More tips on checking references of job applicants


My April 18 column provided tips on checking references. Some more:

  • Conduct at least two reference checks via verbal conversations for each applicant. Written and email references should not count for these purposes because they don’t accommodate questions or reveal the tone of the reference’s voice, which may speak volumes.
  • Consider asking applicants to refer you to specific types of professional associates as references. For example, if the applicant isn’t a recent graduate and has a reasonable amount of work experience, ask him to refer you to at least one previous or current supervisor as a reference. (It is understandable if a job-seeker doesn’t want his current supervisor to know about his job search.) You may also ask applicants to refer you to current or previous co-workers, who may give you particular insights on how he gets along with colleagues, or people he has supervised, who may provide insider information on his supervisory skills.
  • Describe to references the toughest types of technical, administrative and interpersonal challenges of the opening at hand and ask them how well they think the applicant would address them based on his previous experience conquering similar types of challenges and personality.
  • Consider verifying the applicant’s answers to particular interview questions with his references. For example, if an applicant described himself in an interview as “self-directed and a team player” or provided a specific example of how he went the extra mile, ask his references about the accuracy of such claims.
  • Look for subtle signs of negativity from references who may be reluctant to overtly criticize an applicant after promising him to serve as a positive reference. For example, if you ask an applicant’s supervisor if, given the opportunity, he would re-hire the applicant and he hesitates before saying “yes,” consider asking the supervisor if his response reflects ambivalence.
  • If you detect a significant discrepancy between information provided by an applicant and information provided by one of his references, consider whether the discrepancy might be an innocent difference in interpretation of a situation or facts. But if you determine that the discrepancy is important, consider telling the reference and the applicant about the discrepancy and then evaluate their responses. Also, ask other references about the information that is the source of the disparity.

In addition, if an applicant has sailed through every selection gauntlet with flying colors, and received several glowing references but receives one ho-hum or even critical reference, consider whether the negative reference is revealing a genuine problem with the applicant or has a sinister motive, such as settling an old score by backstabbing the applicant.

In such situations, your options include consulting additional references and/or attempting to find someone in your own professional or personal circle who may know the critical reference and be able to shed light on his credibility.

A few caveats: When you think you have finally found a “Superman-like” applicant to fill an opening and can finally complete a long selection process, you may be particularly tempted to bias your questioning of the applicant’s references in his favor in order to help confirm your positive opinion of him and maintain the hiring momentum. To avoid such bias, be sure to phrase questions neutrally and not to ask leading questions that put words in the mouths of references. For example, instead of saying something like, “So it looks to me from John’s writing samples that he was a good writer,” say, “How would you rate John’s writing skills?”

But by the same token, remember that nobody is perfect. So if your applicant’s references are candid, they will inevitably reveal information about your applicant’s foibles or perhaps even downright faults. If revelations of your applicant’s imperfections are within reason, just consider them validation of his references’ credibility and warning that — despite your applicant’s Superman-like impression — he is human, after all.


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