References are a time-honored way to find out more about a job candidate, and a perennial headache. It seems so easy to ask a previous employer about a candidate, but it often brings up challenges.
You will get better references if you ask for the right kinds. Personal references are generally unhelpful because the reference seldom knows whether or not someone would be a good employee. In addition, you can too easily learn information about protected-class status that you would be better off not knowing during the hiring process (the candidate is married, or in a same-sex relationship, or has children, etc).
Professional references are more effective if they are targeted to the job and candidate pool. For instance, ask for a customer reference for a sales position or a vendor reference for a purchasing position. This is especially helpful when there are important relationships other than the employer/employee one. For an attorney, consider asking for an opposing attorney, a judge they have practiced before, and a client. If you hire a lot of teens who don’t have professional references, ask for references who can speak to the teen’s attendance, attention to detail, ability to get along with people, etc.
A lot of experienced references will only verify job title and dates of service, but other people will be more forthcoming. Make your questions specific and job-related; ask the same questions of all references for all candidates. Ask a former boss if the candidate met the standards for conduct and attendance; if the answer is no, ask the candidate about it. Craft the questions you ask to elicit useful information, not “he’s a great guy!” or protected-class details.
Putting some thought into the types of references requested and the questions asked of them will give you a much better chance of getting information that is useful in hiring.
Thanks to Jim Nys for great presentation!