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Telephone Reference Check

The legality of reference checking
Who should check references?
Who should you contact?
The best ways to communicate with references.
Use the job interview to pave the way.
Planning: A key part of successful reference checking.
Techniques to get more candid references.
Start with some basic questions.
Nine tough questions
Four common problems
How to deal with an evasive reference.
How to evaluate references effectively.
Uncover the real reason for leaving.
One more time...

Well, it happened. Your best employee is moving to Idaho and you have to replace her. When begging her to stay didn't work, you settled in, contacted Personnel Services, and completed the Request For Interview, Selection Criteria, and Interview Questions. You've now interviewed and have narrowed your search down to three candidates. You would like to know a little more about the candidates.

What do you do? You now enter the very important world of Reference Checking. Why do you need to do it? Because it can often supply additional information that you cannot determine through an interview and application alone. It is definitely worth your time, but before you start, read on.

The Legality of Reference Checking

Can you be liable if you don't check references? Yes, as a matter of fact, a major company was held liable for its failure to check references adequately on an employee who had committed rape and had spent time in jail for that offense. This is now known as "negligent hiring."

A word of caution: The same discrimination laws apply to reference checking as apply to interviewing. You cannot probe into marital status, age, handicaps, religion, color, or national origin for the purpose of using that information in your hiring decision.

Also, it is always a good idea to review your reference checking procedures with Staff Personnel Services. The information you gather when you check references must be kept confidential. It's not a good practice to discuss this information with other employees in your organization, unless they have a need to know.

Who Should Check References

Some jobs cannot be delegated.

If the employee will report directly to you, should check the references.

No matter how thorough someone else might be, corollary questions will come up that may not occur to others. Also, if the person checking the reference is able to speak with his or her counterpart at the other firm, the likelihood of obtaining a candid reference is substantially improved. If a president speaks to a president, or a manager to a manager there is bound to be some camaraderie which will prompt a more honest and detailed reference. Often, the higher up you go in the company hierarchy to check references, the more candid the responses will be provided, of course, the executive knows the candidate and his or her abilities.

Reference checking is a "do it yourself" project. Avoid assigning the job to any other person in your department, or any outside organization, with the possible exception of an investigating service that specializes in verifying dates of employment and education. (They may also be able to determine if the candidate has been convicted of a crime.) But, aside from those basics, an outsider would have difficulty in judging someone's competency to do a particular job you have in mind. All in all, it's in your best interest for you to get the facts directly from the sources.

If you do not have the time to do a thorough job yourself, and feel compelled to assign the task, then compromise by assigning just part of the reference checking to a competent assistant. Handle one, preferably two, of the reference checks yourself.

Whom Should You Contact?

Be creative in finding references.

The Obvious

These include the references the candidate gives to you. Ask for many. It can be safely assumed that those on the bottom of the list are the least important. However, they may very well be the ones who will be the most candid.

The Immediate Supervisor

Also try contacting the person above the immediate supervisor. These are the people who should know the candidate's work best.

Your Counterpart

It's worth repeating the person who does the same work you do at the company you're contacting for a reference, is the one most likely to level with you.

A References Network

Ask some of those who give you references to also give you the name of another person to contact in the organization. Then ask that person to recommend another and so on. Obviously, it's better to talk to more people than just a job candidate's "friends."

Personal References

Relatives, teachers, and clergy generally have limited value in reference checking, but it certainly can't hurt to contact a few, particularly if there are not enough employer references.

Human Resources Departments

HR departments are less candid than others when giving references. They will generally only confirm the position and dates of employment.

Your Own Contacts

Your friends, or friends' friends may know the candidate or someone at the candidate's company. Sometimes, contacts at firms that are competitors of the candidate's firm can give you helpful information, particularly if the candidate had high visibility within the industry.

The Best Ways to Communicate with References

One on one contact is the best.

A Grain of Salt

Don't rely on written references presented to you by candidates. This method is virtually worthless. Many are written at the time of termination and, because firing a person is a very sensitive task, there may have been a tendency on the employer's part to be full of praise, with few, if any, negatives. (How many bad letters of reference have you ever seen?)

The Hard Way

Writing to companies is usually ineffective. There is little or no degree of candor, and too often such letters aren't answered even after a follow up. Also, by the time you get responses from some companies, you might lose a good potential employee.

A Satisfactory Way

The telephone gives you an opportunity to ask spontaneous questions based upon what was said in response to one of your primary questions. You can often detect enthusiasm, or lack of it, if you pay attention to the tone of voice.

The Best Way

Visiting the reference is not always practical, but when you're interested in hiring a top level executive, it's worth the effort to try to set up an appointment at the candidate's firm. This may very well produce the most candid responses and gives you the opportunity to detect nuances -- the raised eyebrows, limited eye contact, or dubious expression.

Use the Job Interview to Pave the Way

Asking the right questions may give you the right answers.

An excellent way of informing the candidate that references will, indeed, be checked, is to start the interview with, "If we're interested in you, and you're interested in us, we'll be checking your references and, by the way, we want you to feel free to check our references as well."

During the interview it's important to jot down those responses that you consider significant. Then, when checking references, if there's a difference between what the previous employer says and what the candidate said you'll be able to discuss those differences with the employer.

Another useful interviewing technique is to ask the candidate, "What duties did your boss perform?" Then, follow with, "What duties did your subordinates perform?" Later, when you ask candidates to describe their duties, it makes it difficult for them to take credit for the accomplishments of others.

Reference checking remains the most reliable way you have of verifying the impressions and authenticating the information you've gained from the candidate's resume, application and interview.

Planning: A Key Part of Successful Reference Checking

Make the most out of each reference contact.

First of all, there's not too much sense doing detailed reference checking unless you're seriously considering hiring the candidate. Or, if several candidates appear to be equal, you may want to choose the one with the best references.

It's important to plan the general questions you will ask the references of all candidates applying for the same job. But include specific questions that will help clarify possible problems you perceive with each of the different candidates.

Planning is important because you must respect the time of the cooperative reference. If you ramble on, the reference may cut the conversation short before you get the answers to your main questions.

Remember, when you ask for a reference, the person you talk to is doing you a favor. Always be polite. And, always place the call yourself.

Techniques to Get More Candid References

People are more cooperative with people they like.

To encourage references to be candid with you, it's wise to be friendly when you speak with them.

If possible, try to find out something about the person you're about to contact for a reference. You may find you have a few things in common the same hobby, same sport interest, same area of residence, same school, same business.

One way to find out this information is to ask the candidate, during the interview, to tell you something about his or her boss. It could give you some important insight into the kind of person your candidate worked for, and would provide you a ""break the ice" opening when you call for a reference. If you cannot find out any personal information about the reference, chat about the weather or current news for a moment or two. Speak with a "smile" in your voice, and quickly get to the purpose of the call.

Start with Some Basic Questions

Don't forget the obvious.

The answers to these questions might help give you the facts before you begin to dig into the background of the candidates. You can get more effective responses to a series of questions if you start with the simple ones. They are easy to answer, so there is no pressure on the respondent. The respondents are not challenged to give opinions. After introducing yourself, begin with these basic questions:

  1. I'd like to verify the dates of employment, from ____ to _____.
  2. What type of work did he/she do? (Title?)
  3. Were his/her earnings $_____ per _____?
  4. Did that include bonus? Overtime? Incentives?
  5. Who did he/she work for prior to joining your company?

Nine Tough Questions

To find the truth, you have to ask probing questions.

  1. How does the candidate compare to the person who's doing the job now? Or, what characteristics will you look for in the candidate's replacement?
  2. If he or she was that good, why didn't you try to rehire him? Or, why don't you try to induce him to stay?
  3. When there was a particularly urgent assignment, what steps did the candidate take to get it done on time?
  4. Since none of us is perfect at everything we do, please describe some of his or her shortcomings.
  5. Have you seen the candidate's current resume ? Let me read you the part that describes his or her job with your organization. (Stop at each significant point, and ask the reference for a comment.)
  6. Not all employees like everyone with whom they work. With what kind of people did the candidate have problems?
  7. On the average, how many times a month is the candidate absent from work? And, how many times a month does he or she come in late, or leave early?
  8. Who referred the candidate to your company? (It could have been a relative or a customer or client.)
  9. When the candidate was hired, were his or her references checked thoroughly? Who checked these references? And what did the references have to say?

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.

How to Deal with an Evasive Reference

Persistence on your part is the answer.

You've called several times and left a message with a secretary that you'd like to talk to Mr. Smith in connection with a reference for Sally Jones. Mr. Smith doesn't call you back. His theory is that by ignoring you, you'll give up.

He's mistaken.

The very fact that he didn't call you back makes you suspicious that there might be something wrong. Try writing a brief letter requesting his assistance in providing a reference for your candidate.

Send a copy of the letter to the candidate. It will probably prompt him or her to contact the former boss and ask him to speak with you. Finally, if you feel you're being sidetracked by a reference contact with whom you do speak, immediately start to check other references at the same company. An evasive response may be a clue that something important is being hidden.

How to Evaluate the References Effectively

Whether or not the initial reference is favorable or unfavorable, always get a second opinion.

Be objective. Neither longevity on the job, nor promotions, or raises are necessarily proof that an employee was much more than adequate. Sometimes incompetent people who were very well liked have been known not only to survive on the job, but also to advance.

When checking references, if the first and the most important reference extols the virtues of the employee, there's a chance that you will become so satisfied with the positive comments that you may decide not to explore the person's background any further. You're not only happy to have found the right person for the job, but you may also fool yourself into believing that you can now end the time consuming task of reference checking.

Think again.

The first and most important reference contacted may have felt sorry for the well liked, but inept, former employee and might be willing to do anything to help that person land a good job. Realizing that, it pays to be prudent and exercise some caution. Some employers have conditioned themselves to be suspicious of all glowing references and may even subscribe to the cynical theory that the better the reference, the more anxious the company was to lose the employee.

Don't be overly anxious to hire. Sometimes there is a tremendous anxiety to fill a job, and along comes a candidate who appears to be just right. The interviewer may be overwhelmed with the prospect of filling the job, and may disregard anything negative said by the interviewee. References may not be checked at all, or checked using questions that are unconsciously created to encourage the kind of answer the manager wants to hear. For example: "Do you think he could handle the job?" or, "Is he a hard worker, loyal and honest?" The way these questions are worded encourages only "Yes" answers. It's to your advantage to avoid putting words in the mouth of a reference.

Discover the Real Reason for Leaving

Parting is such sweet sorrow.

Find out the real reason the candidate left each of the jobs. This is difficult, because the word "fired" is rarely used. It's often couched in different terms such as, "We agreed to disagree."

It is estimated that some 80 percent of all working people have been fired at one time or another. It could have been from a first job delivering newspapers. It could have been as a result of a company going out of business, or being merged with a larger company thus making a person's job redundant. Therefore, if employers won't hire these people who have been fired, they are eliminating some 80 percent of the job market candidates. In any event, to do thorough reference checking, you should know if they were fired, and why.

Here are a couple of good reasons for leaving that a reference may give you, and good responses on your part:

Reference: "He wanted more money."

You: "Why didn't you think he was worth more?"

Reference: "She did such a good job she effectively made her job unnecessary."

You: "You mean you couldn't transfer such a good employee?"

One More Time

Reference checking doesn't always stop when someone is hired.

Finally, you've made your selection and the employee has been working for you for a month. That's the end of reference checking or is it?

The employee's work has been good, but during the month he's been absent four times and late five times. You consider that a problem, but you hope it's just a matter of unusual circumstances and is not likely to occur with any frequency in the future. But, if this does foreshadow a pattern of things to come, you'd like to know about it now.

Call a few of the same people you talked to in your first round of checking on the employee and confront them with the problem. Start the conversation this way: "Remember me? I'm Jane Doe. I called you over six weeks ago in connection with a reference for Richard Park, and we hired him. Everything is fine, but during the last four weeks he's been absent four times and late five times. Did you encounter that sort of problem when he worked for your firm?"

Confronted with a specific complaint about your new employee, you're likely to prove to yourself whether it's a pattern, or just an unusual occurrence. It's certainly to your advantage to find out those facts early on in the employment relationship. If there was a pattern, have a frank talk with the employee, letting him know that some of his references have told you they had the same problem in the past, and that you will not tolerate a continuance of this behavior. If that doesn't work, you may be forced to terminate his employment.


Take time to check references. It's worth it.

Some managers view reference checking as a futile, cumbersome task. Many have abandoned the idea of doing little more than a cursory verification of a few facts. Some do absolutely nothing, relying solely on their gut feelings. Many assign the task to whomever in the organization has some spare time, or they just rely on outsiders to do the job. But now you know the value of reference checks. If you follow the recommendations in this booklet and do the job yourself, you'll end up with fewer disappointments, saving considerable time and frustration in the long run.

Take time to check references.

It's worth it.