I am always surprised when someone hires a person that used to report to me and doesn’t even make an attempt to get a reference from me. Yes, I know that a lot of companies refuse to give out information beyond date of hire, date of separation, and job title but you would think that some people would at least try to get a reference. I have found that if you can get five or six references on each candidate your decision as to whether or not to hire the candidate gets significantly easier. I’m aware that candidates give you their best references, but if their best references are lukewarm, doesn’t that speak volumes about the candidate? On the other hand, if the references rave about the candidate (but not overly so to where it sounds like they were coached) that helps make the hiring decision much easier. Also, I ask for five business and five personal references and I call all of them and see who will talk to me. (I generally do this while driving when I have plenty of time.)

Personal references are generally much more glowing than business references, and are usually not highly objective, but I have heard some great stories about candidates from their friends that have made the hiring decision a snap. For example, I once heard a story from personal reference about how a candidate pulled him out of a burning building. The story checked out with the candidate and I’m a sucker for hiring people that will lay down their lives for their friends. He turned out to be one of the best hires I ever made.

How do you get references in the litigious age we live in, when most companies won’t tell much? Below are a few things that have worked for me over the years:

  • Get cell phone numbers. Not only do you not have to talk to wives, children, switchboard operators, and HR managers, but many times you get directly to the person you were trying to reach and you catch them off guard before they put on their “corporate hat.”
  • Get the references to lower their guard. I usually say something like, “I have made the provisional decision to hire ‘Joe’ and have a few questions for you about how I can help Joe achieve his full potential.” That way, people think the decision has already been made and they’ll either help you or, in some cases, through their words or their reaction, let you know that you’re making a bad decision.
  • Use a release form. We have a form that releases the reference from any and all liability for giving information about our candidate. The release form is signed by the candidate and for some companies that’s enough for them to give you an accurate reference. However, some companies still revert to the old corporate line of not giving out information, even if you have a release form.
  • Ask for names and cell numbers of coworkers. While many supervisors won’t give you information about one of their former direct reports, most former coworkers have no such reservations. If you can talk to several former coworkers of your applicant you can also learn a lot of information. For example, one former coworker of an applicant of mine said to me: “I hear he has licked his cocaine problem, and if so, he should make a great employee for you. He did great for us until he got into coke.” Seriously, someone said that to me.
  • Ask for customer references. Do this especially when hiring for sales positions. However, many other positions come in contact with customers so if you are hiring for customer service, credit manager, or other positions that interact with customers, ask the applicant for customers he or she worked with in a previous position. Good applicants tend to make friends with many customers and are able to furnish you with their cell phone numbers. A customer reference is extremely important to me and if several customers rave about someone I’m interviewing, that scores major points with me.
Don’t skip the important hiring step of checking references. If you use the tips above you should be able to get several references that will make your hiring decision much easier and significantly increase your batting average. Do you have other tips on how to get references on applicants? 

Jim Sobeck is president of New South Construction Supply, West Columbia, S.C., and author of the Biz 101 blog at http://jimsobeck.tumblr.com. Contact him at [email protected].