Not All Reference Checks Say Good Things – 54% Have Received Bad References

I was recently facilitating our, You’re NOT The Person I Hired, workshop with CEOs and key executives. As is often the case, the subject of reference checking came up. Most in the audience tended to agree that checking references is a waste of time. After all, candidates only give references they are sure will say positive things about them. Don’t you agree?

Then a CFO sitting in the back raised his hand to disagree. He told the story of a controller he was about to hire near the border in Texas. This was a difficult position to fill as there were a lot of specific requirements. Finally, after an arduous search he found his person. She had all of the qualifications and most importantly he really like her. The final step was to conduct a few reference checks. She handed him a list of 30 references. WOW he thought, this person really has a lot of people willing to vouch for her.  Then he picked 5 of them and started calling. The first call was to a former boss. He introduced himself and explained that he was calling to conduct a reference check on Mary. The line went silent. The pause was so long that he thought they were disconnected and asked if the reference was still on the line. The reference replied yes and then stated, “Mary gave me as reference? I can’t believe it. We fired her because she stole from us. She did pay us back but she stole from us.” Now there was silence from him. He didn’t know what to say or how to respond.

This is just one of many examples of what can happen on a reference check and why you should always perform your due diligence. Granted, this may only happen once in your career, but in this case the once may have saved the company thousands if she has stolen again.

I have conducted thousands of reference checks in my 30 year career as an executive recruiter. I have learned that more often than not someone will give me a reference they expect to be positive and it turns negative. It is for this reason that I always check references. Like the CFO in this example, it has saved me from making some big mistakes. It only takes one bad reference to realize that catching that one person was worth all the others.

If you have stories or experiences regarding strange things that have happened when you have conducted a reference check I would love to hear about them and share them with others. Please take a moment to tell others your story.

I conducted a poll on LinkedIn in which 54% replied that they have had people give them a negative reference. This goes to show that even though the person giving the reference expects a positive reference they often don't get one

Join the other 10,000 CEOs, key executives and HR professionals and download a FREE copy of our best-selling book, You’re NOT The Person I Hired. Just CLICK HERE  and under the FREE Hiring Resources section you can download our free eBook.

Retaining your best talent is always the best thing any company can do. Download our FREE Non-Monetary Rewards and Recognitions Matrix. It will help you retain your best people without additional compensation. CLICK HERE to download under the Free Resources section.

I welcome your thoughts and comments.



Is Reference Checking Worthwhile?

Q. What do you recommend when it comes to checking references and is it even worth the effort?

Reference checking when done correctly can be very powerful. I believe the problem isn't with checking references, but rather how the reference check is performed.

Most reference checking is more of a box checking exercise than what it really should be, which is validating that the candidate really did what they told you in the interview. That should be the focus of a reference check.

Good reference checking starts with good interviewing. Train your people to ask for examples in the interview. Probe deeply into those examples to get time frames, budget, size, issues they overcame, problems they solved, why they did X instead of Y and so on.  Then instead of asking the standard box checking questions everyone asks, change the reference check. Ask the reference, “During the interview, Mary indicated she did X, can you tell me more about what her role was and some of the more difficult issues she had to overcome?” Does the reference's story validate what the candidate told you or is it something different? Was the candidate accurate or did they embellish? When references are done properly they can provide a wealth of valuable information.

Retaining your best talent is always the best thing any company can do. Download our FREE  Non-Monetary Rewards and Recognitions Matrix. It will help you retain your best people without additional compensation. CLICK HERE to download under the Free Resources section.

Join the other 10,000 CEOs, key executives and HR professionals and download a FREE copy of our best-selling book, “You're NOT The Person I Hired.”  Just CLICK HERE for your FREE eBook.

I welcome your comments and feedback.

Brad Remillard


Changing How You Check References

Q. Is checking a candidate’s references worth the effort since most companies won’t give references anyway?

I conduct reference checks on every candidate I represent for one of our searches. I believe this is part of the due diligence process prior to hiring someone. Top talent have references and can always provide someone either currently in the company or that has left the company. I discovered long ago that CEOs violate their own policy on references for top performers. They will never do it for anyone else.

It is important to inform the candidate at the beginning of the hiring process that references will be required. Too often companies wait until the end of the process before asking for references. Letting the candidate know that this is not a request, but a requirement up front is critical to getting proper references.

The common belief that candidates will only give you references they know will say positive things, isn’t always true. Often it is not what the reference says, but how they say it that counts.

In our search practice it is our policy that if a candidate can only provide references that will only provide name, rank and serial number that is code for walk away. Top talent have references.

Join the other 10,000 CEO's, key executives, and HR professionals who have downloaded a FREE copy of our best selling book, “You're NOT The Person I Hired.” Just CLICK HERE for your FREE ebook.

Want to assess your hiring process? Download our FREE 8-Point Hiring Methodology Assessment Scorecard. How does your company rank on these critical points? CLICK HERE to download.

I welcome your thoughts and feedback. If you liked this article and found it helpful, please forward it to others.

Brad Remillard

The Real Purpose for Checking References

In just about every in-house company workshop we conduct on hiring, ( See our University for workshops), sooner or later the topic of reference checking comes up. Usually someone will ask, “Isn’t reference checking a waste of time? After all, the person is only going to give you  someone that will say positive things.”  As with many hiring managers today they are checking references the same way they have been for the last 50 years.

This comment is valid if you are going to do the standard reference check. You know, the one that asks the same questions Moses asked when he checked references. Such as:

  • Would you rehire them?
  • Do they communicate well?
  • What are their strengths and weaknesses?
  • What are their technical skills?
  • How would you compare them on a scale of 1 to 10 to their peers?

I’m sure you have different questions to ask, so please don’t reply to me with your favorite reference checking questions as that isn’t the purpose of this article.  That may be another article for discussion.

This one is on the purpose for checking references, not the questions to ask. Why even conduct a reference check if the question in the first paragraph is valid? Why take the time since you know what the person is going to say?

Our contention is that the list of reference checking questions above are nice things to know, and these are not bad questions, but they don’t get to the heart of why one should conduct reference checks. Here’s why you should check references, “What percentage of candidates do you believe embellish or exaggerate during the hiring process?” If you immediately thought of a number higher than 10% then that is the reason for doing reference checking.

Reference checking should be used to validate that what the candidate told you during the interview was something they really did do and that they did it to the extent they described during the interview. That is what you want to obtain from a reference, because if  the candidate is embellishing or misleading, all the other questions are irrelevant. You should not hire them. If they aren’t embellishing or misleading, then the other questions become relevant.

Reference checking is part of the validation step of a good hiring process (such as our Success Factor Methodology). Hiring managers need to validate that what candidates tell them during the interview is true. One way to do this is by talking to a reference and asking them about what the candidate told you during the interview. You can ask the reference, “Mary mentioned to me that she was the lead person implementing the new system in North America. Can you describe for me her role and what she accomplished in this implementation?” Does the reference’s story match up to what the candidate said? Do the time frames agree? Does the reference validate the outcome, the scope of the project, the scope of what Mary did, the budget, the challenges, etc?

If it does, Mary didn’t embellish. If it doesn’t, then you have a decision to make.

You can obtain from our Web site our “8 Point Validation Reference  Checking Matrix” to use the next time you or someone on your team needs to check a reference.

I welcome your thoughts and comments.

Brad Remillard