Prepare Your References

Tips on When Employment Reference Checks Make Sense

I recently read an interesting article Dr. John Sullivan posted on ERE.Net. The article, entitled “What’s Wrong with Reference Checks, Part One,” says in essence that reference checks tend to suck. His take on employment reference checks may be a little harsh but not entirely inaccurate. But then, like most things, the devil is in the details.

Dr. Sullivan lists certain potential discrepancies concerning reference checks and how they can be problematic or not return worthwhile information. Unlike criminal records searches, which just about every employer uses as part of their employment screening program, reference checks are not so absolute as a criminal records background check. There are gray areas and as Dr. Sullivan contests, the reference checks are subject to biases. Unlike criminal background checks, references are subjective.

For the most part, no one provides you with a bad reference. The reference usually views the employment candidate in a favorable light. However, I would also venture there are some dramatic exceptions. I remember one time where when asked about the candidate’s departure, the reference responded, “Because nobody around here could stand him.” If nothing else, the candidate either chooses that reference in desperation or is a bad judge of character. But I digress.

But assuming that the reference will be partial toward the candidate, there is a fair amount of information you can learn from a reference check. In our experience, it seems the higher you go on the ladder, the more specific and the more useful the reference information. I find that C level and executive level business people are the most articulate in describing skill sets, relationships, performance assessment than references on the lower echelon. They seem better acquainted with the drill and better understanding just what the reference researcher is looking for.

I also find that references on the upper job levels are quicker to get back to you than those in the lower employment positions. When you call a senior executive, and they know that you are calling on a reference, they are more apt to take your call or get back to you quickly than someone on a more junior level. They understand the heavy competition in the job market, especially at their levels, and they will move to help out a friend or associate. This may be akin to the old saying, “if you want something done correctly, asks a busy person.”

For certain clients I will personally conduct references for the more significant employment positions. I am more familiar with these people and know what to ask and how best to feel my way through their answers to discern the truth from their desire to get a buddy hired. I also interview references for creative. Having worked in advertising and show business, I understand these spaces and what is required in skill sets and disposition. In knowing what are client is looking or, I can direct questions to certain qualities–is the writer good with dialog and character? Is the artist fluent with digital media, print, whatever?

On the other hand, the most painful experience is dealing with the semi-articulate, usually junior staff, which may yield very little useful information. And then there is the academics candidates use as references. With younger job recruits, sometimes they will list their professors with whom they had taken classes or had been their mentors. Frankly, listening to some of the professors can be a painful experience. With academics, not only is the reference often less than hoped for, but too often the professor can take forever to spit out what most can express rather quickly. No wonder I used to cut a good number of my college classes.