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 and so on. 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, for a moment or two chat about the weather or current news. Talk with a smile in your voice, and quickly get into the purpose of the call.
It's a good idea to prepare the reference to 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 wouldn'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."
Start with some basis 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. They are easy to answer, there is no pressure on the respondent.
The respondents are not challenged to give opinions. Tested survey techniques show that you can get more effective response to a series of questions if you start with the simple ones:
The following questions are more revealing.
Nine tough questions
To search for the truth you have to ask questions.
How to deal with an evasive reference
If they do nothing, it will go away.
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.
The very fact that he didn't call you back makes you suspicious that there might be something wrong. Try writing a brief letter similar to the one below.
By sending a copy of the letter to Sally Jones, it will probably encourage her to contact her former boss, and ask him to please speak with you.
Here's another type of evasive reference you might encounter. You finally get through and talk to the candidate's reference, and the only comment you get is, "Write me a letter." You should, and you do, but you may or may not get a response. Even if you do, you can be pretty sure it will be less than candid. If you feel you're being sidetracked, immediately start to check other references at the same company. The evasive action may be a clue that there is something important being hidden.
Mr. John J. Smith, President
Dear Mr. Smith:
I've been trying to reach you in connection with a reference for Ms. Sally Jones, who had been in your employ.
We are considering Ms. Jones, along with two other people, but since we consider her work record with your firm to be highly significant, we cannot consider her further unless we can speak to you. I'd appreciate a call from you regarding this matter. I'll call you again in several days, if I don't hear from you.
cc: Ms. Sally Jones
How to evaluate references effectively
Whether the initial reference is favorable or unfavorable, always get a second opinion.
Be objective. Neither longevity on the job, nor promotions and raises are necessarily the proof that an employee was much more than adequate. Sometimes incompetents, who were very well liked, have been known not only to survive, but to advance in companies.
If you were to go to a doctor and were told that an operation was necessary, chances are you would seek a second opinion. On the other hand, if you were to go to a doctor and be told that you did not need an operation, it's doubtful that you'd be interested in going any further-but isn't that wrong?
In reference checking, if the first - and in your judgement 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 delude yourself into believing that you can now end the time-consuming and unpleasant task of reference-checking. After all, not many business executives enjoy "detective work."
The first, and most important, reference contacted may have felt sorry for a 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, at least one I know, has a cynical theory that the better the reference, the more anxious the company is to lose the employee.
Don't be overanxious to hire. Sometimes there is 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, and almost nothing negative said by the interviewee becomes relevant. References may not be checked at all, or checked using questions that are unconsciously created to encourage the kind of answer the executive wants to hear. For example: "Do you thing he could handle the job as treasurer?" "Is he a hard worker, loyal and honest?" The way these questions are worded encourage only "Yes" answers. It's to your advantage to avoid putting works in the mouth of a reference.
What did they really mean?
A signal can put you on the right track.
If you can't find the slightest thing wrong with a candidate, the chances are you haven't done a thorough job of reference checking. (There's something less than perfect about everyone-as it applies to any given job.) When you do find that flaw, congratulate yourself on doing a thorough reference checking job, but, of course, don't necessarily dismiss the candidate from consideration until you analyze the importance of the negative in the overall reference. If you consider the negative comment relevant, check with other references on the same subject.
Exaggeration by Omission. For example, a comment: "His work was excellent." That's fine, of course, but the reference may not have mentioned that the candidate was unable to complete complicated tasks. "She's an accounting genius." She may also have been a failure at management. And, "He's a decision maker." But, were his decisions good ones?
If you are only hearing glowing general accounts about a candidate, ask the reference for specific examples to support those accolades.
Antonyms. Read between the lines when comments are made. For example: "If we had an opening right now, we'd hire her back." The reality may have been that they were happy to see her go. "He was a very reliable employee." The truth may have been that they never knew when he would or would not show up. "She quit the job for a greater challenge." In actuality, she couldn't cope with the work. "Our management was completely to blame." The truth may have been that the only mistake made was to hire him.
Make sure you politely ask the reference to explain any broad generalizations.
In checking references, listen and watch for signals.
It's often the unspoken signs that give you the greatest clues to what the reference really means.
For example, he who hesitates in answering a reference question may have lost the new job for the former employee. When a person pauses too long, he could be skirting the truth. The real truth can be recited quickly.
Listen for inflection: "He was a good worker," the word "good" being said in a lackadaisical way. It may mean, "not so good." But, said enthusiastically, "he was a good worker," may be an indication that the reference means what she says.
If you have the opportunity to meet with the employer, you can observe the body language that goes along with the conversation - the expression, the gestures, the general attitude. You can often detect whether it's a pleasure to recommend her or, in fact, that they were glad to get rid of her. You don't have to be an expert on body language to judge enthusiasm.
-Carolyn B Thompson