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References, please

Many leaders think that doing a reference check is a waste of time. Since they don’t have a plan they are probably right. So read on to have a plan.

Let’s start with: Why bother doing reference checks?  Three reasons.

First, too many candidates aren’t honest. So it's important to verify information candidates provide. We've all heard that millions of candidates provide false information every year to get a job.

Second, potential legal liability issues with respect to acts of violence that due diligence in the selection process could have prevented.

A 1995 court ruling held that a major company could be sued because they chose not to share with another company that a former employee threatened to kill some co-workers. The other company had hired that person, who subsequently shot and killed three people.

Finally turnover can be reduced.  By verifying candidate examples of success, you can make better hiring decisions.

So what is the problem?

Many organizations have taken the position that they will only release limited name, title and dates of employment. Many companies that take this position obviously are thinking about the risk of potential lawsuits.

Yet, in response to the court case mentioned earlier, more than 40 states have laws to protect employers from potential liability if accurate information is shared.

The best reference checks will not come from the HR department. 

Contact should be made with former supervisors and co-workers whenever possible.

So here's the First Secret: On your company letterhead create a short Applicant Authorization for Reference Checking, that they sign and date. You want this on a separate sheet from the application so it can be faxed or scanned and e-mailed.     

I’d be happy to share a couple of examples if you e-mail me, with Applicant Authorization in the subject box.

The Second Secret is getting the Right References to Contact. Candidate’s love to provide their favorite references. So, based on my interview notes, I tell the applicant who I want included on the reference list. Did you just understand what I was telling you? You are telling the candidate who you want included on their reference list.

Any smart candidate will call these references to give them a heads-up and grease the skids for when you call.

The Third Secret is getting references to talk. When I make the call, if I get a resistant reference, I say:

“As a manager yourself, you know how important it is to get references. I don’t want you to say anything that would make you feel uncomfortable. But when I hear a response like this, I immediately jump to the conclusion that there’s a problem. If that’s your intent, I got the message. But if it isn’t your intent, it’s really a disservice to the candidate.”

“I have an authorization from the candidate, for us to talk may I FAX or e-mail a copy to you?”

Using this script and having the Authorization, plus having had the candidate call in advance to grease the skids, will open your channel of communication nicely. 

The Fourth Secret is knowing what to ask. I take the example from my interview notes that relates to this reference and ask a question such as: “(candidate’s name) said he/she had worked on a project with you related to (whatever the example is). Tell me about his/her role on this project.” 


“(Candidate’s name) spoke about a time when they dealt with a sensitive situation with a co-worker related to (whatever the example is). Could you tell me how you saw this situation?” 

I’m looking for confirmation whether or not what the candidate told me was true. For instance, did the candidate really lead the project or where they really just a follower.

You can still ask if they would hire them again or if they are eligible to be rehired at the end of your call.

Reference checking can make a huge difference, do it well. This approach provides you with a plan that will keep the BS level down and your confidence factor up. Be careful out there.



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Stephen Moulton

Stephen Moulton is the Chief Insight Officer of Action Insight and Hire-STARS, he is also the author of the CEO’s Advantage, 7 Keys for Hiring Extraordinary Leaders and the forthoming book Engage - Leadership and Building an Engaged Team.  He can be reached at 303-439-2001 or stephen@actioninsight.com.

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