reference checking

Can you get useful information from job references?

July 5, 2012: 2:03 PM ET

Most companies' policies discourage references from revealing anything but job titles and dates of employment. Here's how to learn more.

FORTUNE -- Dear Annie: I'm in my first job as a manager and have never hired anyone before, so I hope this isn't a dumb question. How can I get references to tell me more than the corporate equivalent of name, rank, and serial number? I'm looking at three candidates whose credentials and experience are all equally impressive, so I was hoping that references would serve as a tie-breaker. But everyone I've called so far has been very correct and conscientious about observing their companies' policies against commenting on anything useful -- such as, for example, what the candidate is like to work with on a daily basis.

Our HR department is no help (I suspect because our company has the same kind of no-comment policy), and hiring a professional reference-checking service isn't in the budget. Any suggestions about how to deal with this? — Hitting a Brick Wall

Dear HBW: It's not a dumb question at all. "The biggest mistake most hiring managers make is asking a candidate for three references, and then calling those three people and having totally meaningless conversations," says Greg Moran.

A former recruiter who "got very frustrated trying to check references," he says, Moran is now president and CEO of, a company based in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., that markets software aimed at making the process more efficient for big clients like Disney (DIS).

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"Reference checking is often a missed opportunity, which is too bad," he adds, "because all the research shows that peer reviews -- which is what references are, when they're handled right -- are the single best predictor of how a candidate will perform in a new job." Getting the most out of checking them "requires you to become a bit of an investigator, but it is worth the effort."

Where do you start? First, instead of asking for the usual three references, ask for five (more in a minute about why). At the same time, request that all five be former or current peers, bosses, or subordinates, not human resources staffers. "You want to speak with people who worked with this person on a day-to-day basis," Moran says. More

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