One of my readers for Hiring Geeks That Fit gave me feedback that I should tell people to email references. She said that calling references was outdated.
Well, maybe it is. But it really depends on the kind of person you are. If you are an introvert, you might want to email references. If you are an extrovert, you might to call references. But here's the problem. If you want to get a better, off-the-cuff reference, call.
People say things in a phone call they will not write in an email. You are much likely to hear cultural fit issues over the phone than you will in an email. And, if you have that funny feeling in the pit of your stomach, where you just can't tell if the candidate is right and you want to check that feeling out in a reference? Make a phone call.
With a phone call, you'll hear things you won't read in an email. Read this article, Do you know what your references will say? True quotes from reference checks. (I found this article from William Tincup, @williamtincup, if you want to follow him on Twitter. Warning, he tweets a lot!) You might say, “Well, only extroverts would talk like that and we don't have so many in technical positions.”
You would be wrong on both counts. If you get an introvert sufficiently riled up, an introvert will talk like that. And, there are plenty of extroverts in technical positions. They just aren't all as extroverted as I am. Extroverts prefer to talk things over first in order to think. Introverts prefer to think things over first in order to think. Can either one do the other? Yes. It's a question of preference.
So, what do you do? Decide for yourself. I still think calling references is a great idea. On the other hand, if you are many time zones away from the references, and you think the candidate is great, email the references. It's a risk, but maybe it's a small risk.
Whatever you do, don't ignore the references. That's too big a risk, unless you already know the candidate. Because when it comes to checking cultural fit, your reference check can be one of your most valuable checks.