Would You Hire This Person Again?

How to check a job applicant's references. The process is aggravating, but worth it

You think you've found the perfect candidate for that job opening, and now you need to check his references. But when you call a former boss, you can't pry loose any useful information. Or maybe she passes you off to human resources, which will only confirm the most basic data.

With companies fearful of lawsuits from ex-employees who receive less-than-glowing reviews, obtaining a candid reference can be difficult. But it's not impossible. "You may have to do more sleuthing than you'd like, but references can be checked," says Lynn Taylor, director of research for Robert Half International, a Menlo Park (Calif.) executive search firm. At the very least, you can use some new resources, such as the Internet, to verify important facts. And if juicier details remain elusive, there are alternative routes to help you make an informed hiring decision.

START TALKING. What's the first step? Early in the interview process, have candidates sign a waiver releasing former employers from liability and agreeing to let you contact additional references; many companies won't cooperate without it. Next, fax each person a copy of the statement. If the references still won't talk, ask your job candidate to help. If you still get nowhere, it's a safe bet the employee can't dig up a good recommendation.

Expect rougher going at big companies, where you'll probably get routed to a human resources official willing to divulge only bare essentials. Still, that serves a purpose. As many as 25% of applications and resumes contain a major falsehood, according to the Society for Human Resource Management. "Someone trying to mislead you will frequently not get the details right--cover up dates, exaggerate titles, lie about academic degrees," says Monte Campbell, a specialist with Innovative Human Resource Management in Santa Clara, Calif. "A simple check with personnel will trip them up." And even close-mouthed types might answer the question: "Would you hire this person again?"

To verify other nitty-gritty information, try the Web. For example, you can check names and addresses through www.switchboard.com. Or, for a one-time $50 setup fee, you can subscribe to a Web-based service in Fort Collins, Colo., Avert Inc. (970 484-7722), which provides access to criminal and civil court records. For more extensive searches, consider hiring a pre-employment screening service. Many can be found on the Web or in the Yellow Pages. For $85 to $600, Scherzer & Co. in Woodland Hills, Calif. (818 227-2770), for one, will investigate everything from driving records to bankruptcy filings.

Even if you're stonewalled, don't give up. If one reference won't help, ask for others in the organization who might. (Always run the names by the job candidate; there may be a legitimate reason not to contact certain individuals).

Should you continue to have trouble, look for people who worked with the candidate elsewhere. Tom Wilson, president of Wilson Media Group, a media buying firm in New York, calls everyone from vendors the candidate has dealt with to former subordinates. Wilson recalls a time he contacted a job applicant's ex-subordinate who had also once worked for him. "He told me the guy is the laziest person in the world," he says. Wilson then checked with several vendors, who corroborated those comments. He ended up choosing a different person.

Whether the company is mammoth or minute, the more senior the contact the better. An owner is the best. "When you go up the food chain, executives are more willing to bend the rules," says Rob Allyn, who runs a 10-person advertising and public relations agency in Dallas.

Once you track down a cooperative reference, be specific. Pinpointed questions, especially those clearly related to the job description, encourage straightforward responses. Describe the duties required--say, handling angry customers--and ask whether the candidate has demonstrated that particular ability.

TEST DRIVE. Be prepared to spend as long as 30 minutes on each chat. You may need that time to get a feel for the quality of the employee and the reference. When Pamela Hamilton, president of Collaborative Communications, a 13-person public relations agency in Cambridge, Mass., was hiring a comptroller, a candidate's former boss had nothing but good things to say. But after a long discussion, she realized the qualities the reference valued in the employee--the ability to be a jack-of-all trades--weren't the ones required by Hamilton, who needed a detail-oriented person.

If all else fails, skills and personality tests might help. (Check with an attorney before using one, though). A host of publishers and consultants can supply an exam suited to the job and do the scoring. Prices range from $12 an evaluation to thousands for a batch of tests.

Another approach is a paid job try-out--which may reveal more than reference checks. At the Washington restaurant, Sam & Harry's, owner Larry Work has prospective managers work for two days before he decides. "You wouldn't buy a car without test driving it," he says. And a simple test run may save you from hiring a lemon.

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