Reference Checks


Suppose you’re in the process of checking references on a candidate for a senior level position in your company, and you get two totally different assessments of some aspect of his job performance – how do you resolve that difference?  Let’s suppose, for instance, that one reference says the candidate did a great job supervising others and another reference says his ability to supervise others was pathetic.  What can you do to find out who’s telling the truth?

There are at least two solutions to this dilemma.  The first, and most obvious, is to call a third reference and say something like, “I wonder if you could help me out with a confusing problem.  I’ve talked to one reference who was very positive about so-and-so’s supervisory skills.  Then, I talked to another reference who said so-and-so’s supervisory skills weren’t very good.  What might explain the difference?”  If, by chance, the third reference knows who the other two are, you’re likely to get a very sensible response that will readily explain why one comment was positive and one negative.  “Oh, your candidate got the promotion that the negative reference thought he should have and what you’re hearing is just sour grapes because the candidate really did a great job of supervising others.”  Or, “The reference who made the negative comment was just one of those people who doesn’t like being told what to do, so his comments about any supervisor are likely to be negative.  I thought the candidate was a superior manager of others.”  Those are just two possible resolutions to the dramatic difference in what two references had to say.  There probably are several others.  The point is asking a third reference why he thinks the responses were so diametrically opposed to each other is an extremely effective way to gain useful insight into not only how well the candidate actually supervised others, but also the reason for different responses.

The other solution is to identify a fourth reference who can be contacted and asked about supervisory skill and, depending on his answer, follow-up with a supplementary question that asks about the different responses to the same question from other references.  Using the same illustration, suppose the fourth reference says the candidate did a great job supervising others.  Now you have two and perhaps three references all of whom said the candidate did a superior job supervising others.  You can came right back with that supplemental question to the fourth reference by saying something like, “Just out of curiosity, among the references with whom I’ve talked, all have agreed with you regarding the candidate’s supervisory skill, except one – who said he wasn’t an effective supervisory.  Why do you suppose that might be?”  Most of the time that fourth reference will be able to shed a lot of light on why the one reference’s comments were negative.

You could always call the one negative reference back and ask him about his comments, pointing out that all of the candidate’s references were positive, but that’s likely to put him on the defensive and decrease any likelihood of a sensible explanation.  He could merely say something like, “Well, that’s their opinion, and I have mine.”  Now, you’re not any better off getting at the truth of the matter than you were before.  Inquiring about the reason for the difference in comments with a third and possibly a fourth reference is the best way to clear up the matter.