I Check References Each and Every Time I Extend An Offer

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.

12 Replies to “I Check References Each and Every Time I Extend An Offer”

  1. Pingback: Arjan`s World » LINKBLOG for December 7, 2008
  2. Interesting. I seem to straddle the line between both of you. I don’t usually talk to people’s previous bosses (because what can be released is sometimes limited legally here in the states and I don’t want to put someone in a bind and don’t want to have to read between the lines), but I definitely ask for and call character references.

    One time I did this that’s of note (This was in a consulting, not a W-2 environment … may not be legal in the US in a W-2 environment), I was taking a huge gamble on someone’s ability to deliver. The guy was gung-ho like a Marine, had a great pitch, and seemed organized and ‘together’… but it was still a huge gamble, and my spidey senses wanted more information. I asked him for two references: 1) someone he’d lived with even if a relative, 2) someone he’d worked along side on a consulting gig in the past, and 3) someone that knew him well but wasn’t inclined to be charitable towards him.

    The picture that all three people drew for me was essential to the success of the project. They basically said that the contractor I was considering was a bit messy and had a tendency to get lost down the wrong path, and that he could be stubborn and argumentative when he felt he was right. (Actually, there was a lot more color to the way that was put, but I’m trying to keep it Safe For Work…) I put development process controls in place to watch and manage these aspects of the consultant’s personality, and the gamble paid off handsomely for both of us. Without the information gleaned from references in all three categories, the project would’ve been derailed by flaws in both his and my personalities.

  3. I think the difference in approach to checking references has its source with past experience. For me the change of approach was when I hired engineer who exceled on interview but his character was toxic. If I had checked his former employers I wouldn’t have hired him.

    As far as you make good recruitment decisions without checkign references you think you don’t need them.

    However I agree with Jurgen in one point. You should always treat references with a distance. Until referencing person is someone I trust I won’t ascribe the reference full credibility.

  4. Wow, you really do check references. I have worked in a black world for almost 30 years. I suppose we check references in here, and in the past I have asked people what they knew about a person I was considering working with.

    I stopped doing that when I found that most of the answers I got to “What do you know about so-and-so” were absolutely wrong. People were pinned with labels that were wrong 99% of the time. I lost track of the number of people who were labeled as “stupid” “lazy” “no good” who then worked out great working with me.

  5. I think the issue with references, is that they are generally one of the last parts of the process. Meaning, by the time you get references, you have basically ‘decided’ to hire this person. Therefore, I think that a lot of people do a ‘best effort’ or even use the references as a ‘signaling event’ (meaning if they can come up with good references, that is good enough).

    will at virtualjobcoach dot com

  6. I think calling is sensible, but more out of an obligation that valuable info might be offered, than a real confidence it is going to be helpful. I find that they rarely are. Therefore I can certainly understand not wanting to call. I find the whole hiring process far too ineffective.

    So, I believe in checking references just in case they provide some light into the challenging but critically important area of hiring employees.

  7. Dwayne, I don’t put a lot of stock into labels and evaluations given by references, but I LOVE the sorts of behavior descriptions that Johanna recommends asking about. I think that makes all the difference in the world.

  8. A lot of employers are advised to say almost nothing in any references they provide, to avoid litigation from the ex-employee. They simply confirm that the person worked for them over the period specified.

    I also know that in some occupations it is common to provide good references for bad employees, simply to make sure you get rid of them (this is in the UK, where firing bad employees isn’t very easy).

    Either way, the value of references is dubious…

  9. References without context are hard to process. Bottom-line your dream answer would be an honest reply to “Would you work with this person again, why or why not?”

    1) As others mentioned – I usually won’t know the person giving the reference. I kind of need a reference on them.

    2) A lot of references are worried about saying something they shouldn’t for whatever reason. This makes them give up very little info.

    One of my most interesting experiences was when I got an reference in email and also a “backdoor reference” from people who had all worked with the candidate at the same time. Given the backdoor reference I could read between the lines of the written reference and the information matched – But if I hadn’t had the backdoor reference the written reference would have essentially be a bland unhelpful bunch of info. The backdoor reference enabled me to decode the other one.

    Tough any way you look at it.

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