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Wednesday, October 20, 2010

don't check references? here's a horror story for you

This post is for anyone who has ever said or secretly thought that reference-checking is a waste of time.

Not long ago, I had a job candidate on the verge of being hired. He had wowed everyone in the interview and clearly had the skills to the do the job well.

Something was strange about his reference list, though: The references he offered were from several jobs back; his list didn't contain anyone from either of his last two jobs, even though he said his current boss knew he was looking. And one was a former professor, although he'd had several jobs since school. Red flag or someone who just didn't know how to put together a good reference list?

We asked him to put us in touch with two recent managers, and he did. Okay, I thought, his lack of push-back or caveats could be a good sign.

And then we called them.

We found out that he'd been fired for theft and fraud at both of his last two jobs, and even served time in jail for one of those cases.

Imagine if we, like some employers, hadn't bothered to check references at all, or hadn't pushed back to get more relevant and recent ones. More to the point, would your reference-checking practices have kept this from happening to you, or would this guy now be working down the hall from you, defrauding you too?

Check references. And to make that check more valuable, use these tips too:

* Don't limit yourself only to the candidate's list of references. If the candidate has offered peers (or professors or "personal" references) rather than managers, or people who haven't worked with her recently, ask to be put in touch with the specific people you want to talk to.

* Call main switchboard numbers. If you know the reference works at XYZ Company, look up the company's main number online, call that, and ask to be transferred to the person, rather than just calling the direct number you were given. It's not unheard of for candidates to give you a friend's phone number so the friend can pose as the former boss. [Or even to pose as the reference themselves; see the incredible comment from MJB on this post (toward the end of the comments list.]

* Ask the right questions. If you just run through a perfunctory list of questions, you may never get to the most useful information. Rather than asking questions like “Is there anything Joe could improve in?” (to which a lot of references might respond “nothing comes to mind”), ask, “If you had to pick two ways Joe could improve, what would they be?” Also, you can provide options where there's no “bad” choice and ask the reference to select the choice that sounds most like the candidate – for instance, “Some people thrive in fast-paced environments but might err on the side of losing precision, whereas others are incredibly precise but do better when there’s more time to focus on their work. Which sounds more like Joe?” (If you want a list of great questions, here's a really good one from The Management Center.)

References are only a waste of time if you treat them like just an item to check off your list, rather than as a genuinely valuable part of your assessment process.


Anonymous said...

I've been surprised in the past when people have offered me a position without contacting my references. The exact same thought has gone through my mind, like what if I were a serial killer?

That said, it's also not always possible to have your most recent supervisors as references:

* Legality issues. I was laid off from my last job due to business drying up. They gave me a nice severance package & the agreement is neither party disparages the other. So while somebody could contact them (and I know that one person did call the former head of my department for a personal, off the record reference check), legally they've agreed to say nothing.

* Also legal, but aren't most companies these days only able to confirm that X worked here for X amount of time? Because again, there's the potential for legal fallout.

* Finally sometimes you work for jerks and that's why you leave. I was a department manager for an academic organization. I've had excellent ratings/good management relationships in every job before and since working at this place. It was partially a bad fit and also a place that frankly has a nasty organizational culture. I'd trust that particular group of people to give somebody an honest/fair assessment of my work performance and potential about as far as I could throw them. Any references I have for that period of my life are from other department heads I worked with on a variety of projects.

Candy said...

How should you deal with a reference whose basically fallen off the face of the Earth?

I have references from my two most recent positions - multiple managers, long-term positions, pretty solid in my opinion- but I also worked for 2 years for a small business in a different country. The business has apparently shut down and the man who was my boss is AWOL - I can't even find him through LinkedIn or a google search.

I would think it would be fine without him, but I've had many people inquire as to that job (I guess it was intriguing?) and it's weird to say I have no way to contact him.


Anonymous said...

The last company I was with, for 6 months, was a total disaster. We had a very childish VP of HR, who would instruct her staff to walk around at 4pm to check who are at their desks and who aren't. They also check how long people are away for lunch. So I don't include them when it comes to references, since there is no point. The company I am with now, I like the peole, but my boss is a witch. So when it comes to give references, I definitely wouldn't include her.
Prior to those, I worked in a company for 9 years, and had wonderful relationships with a few bosses that I had there, as well as many coworkers. So I mostly give their names as my references. Not sure if this gives redflag to potential employer?

Jamie said...

Grrrr! This suddenly brings back strong violent urges towards my former roommate in graduate school. She always had a friend of hers over, and this (unemployed) friend of hers kept boasting about how the two of them were -so- experienced and talented at faking being each others' references. They had the whole system down -- changing their cellphone voicemail box greetings so that it was the supposed old supervisor's name... grrr. I can't believe people do that! It's just so... reprehensible. I do like the suggestion to call the company's main number though, that's such an obvious solution but one I never would've thought of myself. Eek! I did laugh a little at the self-reference though. ;D

Amewsing Mews and Views said...

I agree with AAM. A prudent hiring mgr would do a thorough reference check. There's google as well. When I was researching a potential employer prior to an interview, I did what a lot of job candidates do finding out about the organization. I googled it. I discovered that the 2 employees at that workplace were convicted for fraud 6 months prior, were awaiting a sentencing hearing, and one of them had been the director of HR! And what about a criminal background check on job candidates? Isn't that standard for most organizations these days?

George A Guajardo said...

Given some of these anecdotes, I am not so sure I see much value in reference checking. The best-case scenario is that the selection agent discovers criminal activity that disqualifies the candidate. Of course, that information should already be uncovered by a background check focusing on criminal activity, so the references are redundant.

In the majority of cases we get very little information, as employers are afraid of litigation. However, in those cases that we do obtain information we have to integrate it into the selection decision. Why is the information provided? Did the informant have an agenda, was their information accurate and does the information generalize to a new work environment?

That's a lot of decisions to make and a lot of speculation. Why not stick to an objective personnel selection system where math makes the tough choices for you?

Kara said...

As AAM has written many times in the past, it's not illegal for companies to give honest references and most employers do. I check references religiously on candidates and it's very rare to find someone who won't talk to me. I don't know why any manager would pass up the chance to hear the prospective of a manager who had worked with this candidate before in the past.

Anonymous said...

Hey, Anonymous #2- maybe we worked for the same employer! I also worked for a VP of HR who would check, every day at 4pm, who was at their desks and who wasn't, as well as timed everyone's lunches. I was also there for less than a year. I wouldn't include her as a reference, either!

Anonymous said...

We had a candidate once who included recent managers in their list of references and when we called, found out that he had been fired for stealing.

What does one do when the person who has worked the closest with me, my previous manager, has retired? He now spends his time traveling and would not be easy to reach but he is probably the one who knows me best work-wise.

Ellie said...

I used to work with these two guys (my supervisors!) who bragged about using each other as references. They literally made up a business name, and posed as each other's former manager from that "busienss" when potential new employers would call to check references. So I guess not only were they fabricating references, they were inventing an employment history that they didn't really have. Soooo sketchy....

Anonymous said...

Is there a way to find out what past employers are saying about you when called for references? There was a company I left on not the most favorable of terms, and if reference-checkers are going to be so resourceful about finding people to talk to, I'm curious to know what's being said.

Joey said...

And this is a horror story why? If you've done a lot of recruiting and reference checking you're bound to come across a thief every so often. I'm actually glad to occassionally see situations like these. It reminds you of the importance of a good process. Now if you hired him before finishing your reference checks that would be a horror story.

KellyK said...

I'm really curious about George Guajardo's comment about objective personnel systems. How does all the information relevant to hiring someone get quantified? And does it require you to discard anything subjective and unquantifiable, even when it can be useful?

The fact that references provide highly subjective information is important to note, but I'm not sure that means they provide nothing of use.

Also, I'm surprised that a criminal record check didn't turn up anything on this guy (or maybe wasn't done), but not everyone who is fired for theft or fraud will actually end up with a criminal record. The comapany may decide not to press charges to avoid publicity issues, or it may be little things. If someone is fired for taking a 20 out of a coworker's desk, that might never go to court, but it's still a huge red flag against hiring them.

(I hope this doesn't sound like a criticism of objective personnel systems. I don't know enough about them to have an opinion either way, so it's all curiosity, with a concern or two.)

KellyK said...

I really like the idea of asking questions with no "wrong" answers. When I've been a reference for coworkers, I've found it really hard to comment on areas in which they need improvement. With really good coworkers, just coming up with them is tough, but even when you can think of something, there's a delicate balance of being straight-forward without overstating or raising red flags.

If you have to pick something, it doesn't create the impression that you're harming this person's chances, because the other candidates' references are being asked the same question.

I particularly like the question that has you pick between two types, because it's less about how objecitvely "good" or "bad" an employee the person is and much more about how well they'd fit in a particular environment.

Anonymous said...

Just curious. If I am currently looking for a job while I am employed and my boss doesn't know about it, does it look terrible that he is not listed as a reference? I'm fairly certain that if he found out I was hunting, I would be fired, and I can't afford to make ends meet until I find something new.

Franny said...

I always check references, and I always make the candidate give me references who'll talk to me - not HR. It's a good test of their resourcefulness, relationship skills, and how serious they are about the job.
I also do all the sleuthing mentioned. I kinda love it, frankly.

One thing though - don't assume that a recruiter/staffing company is REALLY checking references. We once had a well known executive staffing company find us an exec assistant for our company founder/CEO. They did a reference write up on prime candidate - it was was bland but showed no major issues. We hired her, she was there for three years. Then as part of a company sweep, we did background checks on everyone - and she had been on probation for fifteen years for embezzling.
Staffing company said that they "may have forgotten" to run the background check. We followed up on the references they provided and none had been called. They were fired, she was fired, forensic accountants were called in.

What a waste.

Anonymous said...

My question to those who have found out through references that their candidate was fired due to theft, etc.: Don't you do background checks that would bring up a criminal record if one exists?

Anonymous said...

My understanding is that here in California, you can only legally ask a few questions of references, basically confirming that the person actually worked there for the time period they claim to have. i *think* you can ask if they are rehireable, but even that is kind of sketchy legally, and if they say no you can't ask why. So in some ways, reference checks aren't terribly useful. In all of my job hunts i've only had references called once, when i applied at a temp agency. Otherwise the list seems pretty much ignored, if asked for at all.

Anonymous said...

Just bc you're fired for theft doesn't mean there's going to be a corresponding conviction. Most employers may not want to prosecute for small amounts, the DA may not prosecute for whatever reason, and if the person fights the charge it may take a long time for the court thing to play out. And not every local conviction gets reported to a central location.

Ask a Manager said...

About references who you can't track down: I'd simply explain the situation to the employer. Unless you're claiming that ALL your past managers have fallen off the face of the earth, they should understand. But for references who have just retired (as opposed to becoming unfindable), it's good to stay in touch for this reason.

Jamie and Ellie: At some point, I have to think they're going to get caught. At least I hope they are.

Criminal background checks: As a couple of people have pointed out, there are a lot of cases where the employee would just be fired but the employer wouldn't pursue charges, so a criminal background check wouldn't bring that up. Also, there are a lot of employers who don't generally run criminal background checks at all, unless they work with kids or other vulnerable populations.

About finding out what employers are saying about you: There are actually services you can hire to check this out for you, but there's also no reason you can't have a friend simply place that call. (I once checked my cousin's references when he was worried; turned out to be fine.)

George, I think reference-checking is hugely valuable. It's also not just about black and white stuff (did he steal or didn't he), but about learning more nuanced information, about what kind of management a candidate works best with, where they might need additional support, etc. One of the questions that has provided great info for me over the years is "what advice can you give me about the best way to manage this person?"

KellyK, I don't think it's all quantifiable at all, and I'm suspicious of hiring processes that insist on practices predicated on the idea that it is (like sticking to a set list of questions and never deviating from it so that you can ensure all candidates are treated the same -- something that is surely rooted in fears of litigation, but which takes the feet out from under any good, in-depth hiring process).

Anonymous at 10:36 - It's completely normal not to offer your current boss as a reference. More info on that is here:

Anonymous at 12:07: California law does NOT prohibit employers from giving detailed references, as long as the reference is truthful. (See, for example, This is a myth that a lot of people believe, for some reason, but it's not true.

And about having had a crazy boss in the past who you wouldn't trust to give you an accurate reference: This post may help:

KT said...

What's the thing to do when you're leaving your current job *because* of your manager? I've tried to make sure to include a colleague and someone in my management chain, like my manager's boss, and crossed my fingers that that's good enough. . . does anyone have a better strategy?

JC said...

I don't understand why employers wouldn't check references. An employee obviously wouldn't say in an interview "I was fired for theft" or "I came in work late everyday, fought with all my co-workers, and left early." People can say just about anything these days. That's why references and background checks are so important. Not to mention the fact an employer wants to know if you can do the job and references provide good information about your skills, personality, and work ethic. For the job I am applying for, they are now checking all my references and doing a background check. I won't hear back if I got the job for sure until I've "passed."

I also don't understand why people would fake their references - perhaps I am just too ethical and honest to wrap my head around that practice. It sends a red flag to me that they are terrible workers and have something major to hide. I hope those people get caught and called out...and I'm sure somewhere down the line they will be.

It's also unfortunate to see people steal from their jobs. They always pay the price and their reputation in the workforce is tarnished forever. Having a toxic work environment or a bad reference on your record is one thing, but having a criminal background marks you for a long time. Overall, I find it's scary what people think they can get away with nowadays.

Teresa said...

An employment verification is very different than a reference check. When verifying employment, managers or HR Administrators are only allowed to provide the dates of employment, job title, etc. A professional reference, however, expects to field different types of questions, they should be notified that they will be a reference and be willing to participate. By requesting recent references, or requiring it, it becomes something more like an employment verification.

You might want to be wary doing this, however, if the candidate freely provides them they would have little or no legal recourse if the boundaries were pushed.

Ask a Manager said...

Teresa, why do you say "By requesting recent references, or requiring it, it becomes something more like an employment verification"?

Anonymous said...

Franny writes: "It's a good test of their resourcefulness, relationship skills, and how serious they are about the job."
This opinion really angers me. I've had bosses in the past who were prohibited by company policy from giving references; all the places I've worked for are of the "no one can give a reference except HR who will verify employment". It's horribly unfair to say that candidates can somehow work around this policy if they "really" wanted the job. I've been in this situation before; the new company demands in-depth personal references from former supervisors. Said supervisors will _lose their own job_ if they give the desired reference. I have begged and pleaded with former bosses saying "if you don't give me a reference I won't be considered for this new job" and their hands are tied. My old company even had an all-manager meeting to restate their policies of no references, even no personal compliments on Facebook, or managers would be terminated. How is a candidate supposed to "work around" that?

Anonymous said...

You're going to miss out on a lot of good people if you assume that everyone who excludes recent managers as references is a criminal or otherwise low character.

Anonymous said...

I ONLY give out my references personal cell phone numbers. The only work phone number potential employers get is for HR. Why? Out of respect for my references.

Providing a work phone would imply that their employer (who is not always my previous employer--a lot of my references have moved on to new jobs too) endorses the reference. And they do not. Worse, it imposes on that company the burden of unproductive time providing a reference for me.

I guess if an employer like AAM wants to assume that my choice to be respectful of other people's time puts me in the same camp as this guy who is a criminal....I'm okay with that. I'll take the high road.

Anonymous said...

I worked for a company once where I supervised three employees. The company didn't include me in the interview process for a new employee that I would be responsible for supervising. They came to me with a copy of her resume after they make her an offer and said they were hiring her.

My gut said something wasn't right. On her resume she listed a designation she had obtained. I called the organization and they couldn't find anywhere in their records where she had taken a class with her much less obtained the designation! I went to the head of the HR Department and asked if they had checked her references and they said they had. When I brought what I had found to their attention, I got into trouble for this.

The whole company was in a tizzy about having made her an offer of employment and was wondering how they could take back their offer. My recommendation was that they ask her for a copy of the certificate where she had been awarded the designation she said she had. When she couldn't provide them with proof, she declined the offer of employment.

Needless to say, I didn't stay at that company much longer.

Anonymous said...

This shows exactly why calling references most of the time is a waste though. The guy put on his list people he knew would say good things about him. If you want to do some detective work and call people not on the list that's fine, but think about it, who do you put on your own reference list, would they ever say anything bad about you? Of course not, why would you put them down if they would.

Anonymous said...

This shows exactly why calling references most of the time is a waste though. The guy put on his list people he knew would say good things about him. If you want to do some detective work and call people not on the list that's fine, but think about it, who do you put on your own reference list, would they ever say anything bad about you? Of course not, why would you put them down if they would.

Anonymous said...

Having been a former supervisor I agree references can be important but they don't always tell the whole story. My thought would be do the criminal, drug and employer verification check (I would always call the company directly) & if nothing shows up there then you have to use your best judgment. The reason they don't tell the whole story is because of situations I now find myself in now...

I was told years ago that it was best to keep your work & home seperate so I rarely had contact with fellow employees especially after leaving a company. In my early years in the workforce I had some ugly family drama I wanted as few people to know about as possible and in more recent years several direct family members with life threatning medical conditions that with the exception of this last year I had mangaged to limit my impact on work. Needless to say I have few references to start with.

It is a double edged sword. If they had known what was going on they may have better understood why my performance dropped at various times but they also could have also used it against me in the "she always has problems" in a reference request call.

Now I am back searching for work & my most recent reference is 7 yrs old and I know it is hurting me. I'm also an older worker who's best references have either passed away or are intermittently not avaliable due to being retired & traveling frequently.

I am starting my own buiniess so I can work around the family issues but it will take time to get it off the ground so I still need a "day" job. I am hoping that the fact I was at my last job for 3 years will work to my advantage but I dread if they call them as it was not pretty in the last 18 months after a management change made the work enviroment almost unbearable so who knows what they will say.

Suz said...

My husband has a good story about why it's important to check references. The state we live in requires that people in his field be licensed. His boss hired someone and didn't check her references. After she was already working for them, he found out that not only wasn't she licensed, she wasn't even eligible to take the exam. When they terminated her, she sued them. She didn't win the lawsuit but it the mistake cost them a lot of $$.

Anonymous said...

I made the mistake of hiring two employees who did not give me supervisor references. They gave me co-worker and personal references. Both said that they lost touch with their past supervisors. Both turned out to be awful hires who ended up creating such an awful work environment for me as their supervisor that I moved on to another position. They colluded to have the supervisor after me fired! It took three years before they were both fired for insubordination by their next supervisor. Once you let in a bad hire, they can ruin you, your department, and your organization. Get a reference from a supervisor (and one who is NOT a relative)every time -- no excuses! If they can't give you a supervisor as a reference, don't hire them.

interestingly average said...

One interesting situation I came across when I was checking resumes was organized false references - "Employment firms" that create fake businesses or buy out of business companies, then sell those companies to clients to create false references. THis is one of the packages such a company offered:

"This includes everything in Package #1, a personalized company name, phone number, address from one of our established virtual companies. PLUS A PAST MANAGER WHO WORKED AT THE COMPANY WHO WAS YOUR DIRECT SUPERVISOR. This offers a little extra "coverage" for your fake reference. We recommend this package for professional careers or those applying for jobs with large companies. This package is 1 job history for 3 months and unlimited calls from potential employers. It's a little extra protection for you and we offer it for the low price of "

I have found multiple companies that offer services like this, I suppose if there is a market for it someone will do it. But so far, I haven't really seen much acknowledgment that these firms exist, or ways for prospective employers to detect these backstopped false references.

Anonymous said...

"I was a department manager for an academic organization. I've had excellent ratings/good management relationships in every job before and since working at this place. It was partially a bad fit and also a place that frankly has a nasty organizational culture. I'd trust that particular group of people to give somebody an honest/fair assessment of my work performance and potential about as far as I could throw them."

I have had the same experience at a DOE national laboratory. The culture of business entities that are run by PhD's are expecially challenging for those of us with private-sector or even government experience. The only thing that matters in those organizations is that you fit in with everyone else, don't challenge them, don't overachieve, and don't make any decisions that are not reached by overly broad consensus. It is no mystery why Universities and national laboratories are places where your money goes to die. Hiring manager's need to be especially aware of this possibility. If you are hiring for a for-profit entity, make sure you are getting references from another for-profit organization.

Anonymous said...

I don't remember how it came out, but a guy I know somehow found out that one of his employees had been in jail, so he asked why...
Employee: importing pharmaceuticals into New Zealand without a licence.
Boss: ok... what pharmaceuticals?
Employee: heroin.
Boss: right, so you were smuggling heroin into the country?
Employee: ahh, yeah, pretty much.

Anonymous said...

As a displaced homemaker, "recent housewife," let me tell you that if every place I applied for a job did that to me, harassed me for recent employers they could call even after reading that fact on my resume, I would sue them for gender discrimination because that's what that is. It would be discrimination against anyone who hadn't worked recently and that's thousands of women. Women mainly, not men. Men tend not to be stay-at-home's. Your assumption that anyone who doesn't willingly give recent employment references must be a serial killer - also constitutes discrimination if the person you're looking at is a woman. You don't want to make a potential hiring mistake - what you'd apparently rather do is risk a gender discrimination lawsuit. Fine by me.

Ask a Manager said...

Um, what? It was on this guy's resume that he'd had more recent employers, and I asked to speak with those specifically. In your case, your resume would make it clear that you didn't have recent employers, so the idea of insisting on speaking with someone recent wouldn't make any sense. The point is that if someone has had recent jobs, but gives you long-ago references, that's something to probe.

I'm baffled by your comment.

Jamie said...

So many businesses seem to be under the impression that it's illegal to give more than dates of employment, titles, and salaries on a reference check. I've worked in a couple places where this was company policy and the only info HR would give.

Fortunately most (good) hiring managers will talk to managers who will be more forthcoming - but I think it's interesting that this myth persists in so many HR departments.

I know there's fear of lawsuits for bad references, but I don't see the downside of neutral or positive comments. That way if you only got name rank and serial number from HR you'd know it was a red flag. But this misinformation seems so pervasive. Maybe AAM can add educating HR about this to her advice giving van and megaphone tour!