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A word or two about reference checking 

by J. Larry Tyler, FACHE, FHFMA, FAAHC, CMPE
Chairman and CEO
Reach him at +1 770 396 3939 or 

We’ve all heard of controversies where discrepancies were caught on resumes of key personnel (namely CEOs) after they started employment. As one example, think about Al Dunlap, the deposed Sunbeam CEO of the early 2000s who had prior allegations of accounting fraud.

The New York Times and other media asked, “Who was checking references and what was the responsibility of the search firms?” Korn/Ferry, who recruited Dunlap to Sunbeam, and Spencer Stuart, who recruited him to his previous job at Scott Paper, both were caught in this snare.

The Association of Executive Search Consultants (AESC, of which we’re a member) weighed in with an industry standard basically stating it would let each search firm set its own guidelines for reference checking.

We can reference another instance in my Georgia Tech football coach, George O’Leary, who decided to resign and accept the head coaching position at Notre Dame in 2001. He lasted five days until the media started checking his background for a story and couldn’t find a master’s degree at “NYU at Stoney Brook” or confirmation of his three letters from the University of New Hampshire. According to Notre Dame, a search firm was involved in both the hire of O’Leary and the subsequent hiring of his replacement, Tyrone Willingham. Today O’Leary is the head football coach at University of Central Florida.

All of this leads me to try to sort out responsibilities in a logical manner for those trying to hire executive talent and prefer not to be caught in an embarrassing situation.

References fall into four categories: supervisors, peers, subordinates and other (board members, doctors, consultants, etc). Rarely does one check personal references like a pastor or personal friends. Ideally, at least one reference should be checked in each category with emphasis on supervisors. References “damn with faint praise” so you should be listening for the enthusiasm in the reference’s voice regarding the candidate.

Search Firm Responsibilities

The search firm should check references going back at least 10 years. Beyond 10 years, many impracticalities come into play. First, many of the people you need to talk with may be unreachable. The same goes for the organizations themselves. If you do find someone to talk with, then they may not remember enough about the person, or the situation, to make the effort worthwhile. Second, knowing what someone did more than a decade ago has no bearing on the current situation. The most important time frame is the last five years of employment; time and effort should be concentrated there.

The search firm should present written notes from conversations with references so that if contradicting information comes up, the references can be reviewed. In other words, verbal assurances by the search firm as to reference checks are not as good as notes made from the reference check conversations. Letters of reference from prior employers are virtually worthless and are more noted for what they don’t say than what they do.

At the proper time, the search firm should check secondary or “back door” references not given by the candidate. A way to get to these “back door” references is to ask the furnished references, “What other people might have good insight into this candidate?” Some references, who might be reluctant to say something negative, will be glad to have someone else do the dirty work! The search firm should always get a release from the candidate so that it can check any reference it wants at the appropriate time.

Responsibilities of the Client Organization

Involve yourself in the reference-checking process. Some employers will tell you things that they won’t tell search consultants, especially if you know the person you are calling. Furthermore, organizations will often speak HR to HR, or CEO to CEO, in order to pass on confidential information that the search consultants may not be able to get.

Coordinate your reference checking with the search consultant. Let him or her know with whom you are talking and the results of your conversations. You don’t want your efforts to be duplicative or to make your process look disorganized.

Sometimes you need a reference on a reference. Just because someone thinks someone else is terrible doesn’t make it so. Consistently bad references are certainly a good indicator of problems but a single bad reference should not eliminate a candidate. If a bad reference is given when all of the others have been positive, you might consider calling one of the previous references to help you sort out the information. That person might give you information on the reference and why the reference is negative. (Tyler Hint: As we finish a reference call, we ask the following “If my client has any further questions, would it be OK to call you again?” thus leaving the door open for a subsequent call.)

In light of the controversies of late, I reviewed our Tyler & Company referencing and credential verification process and was pleased with what we already had in place. (Over the years, our refinements helped tighten the process.) Our reference checking process is as follows:

  • Check references up to 10 years previously. We provide three references on the candidate from references furnished by the candidate. We offer notes from our telephone conversation and include the reference name and phone number in case clients want to call themselves.

  • Verify degrees and credentials. We always have routinely verified degrees and licenses. We also check credentials like FACHE that aren’t really necessary to do the job but have a bearing on the candidate’s veracity.

  • Conduct credit, driving and criminal checks. We do this for ALL candidates.

  • Conduct an Internet literature search. Considering how much information is available online today, this now routine inquiry makes for adigital dirt playground. A routine inquiry regarding Dunlap at the time by one of the media turned up 1,600 listings. Surely one would have given an indication of prior problems.

  • Check final references with the current employer. Although this can be an awkward conversation, we have a form to be completed during the conversation to cover all the basics. This step can be and probably should be done by the hiring manager.

  • Involve the search committee in the reference checking process.Keep in mind that doctors like to talk to doctors, and board chairs like to talk with other board chairs. Doing this extra due diligence at the appropriate time can ensure that the right person is hired and that no one will get embarrassed.

Proper referencing is an essential part of the hiring process. As an employer, you should not totally rely on your search firm to carry the entire load. Make sure that you do some of your own referencing to provide additional insight. After all, when the search consultant is long gone, you will have to live with the problems of a bad hire.

So how did Dunlap and O'Leary slip through the process for as long as they did? It seems to me to be the result of sloppy work by both employers and the search firms, but not in the referencing. They both had excellent references. It was the verification of information on the resume that fell short.