Check those references

Extracting bad news from referees can be good news if it saves you from employing an unsuitable candidate.

Check those references
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We needed a new workshop manager. Long-serving Frans was retiring and we now had an opportunity to introduce ‘new blood’ into the team – someone who could make the changes needed to improve the servicing and efficiency of our vehicle fleet.

I did my homework. I wrote a job specification listing the ‘essential’ and ‘desirable’ characteristics we were looking for, and designed a job advertisement based on the AIDA marketing principles.

The job applications poured in, and I sorted them into three categories – ‘No’, ‘Yes’ and ‘Maybe’. Then the wheels came off.

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There was one ‘Yes’ applicant – let’s call him Joe – who met all the criteria. Looking at the pile of applications and thinking of the work ahead, I was tempted to follow through on this one exceptional applicant, and scrap the rest.

On the spur of the moment I phoned Joe and asked him to come in for an interview. A week later, he spent a day on the farm. We all liked him and I told him he had the job, adding that I would confirm the following day.

Very pleased with myself for having found such a strong replacement so quickly, I sat down the next morning to write Joe’s job offer.

Glancing through his application one last time, I took another look at his school and technical college certificates. I didn’t know the school in the Free State, but the college was a respected institution in Gauteng.

Should I check the validity of his certificates? Was it really necessary? I sighed. Better safe than sorry.

The unhappy truth
I dialled the college’s number on Joe’s CV. The phone rang and rang – no answer, which was odd. This was, after all, a busy tertiary institution.

Telkom’s enquiry service gave me the correct number – Joe had one digit wrong. But when I got through to the college I was told there was no record of his ever having attended the college.

With a sinking feeling I phoned Joe’s old school and got through to a private home. The person on the other end said he had never heard of the school.

A few more calls to the referees on Joe’s CV proved him to be a chancer of the first order. I was flabbergasted. I had been well and truly conned!

Since then, I have never interviewed anyone without first thoroughly checking the validity of his or her education certificates and talking to the referees.

Here’s how to go about it:

  • Contact the institutions concerned and obtain written or online verification of their existence. Most of the better-known ones have websites. A quick Internet search will determine whether less well-known institutions or schools exist and how to contact them.
  • A useful website for this purpose is A wide range of other websites also list South African technikons and universities.
  • Responses can take some time, so take this into account when planning your employment process.

No one likes bad-mouthing others, particularly when it could jeopardise their future, but it’s precisely this kind of ‘bad news’ you require from past employers cited as references.

To begin with, you need to create an environment in which the referee is relaxed and comfortable and willing to confide in you. Usually the interview is conducted telephonically, but if it can be done in person, so much the better.

Start by explaining the purpose of your call and giving the person some pertinent details on the job concerned.

What to ask
Avoid vague questions such as “How was he/she?” or “Did they do a good job for you?” Ask clear, precise questions, so that the answers cannot be fudged. Use the following checklist:

  • How are you acquainted with X?
  • What was X’s date of employment and job title in your company?
  • What was his/her reason for leaving?
  • What were X’s duties and responsibilities?
  • How would you describe X’s management style?
  • How did he/she handle conflict with peers and subordinates?
  • Is X qualified to assume the responsibilities of the job described?
  • What are this person’s strengths and weaknesses?
  • Has X ever been guilty of any dishonesty?
  • Has he/she ever had a problem with alcohol or drugs?
  • Would you re-hire this person if the opportunity arose?
  • Should I hire this candidate?
  • Be sensitive to any hesitation or ambiguity in the referees’s answers to any one of these questions and probe further.
  • Once you have completed this process with all the applicants on your ‘Yes’ and ‘Maybe’ lists, draw up your shortlist and prepare for the next step – the interview.