities, and, even more basically, how the reference is acquainted with the job seeker and how long they actually worked together. One of the first questions we always ask is, “How are you acquainted with so-and-so?” (The ultimate point is to make sure that the job title, basic responsibilities, and employment dates line up – the correlation has to be there to insure any degree of reliability in what the reference has to say. This is one of the best ways to insure that the job seeker is not trying to pass off Uncle Harry as a former supervisor, when he is really just trying to do his favorite nephew a favor – Uncle Harry isn’t likely to know the job title, job responsibilities, or employment dates.)
•Another way to insure the reliability of a reference is by talking to at least three references. There should be a significant degree of correlation among them in their responses to the same questions.
•Finally, if the correlation is there, then it’s more likely than not that you’re talking to a solid reference. If it isn’t there, then you’re probably talking to Uncle Harry!