Tuesday, June 17, 2014

What A Reference Check Should Really Determine

Most reference checks are limited to names that the job applicant has given to the company.  And while these references can give a good sense of what the candidate is about, there is more that a reference check can do.  

Reference checks are a wonderful opportunity to find out things which don’t show up while a job applicant is interviewing.  While someone is interviewing, they are always on best behavior.  A reference check is a great way to find out if someone is truly likable. 

Yet most companies fail to determine this critical information.  In fact, most companies, do fairly perfunctory references.  Often, more because they have to.

The law that may require reference checks is called Sarbanes Oxley (SOX).  It was passed by congress about a dozen years or so ago. SOX requires public companies to be responsible for internal controls to protect against fraudulent accounting practices.  These controls have been extended to include many human resources functions and, among other things, may include reference and background checks.

When checking references, companies usually ask valid questions. They ask about abilities; they ask about the circumstances under which someone left a company; they ask about relations with others, their working habits, their managerial skills.  All these things are important to know, but often form a mere check list, to be put in a file drawer to show that a company did its due diligence (under SOX or otherwise). 

References should go beyond this check list, even with names that have been given to them.  I have found that even good friends will be honest if probed properly.  Reference checks are a great opportunity to ask about issues which are important to know but are best coming from a third party. 

Here is my list:
-       Are they nice?
-       Are they likable?
-    Are the good humored? 
-       Are they compassionate towards others?
-       What is their management style?
-       Do they manage up better than they manage down?
-       Are they temperamental?
-       Are they hands on?
-       Do they present well?
-       How do they handle difficult situations?
-       Do they have personal issues which may not have shown up while interviewing?
-       What problems are they best at solving?
-       What are their working habits?
-       Would you work with them again?

If these issues are probed and examples asked for, the people giving the references, even  if provided by the candidate, will usually give a very good picture of the candidate.  For instance, it is impossible to directly ask a candidate if they are nice, but is easy to ask a third party and then probe them to find out specific instances of their niceness.  

I just had a candidate who told me that her boss is Jekyll and Hyde; when he is nice he is good, but when he is off his meds, so to speak, he is horrible.  I am sure his references said that he was an excellent executive and good at his job, but this personality trait never showed up because it wasn’t asked. Yet isn’t that what a company really wants to know?  That a person is a screamer, or difficult, or temperamental should be known before they begin work, not after.  Finding out it in advance can save a lot of angst later on.


  1. This is a great list! I'm using it. Thanks.

  2. Nice Paul. I'm using this list too.

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