Management 101: The 3 Cardinal Rules of Reference Checks

I get calls on a regular basis to provide formal and informal references on people in my industry.

First things first: Reference checks are not background checks.

Reference checks are subjective. Reference checks are unreliable and invalid ways of measuring someone’s knowledge, skills and abilities. Reference checks are what you do when you want to know if someone is a jerk.

Background checks give you facts like name, rank, and serial number. You’ll learn about prior convictions and educational achievements.

3 important rules to follow

The difference between a background check and a reference check is essential. Background checks will tell you if someone has been arrested or convicted; however, reference checks will give you gossip and tell you if someone is an itinerant drug addict.

When I’m asked to provide a reference for someone, I have a few rules.

  1. First, do no harm. Unless you’re Mitt Romney, you probably need a job. I don’t want to hurt you or your family. It takes a lot for me to throw someone under a bus.
  2. I only answer questions I’m asked. Sometimes people are fishing for information. Sometimes these reference checks are infuriating because the hiring decision is already made. The sooner I answer your specific questions, the faster we can get back to our lives.
  3. I’m choosy about my audience. Do you want to know what I think about someone? Ask me, but don’t ask a junior recruiter or an executive-recruiter-in-training to call me. I will never speak to someone more than one degree removed from the decision-making process. If my input is necessary, invest the time in seeking out my counsel.

Now I just gave you my three guidelines on reference checking, and I have to tell you that I violated one of them just recently.

Fairness is important – and critical

An executive asked me what I thought about a man in our industry. I had a pretty strong reaction because, frankly, I don’t like the candidate. He’s a dick.

I sat with my words and thought, Jesus, that’s not fair. This dude seems like a good husband and parent. I don’t know him beyond industry events and social media. While I have an opinion on just about everything in this world, my viewpoint is layered with my personal bullshit and baggage.

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And I had to admit that he has what it takes to move this company to the next level.

So I called the recruiter and ate some crow. I walked throrefereI think this guy could do the job.

(He was hired!)

What goes around, comes around

So remember that, unless you’re protecting an organization from a serial killer or a child molester, you should either decline to offer a reference or stick to my three rules.

You never know when those three rules will help you out, too.

This was originally published on the Laurie Ruettimann blog.


Laurie Ruettimann (LFR) is a former Human Resources leader turned influential speaker, writer and strategist. She owns a human resources consultancy that offers a wide array of HR services to human resources leaders and executives. Check out her LinkedIn profile here. You may know Ruettimann as the creator of The Cynical Girl and Punk Rock HR (retired), which Forbes named as a top 100 website for women. You may have also read her book, I AM HR: 5 Strategic Ways to Break Stereotypes and Reclaim HR. (RepCap Press, 2014.) 


1 Comment on “Management 101: The 3 Cardinal Rules of Reference Checks

  1. Hi Laurie. I think your three rules are good principles to have when asked for a reference, and good for you for calling that recruiter back. I disagree with the assertion that reference checks are unreliable ways to to gauge knowledge, skills and abilities, though. Sure, if you do them the way most people do, as an administrative task to check off, they are useless. But if you do them correctly and approach them the same way you (hopefully) approach an interview, they can be a wealth of information. If you are asking to speak to previous managers only, if you’re using behavior-based questions and probing to verify the stories you heard in the interview I think they can be a critical step in the process.

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