Reference Checking: It’s boring (but Critically Important)

Reference Checking

Reference Checking

Sometimes old technology works great. So, this is going to be a reminder of stuff you already know. Here’s the message. Never, ever, hire anyone without thoroughly checking their references. Stop reading now if you already do this brilliantly.

Interview Purpose: The purpose of an interview is to determine (usually in a relatively short period) an individual’s likely future job performance. Even if you think that you are God’s Gift to Psychology, it’s a subjective task. Predicting future job behaviour is an inexact science. With people who have well-developed connect skills (eye contact, strong handshake) and interview chat-lines (“I’m delighted to meet you in person”), it’s notoriously difficult to separate ‘performers’ from ‘spoofers’. Just remind yourself that people almost always comment about serial killers: “He seemed so normal”. Yeh, right! But, don’t despair. Help is at hand. The key to reducing subjectivity in hiring is to conduct systematic reference checks. Why? Because the best indicator of future behaviour is past behaviour. As Wilson Mizner reminded us: “There’s something about a closet that makes a skeleton terribly restless.”

Reference Checking: While reference checking is not foolproof (individual behaviour is not static over time and is conditioned by new environments), it’s generally the most objective measure of an unknown candidate. Systematic checks can significantly reduce the margin of error in recruitment. Reference checks should be completed by phone or face to face with previous employers (written references are useless; you’ll never see a bad one). Previous employers (or school authorities where candidates have no previous experience) should be contacted and the applicant’s work record checked. Golden Rule 1: References should always be checked before making a job offer. Golden Rule 2: Don’t ever let the headhunting organisation (if you are using one) or the most junior person in HR, conduct the reference checks. Why? Headhunters have a pre-existing bias to ensure that the reference ‘works out well’ (demonstrating the person they short-listed is solid and that they haven’t wasted your time; oh yes, and to collect their fee). Junior HR staff are usually young enough to still believe in Santa and seldom understand the subtleties in conducting references.

General Electric: I worked for GE for 6 years. For 2 of those years I was responsible for the recruitment of all operators and craft workers at a factory in Coolock, Dublin. Interviews were held on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday & Thursday. Following the interviews I conducted reference checks on the short-listed candidates – all day Friday. Over that period, I conducted something of the order of 2,000 interviews (when anyone tells me their Leaving Certificate results, I get an involuntary gagging response). At the reference checking stage I would find out the ‘real story’ about the candidates. Here’s a couple of the more memorable quotes from that time:

The Machine: One former employer wanted my name and telephone number. He seemed reluctant to speak on the phone, even a little nervous. Eventually he rang me back and said: “That machine you spoke to me about earlier. Well, it kept breaking down and it caused the other machines around it to break down too”. Then he hung up. We didn’t hire the candidate. In another memorable quote I’d asked a manager (whom I knew) about a woman he’d worked alongside for about 2 years and he said: “I’d describe her as someone who knows everything about her rights and nothing about her responsibilities.” We didn’t hire her either (despite the fact that she’d been excellent at the interview). The reference check on one senior academic was as follows: “He is remarkably unencumbered by vision.”

Scam Man: We had a lot of trouble with one particular factory operator. He was involved in every scam possible at the plant and we wanted to fire him. When I checked his file, the reference check had been ‘glowing’. Perhaps there was a set of twins who gotten separated at birth and we’d somehow ended up with the evil one? I jumped in the car and went to see the guy who’d given the reference – to figure out how there was such a sea-change in behaviour in such a short period of time. It turned out that the ‘referee’ had simply lied to me over the phone and offered the following excuse: “That guy is nuts. I didn’t know who you were, just calling me out of the blue. I wasn’t putting my head on the block for someone I don’t know. He’s your problem now mate.” Thankfully, most employers are a bit more supportive than that and will give you a proper read.

Even though the topic seems a bit boring, reference checks are a key tool in uncovering skeletons. If you are glued to CSI or Patricia Cornell novels, being involved in recruitment is your opportunity to play detective in real life.

Near Misses: According to Tom Yeaton, the recruitment specialist, the core skill in conducting reference checks, is not to rule out lame duck candidates, the type that: “If work was in the bed, they’d sleep on the floor.” It’s actually to separate fairly good from great candidates who will fit with the organisation culture and the particular job on offer. Here’s how you do it:

Reference Checking: Key points:

  1. Contact the candidate’s former line manager.
  2. Identify yourself and the purpose of your call. Explain that you are trying to make a good match between the person and the job.
  3. Ask if the manager is free to talk or if it would be more convenient to call back. Assure the person of the confidentiality of the process.
  4. Be aware of the former manager’s tone of voice and the amount of enthusiasm, conviction or doubt conveyed. Are responses quick and confident, or hesitant and evasive?
  5. Use a standard ‘format’ (but not as a tick-box exercise).


Job Title:
EmployedFrom: To:
Referee: Title:
Relationship to the applicant:
Final Salary:


What can you tell me about ___________________________? (If no adequate answer, move on to number 2).
What were the major assignments/tasks the candidate had when he/she worked with you?
How did he/she do in these assignments?
Tell me something about how others felt about him/her?
What do you feel are his/her strong points?
What do you feel are his/her weaker points/development needs?
Potential/likely future career direction.
What are the circumstances of his/her leaving your company?
Would you rehire?
If relevant/desirable…
Ask prepared questions about technical competence/knowledge.
Describe the job on offer and ask the former manager how he/she thinks the candidate would perform in this.
Verify any information the candidate supplied (resume or interview) which you feel should be checked.

Already Decided: Of course, if you have already made up your mind that you want to hire someone, you will approach the reference checking stage as a ‘nuisance’ exercise that you want to get out of the way as quickly as possible. Don’t. It’s a key step in sourcing great raw material. In 1498, when Michelangelo carved the sculpture La Pietà, he started out with a beautiful piece of marble. When hiring, perhaps you should do the same thing.


PS Lighter Moments: Funny line of the week. A friend who’s single reported on a recent date as follows:“He was a waste of make-up.” 

The Visit: From Larry McGivern (those Firemen are sexist).

After work, unannounced, a man brings his best buddy home for dinner. His wife begins screaming at him as the friend just sits and listens in.

“My hair & makeup are not done, the house is a total mess, the dishes from yesterday are still in the sink, I’m in my pajamas and I can’t be f***ing bothered with cooking tonight for you and your new best friend!”


 “Why the hell did you bring him home anyway?”

Husband: “Because he’s thinking of getting married”

PS Live Longer: Another gem from the irrepressible Aidan Cahill

You are looking great!

You are looking great!

A doctor on his morning walk noticed an elderly lady. She was sitting on her front porch smoking a cigar. He walked up to her and said: “I couldn’t help but notice how happy you look! What’s your secret?”

The lady said: “I smoke ten cigars a day. Then, just before I go to bed I roll a nice big joint. In addition, I drink a full bottle of Jack Daniels every week and maintain a consistent diet of junk food.”

“Wow” (the doctor said)

“That’s not all”, she continued. “On weekends I pop a range of pills, have an energetic sex life but, other than that, I don’t exercise at all.” 

“This is absolutely amazing” the doctor said! “How old are you?” 

“Forty” she replied.

Check our website or call 087 2439019 for an informal discussion about executive or organization development.


About Tandem Consulting

Paul Mooney holds a Ph.D. and a Post-Graduate Diploma in Industrial Sociology from Trinity College, along with a National Diploma in Industrial Relations (NCI). He has a post-Graduate Diploma and a Masters in Coaching from UCD. Paul, a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, is widely recognised as an expert on organisation and individual change. He began his working life as a butcher in Dublin before moving into production management. He subsequently held a number of human resource positions in Ireland and Asia - with General Electric and Sterling Drug. Between 2007 and 2010, Paul held the position of President, National College of Ireland. Paul is currently Managing Partner of Tandem Consulting, a team of senior OD and change specialists. He has run consulting assignments in 20+ countries and is the author of 12 books. Areas of expertise include: • Organisational Development/Change & conflict resolution • Leadership Development/Executive Coaching • Human Resource Management/employee engagement
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