Reference checks can make you pull out your hair.  But they’re worth it!  Whether you do your reference checking before you make the offer or make the offer contingent upon satisfactory reference checks – it’s critical to actually do the references yourself OR spot check the references a search firm gives you.  

You may wish to call our offices and ask for our free guide, “Don’t Hire a Liar” which goes into a lot more depth on the intricacies of referencing.  In the meantime let me recount a story that should drive the point home.

Reference checks - Don't Hire a Liar

Reference checking for the real world

True Lies

Brian, a client in the UK, called shortly before Christmas 2004.  He was preparing to hire a fabulous VP Sales candidate whom he’d been introduced to at a party and he wanted my input on the offer.  I agreed, and I also asked to review this gentleman’s resume.

On paper the guy was “a dream come true”. He was an experienced Sales Vice President with twenty years’ experience from three of the world’s largest systems integrators.  Pedigrees like this are rare.

The nice chap had even provided written references from the presidents of these firms.  They were sterling.  A little too good actually.  I insisted on checking the references myself as Brian is well aware that he has a “blind-spot” for sales types.  I had worked with him for more than 10 years at this point – hiring more than 20 of his key staff in three separate firms.

It took quite a bit of work to actually talk to the presidents of IBM, EDS and Cap Gemini.  It was worth it though.  It turned out that “Reginald” or “Reggie”, as he referred to himself, had a deep and rich fantasy life.  He had fabricated his entire career history. Everything!

None of the references I called had even heard of him. His reference letters proved to be beautiful forgeries.  When confronted with the lie more lies were told – he tried to convince Brian that he was really undercover with MI-5 [the British government’s version of the CIA].  I think he must have watched Arnold Schwarzenegger’s movie “True Lies” once too often. Needless to say he was not hired.

P.S. We hired a real Vice President of Sales 6 weeks later and the firm went on to close 28 million Pounds Sterling in sales that first year.

My client was no dummy. This type of Tom Foolery goes on every day.

Now this may be an extreme case but people do fudge – embellish – augment, and incorrectly describe their credentials.  Take for example the former president of Lotus, Mr. Jeff Papows who got in trouble several years back for misunderstandings surrounding his education and military service record.  According to the Wall Street Journal as reported through The Register (

Papows is “not an orphan, his parents are alive and well.  He wasn’t a Marine Corps captain, he was a lieutenant.  He didn’t save a buddy by throwing a live grenade out of a trench. He didn’t burst an eardrum when ejecting from a Phantom F4, which didn’t crash, not killing his co-pilot. He’s not a tae kwon do black belt, and he doesn’t have a PhD from Pepperdine University.”

Granted these are unusual cases, which you aren’t likely to run into, they underline the fact that résumé creep happens at all levels and with great frequency.

Patricia Gillette, a San Francisco lawyer who defends companies against former employees says, “Probably 90 percent of the time, people lie on their résumé” and it’s not that difficult.  An article in Maxim magazine titled, “How to Lie on Your Resume” actually shows you how, quoting Jim Petersen, author of How to Lie on Your Resume – and Get the Great Job You Want (Ariza Research Press, 1998)

“Some résumé cheats create false references that are difficult to check. Jim Petersen, the Cleveland-based publisher and author of How to Lie on Your Resume – and Get the Great Job You Want!, found a way to do this when a computer company he worked for went belly up. “About a half-dozen of us stood around the parking lot and agreed to act as supervisors to give references for each other,” he recalls. Petersen always gave a fellow conspirator a ring before a recruiter was going to call, to make sure they had their story straight.”

As you can see a little effort is all that’s required.

The #1 best reference check question in the world

Can you realistically ask one question and separate liars from real candidates?  Yes.  We’re going to tell you what it is.  Somewhere in the interview process you inevitably asked the candidate what their biggest accomplishment was at each of their previous jobs.  Naturally, they were happy to share that with you.  Great you have everything you need to begin your reference check.  Now that they have told you their greatest accomplishment ask their previous supervisor the exact same question.

Your question should flow something like this: “I understand Sally [or whomever] worked for you from September 1996 to August 2001.  Is that right?”   You’ll get some sort of answer.  Next ask, “What do you think Sally’s biggest accomplishment was while she worked for you?”  They will tell you.

Now look at what Sally said was her biggest accomplishment.  Do they match?  Yes?  Great!  Are they wildly different?  Ooops!  If they are, I suggest you gently drill down on the reference’s answer.  If they never even come close to mentioning the accomplishment Sally spoke about, then tell them what Sally said.  One of two things will happen.   You will hear hysterical laughter on the other end or they will quickly say, “oh yes I forgot about that”.   It is up to you now to decide/determine if this really was an oversight or if Sally was “exaggerating”.

Exaggerating happens a lot with sales and marketing people.  Sales people especially, are notorious for claiming the end result of a deal just because they touched it in some capacity.  For example, I believe there’s more value in hiring the person who prospected for and closed a deal than the person who collated the proposal.  Both are indeed necessary, but which one do you want to hire into your Chief of Sales role?

The #2 best reference check question in the world

As you’re wrapping up the reference discussion you should probe for secondary references.  A secondary reference isn’t someone on the candidate’s “official” reference list but who might be able to provide further insight into the candidate’s character, experience, and leadership attributes.  Ask your legal council to work a clause into your reference check waiver that permits using secondary references.

To do this, simply say at the end of the conversation something like this, “[reference’s name] thanks.  I really appreciate your insight here.  As you’ve probably gathered, this is a critical hire for us.  Is there anyone else that [candidate’s name] worked with whom you think I should talk to?”  Then be quiet and let them answer.  There’s very likely to be a long pause in the conversation – they are thinking.  It’s important that you let them fill the vacuum left by your question.  If they’re truly a great candidate with nothing to hide it’s an innocent question, if not you’ll get all kinds of flimsy excuses why they can’t remember anyone else.

Years ago I used this technique referencing a sales person for a client.  I discover that the reference was the candidate’s brother-in-law and had never worked with him, yet he was posing as an executive reference.  A few more creative calls on my behalf turned up a trail of sexual harassment suits going back 10 years with more than a half dozen employers.  This candidate was not hired and was subsequently put on our “watch list” for all further projects.

It sounds cliche – I know – but honestly, an ounce of prevention can save your company.

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