How to Read Between the Lines
By Alan Darling
-Originally published in Your
Company Magazine (now Fortune Small
Many employers believe checking the references of job
candidates is a waste of time. The reason: Previous supervisors given
as references often withhold negative information, fearing lawsuits.
But if you treat the calls as interviews, you may be able to get a much
DON'T SAVE THEM FOR LAST
Do reference checks as soon as you're down to your last two or three
candidates. If you wait too long, the process becomes simply a
formality before hiring.
WARM THEM UP
When contacting prior employers, "don't announce, 'This is a reference
check,' and then ask questions, bang, bang, bang," says Kimball Shaw,
of Kimball Shaw Associates, an executive-search firm in Hingham,
Massachusetts. "Chat about the job you have open, ask how they know the
applicant, and ask a few questions about their companies."
If you hope to make an offer to the candidate should
the references be positive, or if the individual is one of your top
choices, say so. It will stress the importance of the information
you're trying to elicit.
TARGET YOUR QUESTIONS
Ask specific questions. "What's she like when she's made a mistake and
has to correct it?" and "How does she act when someone senior to her is
wrong and won't give in?" are better than, "What's she like?" Toward
the end of the conversation, ask about weak points, but not directly.
Instead, ask whether the former employer would hire the person again.
Or say, "It looks like I'm going to make an offer to this woman. In
what areas will I have to work extra hard with her to make sure she
succeeds?" For a more detailed list of questions that can be used in
reference checking, see Questions For Reference Checks at the end of
WHAT THEY DON'T SAY IS CRITICAL
Wilson Kile, a marketing consultant in Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania,
recommends listening for what references don't say. "If you're
verifying what your applicant claimed was a positive situation and you
get a hesitant response, watch out," he warns.
ASK FOR SECONDARY REFERENCES
In addition to the names you're given, ask both the prospective
employee and his or her initial references for the names of others who
can shed light on the candidate. Then call these secondary references
and interview them.