Reference Checks


Despite claims to the contrary, real reference checking will never be reduced to an objective impersonal “science.”  There will always be an element of subjective “art” in it.  Why is that?  Unless one is willing to settle for a standardized set of questions that can be answered with a numerical value or choosing between abstractions like “good,” “fair,” and “poor” as responses to job performance questions, there will always be subjective elements of interpretation that can only be classified as “art.”  And “art” can only come through the use of real human skills like experience, intuition, good judgment, and an inquisitive mind.

For instance, suppose diametrically opposite responses are given by two equally qualified references – let’s say two coworkers who have worked with the candidate for about the same length of time.  Suppose one reference says the candidate’s job performance was top-notch, while the other says the candidate’s performance was, at best, mediocre.  How can those two very different assessments be reconciled?  One is by comparing the responses to other job performance-related questions.  Are all the responses at opposite ends of the spectrum or just the answers to the question about job performance?  What was the tone of the two references?  Is it possible to tell that one reference liked the candidate while, for whatever reason, the other did not?  Another technique is by contacting a third reference to see how he or she answers the job performance question – and then following up with a question like, “It’s interesting that two of you rated the candidate’s job performance highly and the third reference did not.  Why do you suppose there’s such a difference?”  What could be concluded if the third reference were to say, “Oh, Charlie didn’t get the promotion he wanted.  The candidate got it.  Charlie really didn’t handle the rejection well, and that’s probably why he’s not giving the candidate a very good rating.”  Okay, now we have a logical explanation for the conflicting responses!

The foregoing example clearly contains elements of good judgment, intuition, and inquisitiveness that could never be reduced to an objective “yes” or “no” computer evaluation.  Real reference checking takes all of the previously mentioned human skills to sort through conflicting responses about a candidate for employment – if one is to make the best hiring decision.  Things as subtle as a hesitation in responding to a question could easily promote an experienced reference checker to say, “You seemed to hesitate a little on that question.  Is there a concern there that’s bothering you?”  That’s intuition and experience taking over; neither of these qualities can be integrated into a computer program with limited response options.

In the long run, the “art” of reference checking will always produce a better result for the prospective employer than an impersonal evaluation that eliminates the human element.