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Reference Checking

Q. When hiring, do you think it is useful to check references?

  • We do think that checking references is a critical step in the hiring process. However, it’s important to be savvy when doing this. We’ll share one of our experiences to explain our thinking.

We were hiring a bookkeeper for a small business. One of our candidates was very qualified. We will call her Nancy. Nancy had worked for several small businesses in her career. She had experience with the trades. This was particularly important to our client. Nancy interviewed well and was extremely enthusiastic. If anything, we warned the employer that she might be a bit too animated—something we don’t normally witness when hiring bookkeepers. The owner liked her. He wanted to make an offer if Nancy’s background and references were good.

Nancy supplied references from two former employers and a personal/character reference. However, we also personally knew another of her former employers. One listed on her resume but not offered as a reference. We received a signed waiver from Nancy that allowed us to check her criminal background, her references and speak with her former employers.

First, we reached out to one of the references on Nancy’s list. This was the wife of the owner of the company. The wife had worked in the office with Nancy. Our candidate received a glowing report from the reference. She was sorry that Nancy had left the firm. She said Nancy had been an asset.

Next, we reached out to our contact; the former employer we knew, but that Nancy had not listed as a reference. The report from this business owner was completely different. This former employer said they had terminated Nancy and would not hire her back. While they declined to go into explicit detail, he warned us about the level of “drama” Nancy had brought to their office. He even implied that there were other improprieties, but refused to give details.

We called our client. He listened to the information we received from both former employers. We told him that we thought he should consider one of the other candidates or keep looking. Our client had another idea, he asked us to call Nancy’s most recent employer—the other employer Nancy had listed as a reference.

When we called, we found that the reference listed was not the owner. Instead, it was the candidate’s direct supervisor—the son of the owner. He told us that they were going to miss their former employee very much. Unfortunately, they were changing the bookkeeping position from full-time to part-time and our candidate needed more hours. This matched the reason Nancy gave for leaving her current employer. The owner’s son said Nancy had been a great employee and the best bookkeeper their company had ever had. We questioned him about Nancy’s behavior and personality. He told us there were no issues.

We went back to our client and gave him the latest update. Despite our continued warnings, our client decided to make the candidate an offer. Nancy accepted and started a week later.

Nancy’s employment lasted less than 30 days. During that time, the new bookkeeper missed at least one day each week for various excuses. Through her innumerable discussions with teammates, she helped to cause these other employees to become much less satisfied with their positions and their current employer. She caused big drama in this small organization in a very short time.

The most curious outcome was when we found that our second-place candidate had taken Nancy’s job with her previous employer. It turned out to be a full-time bookkeeping position.

What can we learn from the tale of Nancy the bookkeeper?

First, when checking references, you need to go beyond those provided by the applicant. You can count on candidate-provided references to be glowing. Most candidates are bright enough to give you names of people who will say positive things about them. If you ever get a candidate-provided reference that isn’t you should run as fast as possible from this hire.

Next, when checking references, if possible, verify that the number you are calling belongs to a real company and the company is the one you believe you are calling. Also, verify that the person you are calling actually works for that company. While this wasn’t an issue with Nancy, we have had candidates who provide names and numbers for people who will say they are previous employers—who are not. We are sure you would not be surprised to learn that there are businesses whose sole purpose is to provide candidates with fake references. Look up names on LinkedIn. Look up numbers and names on Google rather than calling the numbers provided by the candidate. It doesn’t take a lot of time for more security.

Finally, if you get someone who is willing to talk to you openly about a former employee, listen carefully. If you hear negative information, give it considerable weight. Dig deeper to get specific examples of the bad behavior. Most people will follow their mother’s advice, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” Therefore, if you find someone who is willing to be candid, pay very close attention.

Hiring isn’t an exact science. You will get it wrong from time to time. However, thorough reference checks can be helpful, if you are willing to listen.

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