The Danger of “References”

David Harris

A client of ours recently asked us this question:

“I have an interviewee and I would like to talk to her past employers. She’s been at a local restaurant for the last 4 years, but it closed in April.

What would you recommend to do to check employment?

She listed 3 references from the restaurant with their contact info. Would you recommend to contact them?”

Our client is someone who makes every effort to run his practice properly, and his dilemma forces us to deal with a seminal issue in background checking – who should we be speaking with?

I often have dentists tell me that they ask for “references” or that they check “references.” Normally they are doing this to show me that they are careful about who they hire. Typically, what they are doing is asking the applicant for a list of people who the dentist can contact to gain some level of comfort about the character of the applicant.

One of my concerns with the hiring practices of many dentists is that they know far too little about people who they hire, so I am glad to see a desire on the part of these dentists to close this knowledge gap. However, I think that by checking references, their efforts are misdirected.

The first problem with applicant-supplied references is that they have been “cherry picked” by the applicant. This means that the information they give you lacks objectivity. Everyone has at least a few people in their life who are raving fans, and when you call applicant-supplied references, that is exactly who you are speaking with. So you are unlikely to hear anything remotely negative from these people. I’m pretty sure that if my dog could talk, he would say wonderful things about me. But because I feed him, and rub his belly on demand, he isn’t exactly objective.

To make the problem worse, often the references that are supplied (and checked) are really in the nature of “character references,” by which I mean that their knowledge of the applicant does not come from a work setting (e.g. the high school volleyball coach or parish priest). So in addition to an objectivity issue, there are often other problems; the information you receive may suffer from a lack of relevance.

The people who can give you information that is both relevant and objective are former employers, and that is exactly with whom you should speak.

To circle back to the question that my client asked, what is behind his question is that the thing that the (correctly) wants to do has been frustrated by the closure of the restaurant.

In this case, because the applicant has nominated co-workers, the relevance issue is less important (because these people have observed the applicant at work and have done so recently) and the true concern is objectivity.

I will also reiterate something that I frequently mention about calling people when doing a background check; verify all phone numbers independently and do not rely on any phone number provided by an applicant. You may end up speaking with someone other than who you think you are.

My suggestion to the client was to call the references to ask them if they supervised or managed the applicant. If the answer to this question was no, then who was her supervisor and manager? I would then call these people to ask about the applicant. We refer to this concept as obtaining “derivative references”.

Particularly if they were not on the supplied list of references, now I would have access to information that is more likely to be objective. So in cases where it is difficult to access former employers directly, keep the concept of derivative references in your toolbox.