There’s a body on the floor of the parlor: The owner of the manor has been murdered and his priceless heirloom painting is gone. The security log shows that other than the victim, no one was in the house that night except the maid — and she denies she did it.
Would Hercule Poirot or any other self-respecting detective simply accept her statement? Of course not! He would talk to witnesses to get their version of events, comparing each person’s story to the others in an effort to find the greater truth.
Most job candidates aren’t hiding smoking guns, buried ransom, or forged wills. But they are working hard to present themselves at their very best, and you owe it to yourself to be sure you’ve heard the whole story. Sure, Ms. Perfect might have been the most accurate checker at the supermarket. But was she also the slowest? References can help answer questions.
A warning: It won’t be easy. Because of some successful lawsuits filed by candidates who felt they were defamed by previous employers, many companies have limited references only to confirming dates of employment and job title. That makes it tough even to get positive references, let alone cautionary ones. Just working through voicemail to find the right person can be overwhelming. If Sam Spade had so many obstacles to overcome, we still might not know who stole the Maltese Falcon.
Stick with it. If you persevere, checking references can be very worthwhile:
• Figure out what you want to know. Calling references to ask generic questions (“How long have you known Nancy?”) isn’t likely to yield much that’s worthwhile. Review your interview notes. Has the candidate talked about an accomplishment you’d like to confirm? Would you like to know more about the environment she worked in? Are there pieces of the puzzle that don’t fit? References can help answer whatever questions you still have.
• Ask the candidate for references. Some candidates list references on their resume. Others provide them in a cover letter. However you get them, ignore them if the candidate volunteered them. Applicants choose people ready to tell you how wonderful they are, but those may not be the people who can answer your questions. Tell the candidate the areas you’d like to explore (“I’m interested in finding out more about the events you organized”) and ask her who you should call. That way, she knows who you’ll be calling; and you won’t waste time calling people who can’t help you anyway. Just don’t give away too much about what you’d like to ask; you don’t want the candidate to prep the reference.
• Tell the candidate whom you’re calling and when. Too many bosses have found out that their employees were job hunting when a potential boss called for a reference. Don’t put a candidate in that situation.
• Don’t limit yourself to the candidate’s boss. Yes, the candidate’s current or previous boss can answer questions, but don’t stop there. Is the candidate a member of a professional association? Call another member to find out how the candidate participates. Has the applicant published in professional journals? Call the editor and ask how it was to work with the candidate. Be creative in your thinking. Just be sure to limit questions to job-related topics. Develop some specific questions related to these issues:
• Technical competence
• People skills, where relevant
• Use voicemail. If you’re pressed for time, Dr. Pierre Mornell has a great suggestion. Call references during their lunch hour and leave a message. Tell them that Joe is a candidate for a job in your firm, and ask them to call back if Joe is outstanding. What happens next is telling. If Joe is great, most people will happily call back. If no one does, you’ve learned something without anyone saying something negative.
• Be persistent. If references agree only to confirm employment, at least do that. Then keep calling. Eventually, someone will talk. People are more likely to answer specific questions (“What percentage of Jane’s students were promoted to the next grade last year?”) than generic ones (“Did Jane’s students like her?”).
• Meet in person. It’s often not possible, but, if you can, meet key references face to face. Buy them lunch or a morning latte and have a conversation. You’re more likely to get anecdotes and better examples of the candidate’s work in a relaxed environment without distractions.
• Take the focus off the candidate. If a reference can’t—or won’t—tell you more than the basics, try another approach. Ask about the qualities she was looking for in the person hired to replace your candidate. Are the qualities she mentions consistent with what you’ve seen in interviews with the candidate? Or is she describing someone who sounds like the opposite of the person you’ve been talking with?
• Talk to your own staff. Don’t ignore your own internal references. If someone else scheduled the interview, talk to that person. Talk to the receptionist, the parking garage attendant, and anyone else the candidate interacted with. Did they seem the same qualities you did? Or did they meet someone rude or telling inappropriate jokes?
Real World Example
One executive has a strategy for hiring sales talent. He asks job candidates to identify their toughest sale, and then he calls that client. The information can be invaluable. How long did it take to close the sale? How did the candidate keep the conversation open? What information did he give the client? How did his performance compare to his competitor’s sales pitch? After the sale, did the candidate offer good service or disappear?