The Value of Checking References: Light-Hearted Tales


As the summer comes to a close and hiring season traditionally picks up again (or, let’s hope so, anyway, given the economy and all), I thought it might be nice to ease back into the swing of things with a light-hearted anecdote or two about checking references.  My HR career didn’t exactly start off on an auspicious note in this regard; I learned the value of checking references right away.  We “live and learn,” as they say . . . and gaining a story or two along the way is never a bad thing, right?!?

Ignoring All The Evidence (Really, She Can’t Cook At All?)
My first “HR” assignment came in my senior year of college.  I was the catering manager at our fraternity house that year, responsible for getting 50 guys fed three meals a day, five days a week.  Unfortunately, our stalwart cook (a carbon copy of the Marlboro Man, but that’s a story for another day) had retired, so we were scrambling to find a full-time cook that summer.  The economy was strong at the time, and despite weeks of advertising, we were only able to come up with two real candidates: a 40-year old man who had to ask his mother for permission to come to the interview, and Hilda.

Hilda appeared to be a pleasant, responsible person, and she didn’t seem to be fazed by the prospect of cooking for 50 hungry guys.  That was a good sign.  Here was the bad sign: After going through an initial interview, I asked her to go home, write up a sample week’s menu, and to come back the next day so that we could discuss it.  She did exactly that, returning promptly the next day . . . with a blank sheet of paper.  Concerned that I hadn’t explained the assignment properly, I asked if she understood what I was looking for.  She answered sweetly, “I understood.  I just couldn’t think of anything.”  So, here’s the scary part: We hired her anyway!

Careful readers won’t be surprised to find that Hilda showed up promptly every day with a smile . . . and ended up being able to cook very little!  After three weeks of essentially cooking for her, I was getting a little tired, so I did two things: 1) Worked with my fraternity brothers to coax our old cook out of retirement; and 2) went back and checked references on Hilda (just to understand where we went wrong, as if it wasn’t already obvious).  Here was the comment from the restaurant she had worked at: “Hilda is a very nice lady, and very dependable.”  When asked about her cooking, he seemed perplexed.  “Cooking? No, not really.  She cut up a few vegetables every once in a while, but she never did any cooking.  Why do you ask?”  No reason — just chalk one up to a life lesson on the value of checking references.

Selling (or Repossessing) Cars
By the time that I obtained my first HR job out of grad school, I had gotten on-board with the reference-checking thing, as you might imagine.  Then, something happened to cement this lesson in my mind forever.  I was working on my first supervisor-level hire for my new employer, and had come up with a candidate, Brian,  whom everyone seemed to love, the division president included.  He had exactly the energy and people skills that we were looking for — but, as it turned out, that wasn’t the half of it.

Right before we made the offer, I started the reference-checking process. (This was in the days before we ordered criminal, employment, or drug-screening tests from vendors).  One of the prior positions listed on Brian’s resume and application was  a 2-year stint as a sales manager at a car dealership out-of-state (in fact, about 1000 miles away).  Red flag #1: Brian “couldn’t remember” the dealership’s phone number (and didn’t seem too eager to look it up for me).  Not catching on yet, I did some research and was able to reach the dealership.  After being passed to a few different people, I finally ended up with the general manager, who was a bit confused but clearly very happy to speak with me.

The GM chuckled to himself when I asked about Brian’s work as the sales manager there.  “Is that what he told you?” he asked.  “Sir, I can tell you that Brian certainly hung around here a lot — he was good friends with a few of my salesmen.  But he never actually worked here.”  Oh, I thought to myself, that’s funny.  “But if you could tell me where I could get in touch with him, I certainly would appreciate it.  You see, he had bought a car from us, which we eventually had to repossess — and he still owes us some money!”

Yes, some lessons are taken to heart in difficult — and memorable — ways . . . and this was one of them!  Needless to say, Brian didn’t get the job with us.

Your Stories
Have you had any similar experiences with reference-checking woes?  I’d love to hear your stories.

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