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Importance of doing reference checks; instructive example.

Yvonne LaRose, CAC

There are some theories in the search industry that advocate disregarding reference checks. The argument is something to the effect that it's totally useless because a sensible candidate will not supply the names and phone numbers of people who will not say positive things about their performance -- even if they left under the most undesirable of circumstances.

Still another theory is that references are useless because defamation laws are now structured in such a way that a former employer will only give dates of employment, job title, and salary. If they say anything more, there could be negative repercussions.

We take a different view on references. Retained search firms guarantee the candidates they place. Because that is so, they take the utmost care in finding the most qualified person in every way, including reference and background checks.

Consider a fictitious scenario where things could have been very unfortunate.

The ad ran. The responses were intermittent but promising. Then along came Sam Chesterfield [fictitious name for a collage persona]. He had everything the client wanted and more.

Sam's resume said he had ten years' experience, whereas the client was looking for five. Sam described his stellar performance in cutting costs, building morale, increasing productivity and sales, making effective presentations to the board and potential clients.

Accompanying all of these performance coups was the fact that Sam also held a bachelor's degree in finance, a master's degree in public administration, and was now working on another degree that was three-quarters completed.

With all of that going for him, we called Sam. His brief telephone interview was impressive. An in-person interview was arranged. It was even better.

Sam even charmed the receptionist. She gave him a cafe au lait -- which she had to go out of the building to fetch and purchased out of her own pocket.

Well, Sam was so good that we presented him to the client as a potential candidate. Sam had everything going for him. There were a few hesitations on a couple of questions but he overcame the stumbles in wonderful form. The client asked that a reference check be done because Sam looked like a really great person for the job.

Our reference checking procedure looks a little informal. The effective thing about it is it leaves little room for doubt about the results. We called the client and told her we would be continuing the search for a good candidate to present. We thought it best that we pass on Sam.

Yes, Sam presented himself quite well. But the reference said that was the very thing that caused him to fire Sam. He was all talk and delivered little.

Reference checks are a very crucial part of the executive search process.

When an executive search firm is used, it's because the company wants to save its own time and resources for what can be a time-intensive project. Reference checks are the icing on the cake and need to be done so that the savings realized in screening and interviewing candidates continue to be realized as you make certain what you've selected is not the curds but the cream of the crop.

Originally published February 20, 2000

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