The honest answer to the question of who should be checked is simple from an employer’s perspective: everybody. And while that may seem like a flippant answer, it is offered as a sound, sensible, and fundamental truth.
Even in informal, everyday life situations, we do a fair amount of checking—and don’t even realize we’re doing it. If you need any sort of household repairs done, my guess would be that most of you would ask friends or relatives or neighbors, “Who do you use?” “What do you think about so-and-so?” Or, “What has been your experience using this service or that?” How many of you have asked others for their opinions when looking for a new hairstylist or barber? “Who does a good job?” “What do they charge?” Or, just generally, “Do you like who you’re using?”
When you stop to think about it, we do the same sort of thing for nearly every type of human interaction we encounter, from our dealings with the neighborhood auto mechanic, to booking a band for the company party, or even about a blind date. We “ask around.” All that asking around is really a form of reference checking.
Obviously, seeking a simple consensus of opinion is not as formalized as the type of reference checking we’re talking about when hiring new employees; but the point should be clear that all of us do a lot more informal reference checking than we may think we do. All of us talk to friends, coworkers, relatives, and others about nearly every conceivable type of provider of goods and services accessible in the marketplace. “Who has the best prices on stereos?” “How well do you like your dentist, and is she taking new patients?” “Which car dealer do you trust?” We’re checking references, albeit informally, all the time.
Therefore, isn’t it amazing that employers fret and fume about the propriety of checking references on the people they’re planning to hire? Regardless of whether it’s a new six-figure CEO or a part-time security guard, some employers seem perplexed about not only whether references should be checked, but also about how to go about it. And yet those same employers will make several thorough inquiries before settling on a new pediatrician for their children!
Here’s just one example: A major East Coast client wanted to fill a high salaried CEO position. Their top candidate had really impressed the hiring committee as being a strong, energetic leader who could take them to the next level of corporate success. We were asked to check his references. Although the candidate had a long and distinguished career as a very accomplished corporate executive, all three of his references said he had been coasting for about the last five years, living on his past laurels. They even suggested that he had been circulating his resume in hopes of hitting one more “big lick,” in terms of compensation and benefits, before sliding comfortably into retirement. This was hardly the profile of a man still energized and prepared to take the prospective employer where they hoped to go.
This example shows precisely why there should never be any doubt about the propriety and importance of background and reference checking!