Reference Checks


          “Since, most of the time, candidates seeking employment provide their own references, what’s the point in calling them since they’re just going to say good things about the candidate,” or so the excuse often goes for not checking.  While “saying good things” may well be what a reference tries to do, if the person doing the checking knows how to go about it, this potential pitfall can normally be avoided – no matter how much the reference tries to praise the candidate’s overall ability.

For example, asking what the candidate’s responsibilities were on the job would be difficult for a reference to embellish.  And, frankly, there’s no reason for a reference to say the candidate was responsible for more tasks than he really was.  If that were to happen, and I can’t really imagine why it would, it could set up the candidate for failure if the employer expects him to be able to handle tasks he has never done before!  So, trying to embellish job responsibilities could really backfire on the candidate.

As noted in an earlier piece, asking the reference to describe the candidate’s management style is equally difficult to fudge because there’s no way the reference can know what management style the prospective employer is seeking!

Another question difficult to exaggerate in response is, “If you had to describe a weakness in so-and-so’s overall job performance, what would it be – keeping in mind that nobody’s perfect?”  Since nobody IS perfect, the reference is usually compelled to suggest something in the candidate’s overall job performance that could be improved!  However, I have had references say something like, “Gosh, Charlie was just outstanding at everything!”  But all that response does is tip off the person doing the reference checking that the reference isn’t being totally honest – because, I reiterate, nobody is perfect!  My response in instances like this one is to politely push a little more and say something like, “Oh, come on!  Nobody does everything perfectly.  There must be some area in which Charlie could improve.”

Akin to the previous question is this one:  “In what area do you think Charlie needs improvement.  What could he do better?”  A response, again, like, “Charlie just does a great job at everything.  I can’t think of anything he could do better,” is also a giveaway that the reference is being less than candid.  In rare situations like this, the best advice to the prospective employer is to add a developed reference, because it’s obvious that the rest of the responses given by this sort of reference are going to be suspect.

The ultimate point is that careful reference checking will, more often than not, disarm the person who only wants to rave about the candidate seeking employment; and, of equal importance, that’s why it’s never sufficient to contact just one reference.  My recommendation is to always talk to a minimum of three references that have worked with the candidate and carefully compare their responses to each question.     Sometimes it’s necessary to rule out one set of comments that are obvious overstatements; but, by politely pushing beyond the initial response and asking for specific examples from the reference, it’s ordinarily possible to get a far more accurate assessment of actual job performance – even from a reference who only wants to say “good things.”