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California State University, Long BeachCalifornia State University, Long Beach

Telephone Reference Check

Four Common Problems

What to expect when checking references.


Because of increased incidence of lawsuits, references are often reluctant to provide any information beyond confirmation that the candidate worked for them. To get this kind of reference to relax and be candid, say something like this: "I want to be fair with Ms. Brown. If we were to hire her and she couldn't do the job properly, or didn't fit into our organization, we'd have to replace her. That could ruin what appears to be a very nice record. That's why I'd appreciate it if you would help Ms. Brown and me by being candid in your responses to a few questions."

Finessing The Answer

Often when people want to avoid answering a question, they'll quickly sidestep by changing the conversation to something they're more comfortable talking about. For example, the question, "How well did she supervise her department?" could be avoided by saying, "She was always willing to pitch in. Nothing was too much for her."

When it comes to giving references, some executives are masters of ambiguity and finessing. There's a famous story about a man who called a company to check the reference of a former employee. He asked the company president to tell him something about this person. The president's answer was, "He worked for us for 20 years and we were satisfied when he left." If you feel you don't fully understand what the reference means by a certain response, don't hesitate to ask for clarification.

The Bad Reference

Sometimes bosses are so angry that a good employee quit, they'll go out of their way to give a bad reference. If, for any reason, you suspect the boss might be vindictive, and the candidate appears to be suitable for the job, check as many other references as possible. Make sure that you quiz the other references on the major points that were made by the negative reference. You may hear only opposite opinions; then again, you may get corroboration. It takes more work on your part to counteract a bad reference, but when you do, you may find yourself with an excellent employee who had trouble getting a good job because someone out there was deliberately interfering with his or her chances.

Questionable References

Sometimes you have to check the reference's references. For example, you encounter one extremely negative reference among a handful of outstanding ones. Call several of the people you already spoke with at the same firm and ask them pointedly whether they know of a problem between the employee and the individual who has sounded off. You could say something like, "Mr. Green, you might remember I called you the other day in connection with checking Ms. Gray's references. I appreciate your time, but I have a small point which I hope you can help me clarify. I checked with Ann White, and she was not very complimentary about Ms. Gray. Can you tell me anything about that situation?"

One of two things will happen: you'll either find out that Ann White just doesn't like Ms. Gray, and she's trying her best to harm her career. Or, Mr. Green will confess that there's a certain amount of truth in what Ann said about Mary. If the latter happens and Mary appears to be your best candidate you should recheck several more references in an effort to determine the truth.