Jurgen surprised me in a comment, when he said that only the worst employees provided references. He said he doesn't check references.
I was astonished. I check references each and every time I extend an offer. I check references for people who do work on our house. I check references for people we ask to stay overnight with our children. I check references for people who work on my web site. I don't pay someone without having done a reference check. No, I did not check references for Mark (my husband), but I did ask the people who introduced us what they knew about him.
I was wondering, why is my experience and preference so different than Jurgen's?
Well, I check recent references. I don't check references back to the beginning of time. And, I focus my reference checks on areas that I have concerns about for this job. I don't pay attention to what references say that I think is irrelevant. Years ago, I was checking references for a release engineer, and the previous manager said, “He always wants us to integrate all the time. I think that's because he doesn't want to do his job.” !!!! (For those of you who don't know about software, continuous integration is a key way to reduce risk in the project and shorten the project duration. This guy was doing an outstanding job for a clueless manager.)
When I check references, I use behavior-description questions about the issues I care most about. I usually ask somewhere between 5-7 questions, making sure I can keep the reference check to about a half hour. So I don't ask about everything. I ask about what's most important, and I timebox that time.
Jurgen's point about not holding everything in a person's past against them is a good point. But if they haven't changed behavior, I do want to know that. Read all of Jurgen's post, No, I Will NOT Call Your Ex-Boss.