Do you know who you’re hiring?
"Checking references is a waste of time, you never get any useful information", "An applicant is never going to give you the name of someone who will give them a bad reference", "Employers are reluctant to give references". Any of that sound familiar?
If you don’t feel references are worthwhile, you probably won’t get useful information. If your effort is cursory your results will be as well.
However, if you dig deeper, ask better questions (don’t just confirm the applicant’s information) you stand a much better chance at getting information that will either support your decision to hire, or warn you off a potentially bad hire. We all want to make good decisions and being diligent about checking references can go a long way toward getting you to that goal. And remember, you might be held liable for information that was available, but that you didn’t get or consider (negligent hiring?). Some industries and occupations require proper reference checking, but we can all benefit from the effort.
Getting the real low-down on a candidate is really not all that difficult. Specific word choices and the tone and enthusiasm (or lack thereof) with which the reference describes the candidate yield good information. If the tone doesn’t match the words used, that’s a reason for follow-up questions.
Listening for what is not being said is also telling. Once, when speaking to colleagues about another HR pro, I found that the common response I got was that she was "really nice!" Well, that’s great, but can she do the job? What I wasn’t hearing was any comment on her competence and HR knowledge. When I dug deeper, asking specific questions, I got what I was looking for: her experience was lacking.
When asking about the duties and responsibilities of the candidate’s previous jobs you may find that the he exaggerated about his experience, employment history or education. Did the candidate do what he said, complete the projects he spoke about and hold the responsibility he implied he did? You can also ask about training programs the candidate indicated he had completed. If you don’t hear about skills, knowledge or other attributes you need, ask!
I find it useful to explain the duties of the job the candidate is seeking, and then ask the reference if she thinks the candidate can succeed in that position, or if there are any concerns about the applicant performing that job.
Just as interviewees hate the "what is your greatest weakness" question (really, who’s going to answer that question honestly?) references often won’t be comfortable with it, either. Instead, I reframe the question. I ask, "If there were one area in which you feel John could improve, what would it be?"
Always ask open-ended questions that require the reference to describe events, accomplishments, and difficulties. Ask for examples and explanations. Don’t just skim over questions where you get a vague or uncertain answer, probe further, ask more questions, clarify the response.
Finally, making it more of a conversation than an interrogation will make it far easier and more productive. Asking a simple "tell me about Jane" can sometimes open the flood gates and give you a wealth of information. You might be surprised what people will tell you.