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That's All I Can Tell You

"That's All I Can Tell You..."

In our last column we talked abut the risks and benefits involved in giving references on former employees?and the fact that the risk of law suits has caused many employers to limit the information they provide to dates worked and positions held.

If you are hiring a prospective new employee, careful reference checking is still one of your most vital tools. The trick is to get meaningful information, i.e. something besides name, rank and serial number.

Calling the job candidate's former company's personnel department is a waste of time. (A heretical statement from a "personnel type" like this author!) Of all the places in the company, the personnel department is where you are most certain to get a dates-worked-and-position-held reference. Ask the candidate during the interview whom you should contact and what that person's position is with the company. (You don't want to talk to one of your candidate's peers, who might be a buddy who has been set up to give you a glowing, overly rosy reference.)

Be prepared to ask specific questions-don't just take down whatever your source is volunteering to tell you. Listen for subtle nuances and, if your source seems to equivocate, assure him/her that you will respect any information given as confidential. Follow that up with friendly but probing, leading questions to assure yourself that you are getting a clear and complete picture of the individual's performance and past history.

Each of us has strengths and weaknesses and I once got a positively "walks-on-water" reference on one candidate. Probe though I did, nothing I asked gave the slightest indication of any sort of problem. The reference being given struck me simply as being too good to be true. Suspicious and a bit frustrated by the uncritically positive responses I was getting, it finally occurred to me to ask, "What is the worst thing you could say about Mr. Ex?"

The answer surprised me and, although paraphrased considerably, the response was, "Well, he drinks and that's sometimes been a problem!"

Check school references, too. We once hired a young man for our management training program who claimed he has a master's degree. When he seemed not to have mastered the English language in some of the reports he submitted, we belatedly checked up on his credentials. It turned out that he had dropped out of college in his second year, which created a major embarrassment.

You can either take people at face value (and take the risks involved) or you can continue to do the best job you can to get meaningful references. Today it may take a little more diligence, originality and persistence-but the effort is still well worthwhile.

Personnel Vignettes is a regular feature. Submitted by various personnel executives, this series appears without attribution at their request.

Copyright © 1991 Bankers' Hotline. Originally appeared in Bankers' Hotline, Vol. 2, No. 4, 5/91

First published on 05/01/1991

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