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Reference Checking 101 by Bruce Hurwitz, Ph.D.

03 Apr 2022 10:37 PM | Mariana Fradman (Administrator)

Reference Checking 101

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(I am not an attorney, so I am not going to get into the legal aspects of giving a false reference, praising someone who is not worthy of praise, and then, based on that recommendation, they get hired. Suffice it to say, as with everything else, never lie.)

There's no point in checking references. No one is going to give the contact info for someone who will not praise them. No one gets a bad reference.

I have heard many an employer utter those or similar words. And they are wrong.

Now, to be perfectly honest, part of me likes it when they make that statement. The lazy part of me. Because checking references extends the hiring process and I like to be paid as quickly as possible. I'm funny that way. But, I also give a six-month guarantee that if for any reason a placement does not work out, I'll find a replacement for free. I don't like to have to honor that guarantee and the fact that references are checked (either by me or the employer/client) means I rarely have to.

Bottom line: check references. Let me give you two examples of great references.

The first was from a man whose tone of voice immediately changed when I mentioned the person about whom I was calling. (Obviously, he was not expecting my call. More on that in a moment.) He said all the right things, but his tone of voice told me what he really wanted me to know. She was not a good employee and others confirmed it. That was a great reference because it was honest.

The second reference was stellar. I called a surgeon, in fact, a brain surgeon. He was only available to speak with me at 7:30 AM. I called just before 7:30. I introduced myself and told his receptionist/nurse/assistant/whomever why I was calling. She said, "One moment please."

The next voice I heard was the doctor. He said,

"This is Doctor X. I know you are calling about Y. I wanted to take your call but I am about to perform surgery on a young woman with a brain tumor. Y was great. We were all devastated when she left. Is there anything specific I can tell you?"

Ya, right. I'm going to keep a surgeon from a patient lying on the table about to have her head cut open!

I thanked him and wished him and his patient the best.

Around 9:00 AM, I called my client, told him what had happened and asked if he wanted me to check the other two references. (You should always get three references.) He laughed and told me to offer the position to the candidate.

A good reference does not have to be long!

In any event, be aware that some companies have a no reference policy. It is not a reflection on the candidate. All they will do is confirm dates of employment, title and salary range. (I think we can blame the lawyers for this one!) In those cases you have to be flexible and instead of demanding a reference from a past supervisor (which is the best reference), a past colleague or a current (since the rules don't apply to them), client/customer will have to suffice.

There is one other reference which should be noted:

As alluded to, before giving out references candidates must contact their references. This is for a number of reasons. First, to make sure they are available. There is nothing worse than calling a reference and not hearing back from them. Second, the candidate has to tell them about the position so that they will know on what to focus. And, third, they have to know that the person is willing to provide a reference.

(These are also the reasons why references should never be listed on resumes. And there is one more: You don't want an employer making sales calls to your references, using your name! There are plenty of unethical and unscrupulous employers out there. Don't make it easy for them. Never provide the name of references before an employer makes you a conditional offer of employment.)

One day my phone rang and it was the owner of a staffing agency that provided social workers. She said that Jane Doe had given my name as a reference. I told her I had no idea who the woman was. She told me where we had worked together. I said I remembered a "Jane" but her last name was not "Doe." Perhaps, I suggested, she had gotten married in the ten years since we had worked together! I also told her I do not provide references unless the candidate reaches out to me in advance.

I figured that would be that. (Who's going to hire someone who gives a reference who does not remember her, who doesn't check with the reference prior to providing their contact information, and who has not worked with them for ten years?) But, no, Jane Doe, who I had known as Jane Smith, called. (She had, in fact, married.) I told her that I really did not remember working with her on any project but if she wanted me to speak with the business owner I would. I figured that would be the end of that.

But, no, the owner called me. I told her, "I really don't like social workers. I never had a good experience with any of them. But, in her case, the best I can say is I don't remember her messing up, which, coming from me, says something." The owner said, "That's good enough for me!"

So, a woman who did not have the common sense to first contact me, whom I had not worked with for a decade, and for whom I could not provide anything more than a "non-negative" reference, got a job. But not for long. A couple of months later, having learned from the experience, my former "colleague" called and said she was looking for a new job and wanted to know if she could give my name as a reference. I declined, suggesting that she find someone with whom she had worked more recently. (Pleased, she was not.)

As I said, not all references are good but, then again, some business owners, apparently, don't care! Desperate times call for desperate measures. And, this was a good ten years ago, before the Great Resignation. I hate to think what may be happening today...

One last thing: Letters of recommendation are not good enough. Many employers give them out simply to get the employee out of the building with a smile on their face. Following up, to confirm what was written, is crucial, and can be very revealing. The best example I can give was the time the employer told me he never gave letters of reference, asked me to fax (this was a long time ago) it to him, and then told me it was a forgery. The logo was perfect, but the address was wrong!

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