Reference Checks – Morals, Truths & Tools

Truth glass

“ Sue, I’m telling you this in total confidence and if it ever gets out with my name on it, I will never give a reference to you or anyone again. I like [John Doe] very much, we are mates and play sport every few months and our wives lunch together.  

But he is very lazy and really stuffed up the department when we hired him.As a CEO and in charge of a multi-million dollar bottom line, I know the damage that giving a slack mate a good reference can have and I just will not do that to some-else and their business bottom line “

Wow – I nearly fell off my chair listening to this reference 10 years ago from a this highly respected Australian CEO.  He firmly put  business integrity and morality before friendship.  What an amazing lesson that I was privileged to have been given and one that underpinned every single reference check I did from that time on. 

Have you given reference checks for friends who you knew were poor performers, caused trouble or were deceitful?

The senior hiring sham last year at Myer with the ‘fraudulent’ Zara executive was hilarious if not so pathetic and irresponsible. Whilst there are many elements to that  Myer hiring issue, I will  just focus on the reference checking component.  What planet of business stupidity did the people doing the reference checks come from?  Assuming that the people making the calls were not complicit in the deception, it would have to be the biggest reference joke in the country to date (that at least became public).

Digital footprints abound for all people in the business world in some way.  And even in the rare cases of little to zero online information,  there are plenty of networks who know someone who knows someone.  With the wonders of Linked In & Google  everyone can be found somehow who can verify another etc. It’s often referred to as  ‘the word on the ground’  in recruitment terms.

So in the case of the Myer hire,  why didn’t anyone  reference check the referees to confirm they were who they were supposed to be ?   I’m tipping there would not have been a landline number given into a multi-national business HO but just a mobile and personal email address.

Was it  a/ laziness,   b/ lack of maturity,   c/ lack of high end interviewing techniques,   d/ no prior research.    e/ unwillingness to make overseas calls AH ?  Or was it a combination of all 5?   All referees must be checked out prior – it’s not rocket science to do so and especially for senior hires. 

We know that friends give friends  references,  we know there is often some  reward/bribery, we know that fear halts feedback and we know that a large majority of references can be taken with a grain of salt.   So how can you minimise and almost eradicate bulldust and useless  reference checks? Until there is legal legislation that puts the fear of compensation back square on the referee (now there is an idea ?) we need to focus on a few key tips. But the first is to STOP BEING LAZY and do the work that is required efore, during and after reference checks.

Here are some quick top line tips for weeding out referees & undertaking productive reference checks in general :Check out and verify and re-verify again who someone is. Don’t just call a mobile. Check on LinkedIn, business email, call the prior/existing company HO landline to verify their past/current position.   Also ask yourself (if you know the referee) do you respect their opinion?  Even if someone is legitimate their feedback may not be worth much if they have a low professional benchmark and/or are twats themselves.   Credibility and respect of opinion is key also.

  1. The Humour introduction.  Humour is a wonderful opener and neutraliser which can release tension yet set important  expectations clearly.   Remember “you can always catch more flies with honey than with mortein”.   I like to open with something along the lines of “now no one is perfect except Gandhi or myself (self-joke there), so if I hear nothing but 200% gold star feedback about XYZ I know that they have paid you handsomely” .  Or person/situation dependent you can take the same intention but re-frame a little more conservatively – eg. People are humans and all have strengths and flaws – no one is perfect. So I like to be real and human when doing a reference check.   Both techniques give the referee permission to ‘be real’.  And ‘real’ is what is what you are after.

  2. For mid-senior roles DO NOT, repeat DO NOT have a junior or nervous person call a senior manager/CEO and rattle through a long laborious list of repetitive banal questions. Enough said ok.

  3. Human conversation – take a human business mindset. Quality questions with depth and reflection will draw quality answers with same.   Minimise the banal inhuman list of  repetitive questions and get a real 2-way dialogue happening for the most part.  Specifics can be asked of course when appropriate and drilled down as required for verfication.

  4. Enough Rope Technique – ah in the words of Andrew Denton – give them enough rope and sit back. Mind you if you do this really well and the referee is blurting things which border on discrimination you must caution them and stop the process.

  5. Mosaic tools – Often someone’s valid opinion/experience is given through their own prism of bias/fears/relationship etc. So you may get a bad rap from a legit referee but that just means you need to do at least another 2 to verify and put a full mosaic together to ensure overall unbias.

  6. Tone vs Words – yes its quite a good idea to ask the trite question : Would you ever employ / work with XYZ again ?     Not to hear just the actual answer but to listen to the tone, delivery, pausing, inflection, speed etc. This is the gold.

There are many other tools for great human reference checking but it all comes back to the ‘why’ and ‘how’ you go about it. Intention and integrity is crucial. And I still cannot thank enough that brave CEO of 10 years ago for giving me such a wonderful life lesson.



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