Is Reference-Checking Training Necessary?

Is there anything to checking a reference? It seems straightforward—just call up and see what the candidate’s last boss thought of him or her. But it’s actually more complicated than that. Most references are references because candidates know—or think they know—the reference will provide positive feedback. A skilled manager with the proper training knows how to ask questions that elicit telling responses.

In addition to knowing ways to draw out negative qualities of the prospective employee, you also have to beware of falsely negative references. “A majority of the references we check are for job candidates who suspect negative feedback from former employers,” Jeff Shane, president of Allison & Taylor Reference Checking, a firm that offers professional reference checking services, noted in a recent news release.

Let’s start with the falsely positive first. The person providing the reference should be able to not only say he loved the former employee, but exactly what about the person he loved. Let’s say you call about job candidate Jane, and the person you contact says: “Oh, yes, Jane, we loved her here—very reliable, very conscientious.” The reference has noted two specific qualities, the person’s reliability and conscientiousness, but also should be able to give examples of how those two qualities played out on the job: “I remember one time, when we had multiple revisions of a project we were working on, with pages of minutia, and Jane stayed late every night for a month, making sure everything in the final version was 100 percent correct.”

The falsely negative reference is harder to detect because you’re already dealing with a liar. If the person providing the reference is willing to lie and say the job candidate was not a good employee when she really was, what else is the reference willing to lie about? I bet quite a bit—maybe even making up negative qualities and accompanying stories. Have you ever experienced a conversation with a reference you suspected of providing an unfair (or patently false) description of a prospective job candidate?

I once worked under a mentally ill manager. I’m smart enough that I did NOT list her as a reference, but I always wondered with dread if, despite that, she ever had a chance to defame me. Her modus operandi for in-house defamation is probably the same as what she would use on the phone with references:

[Delivered in sad voice]

“She does all her work and is dependable, but…”

“Yes?” the person checking references might prod.

“I hate to bring this up, but I just didn’t find her a nice person. I thought she was very disrespectful…”

[Bursting into full-fledged tears]

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to upset you,” the reference checker then might say.

“No, it’s just that she was so mean. For a while, she would make me cry every day. It was just so hard to deal with. It’s hard to describe. It was a subtle cruelty.”

Most reference-checking managers would end the call at this point—and the potential employee’s chances of landing the job. But here’s a better idea of what to do if your sixth sense tells you there’s more to the story, or that the story is an out-and-out lie: Ask the candidate back to your office, or call her up, and let her know what the past manager said. Doing so will do two things. First, it will give the job candidate a fair chance to defend herself, and second, it will alert the person (even if you decide not to hire her) that one of her references, or another former colleague, is providing negative feedback. It is important to do this because it may be illegal in your state to give a negative reference for a past employee. You can damn him or her with faint praise, or simply refuse to serve as a reference, but you usually are not legally permitted to go into negative detail about an employee for whom you agreed to serve as a reference.

If you are not comfortable revealing to the job candidate that one of his references—or someone else you got in touch with, or who got in touch with you—provided negative feedback, ask the job candidate for additional references from the same past employer. You might be shocked to find the opposite story from another manager at the same company, a former peer, or even the boss of the manager who provided the negative feedback.

The workplace is a super-competitive environment in which people are pitted against each other to retain the thing that allows them to earn a living and buy the things they want. In this kind of environment, there are more than a few managers who didn’t root for some of the people they supervised—and continue not to root for them, even after they leave the job.

How do you train managers to conduct accurate reference-checking interviews with past employers? Are there ways to teach managers how to separate truth from fiction? And how do you handle negative feedback for a job candidate who otherwise seems great?