Techniques to Get More Candid References
|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:
1. I'd like to verify the dates of employment, from
___ to ___.
2. What type of work did he/she do? (Title?)
3. Were his/her earnings $___ per ___?
4. Did that include bonus? ___ Overtime?
5. Was he/she honest?
6. Who did he/she work for prior to joining your
The following questions are more revealing.
Nine tough questions
To search for the truth you have to ask
1. How does he compare to the person who's doing the
job now? Or, what characteristics will you look for to
2. If he was that good, why didn't you try to rehire him?
Or, why don't you try to induce him to stay?
3. When there was a particularly urgent assignment,
what steps did she take to get it done on time?
4. Since none of us are perfect at everything we do,
please describe some of her shortcomings.
5. Have you seen his current resume? Let me read you the
part that describes his job with your organization. (Stop
at each significant point, and ask the reference for a
6. All employees don't like all other employees. What
kind of people did she have problems with?
7. On the average, how many times a month does he take
off for personal reasons or sickness? And, how many
times a month does he come in late, or leave early?
8. Who referred her to your company? (Could it have
been a relative or a recommendation of a customer or
9. When she was hired, were her references checked
thoroughly? Who checked these references? And what
did her references have to say?
How to deal with an evasive
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 on the right.
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 it,
"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
Smith Manufacturing Company
111 Main Street
Wichita, KS 67201
Dear Mr. Smith:
I've been trying to reach you in connection with a
reference for Ms. Sally Jones, who had been in your
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
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
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.