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Job references -- reading between the lines

(MoneyWatch) A job applicant's references should be among the most valuable sources of information when making a hiring decision. But when companies -- especially large corporations -- have policies that severely restrict the information that can be provided about former employees, how can a prospective new employer gather any useful intel from these sources?

For the most part, the amount and type of information provided in a reference is at the discretion of the former employer. There are few legal restrictions to the information an employer can provide, but many companies will confirm dates of employment and position, and not much more. Some companies won't even accommodate requests from departing employees for reference letters when they are leaving on the best of terms. This is out of a rather extreme "no good deed goes unpunished" concern that if they say something nice, and a future employer has a problem with the person, they might be liable for giving false or misleading information. Yeesh, what a world.

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Obviously this is all driven by fear of being sued if a former employee doesn't get a job, or loses a job, because of information provided in a reference. Basically, just as with terminations, these companies take the "less said, the better" approach; in today's outrageously litigious environment, it's hard to blame them. But minimal information is of minimal use to a possible new employer.

Smaller companies are often more open when giving references, as they are typically not burdened by rigid policies, or are less concerned about legal exposure, or are unaware of the possible risks. There also seems to be an "understanding" among small business people -- especially owners -- about the importance of references, and they tend to share a little more (some more candidly than others) with fellow owners. Most will still be very careful with anything negative. But If nothing else, small business owners I've dealt with won't hesitate to say good things about someone who deserves it. I will always say good things about good people and take my chances that I won't be sued for being nice.

Regardless of the source or extent of information you get on a prospective hire, if you listen carefully and apply some intuition, there is almost always something to be gleaned from what is said... or not said:

- Tone of voice: There will often be a "tell" in a referrer's demeanor, even when giving only employment confirmation. When a former employer says, "Oh... Bob? Er... ah... yeah, he worked for me," her hesitance and tone may be hinting that she's not a big fan of Bob. On the other hand, if the person you're speaking to is all chipper when speaking about Bob (and we all know you can hear a smile over the phone), there's a good chance she thinks highly of him.

- Qualified statements: Referrers may not say anything outwardly negative about an employee, but might give qualified semi-positive comments, like "Well, Sue could be a good worker in the right job," or "our position wasn't right for her, but yours might be better." This might be entirely true, but it might also be someone telling you to tread cautiously.

- Contradictions and inconsistencies: Anything a reference tells you that significantly contradicts what a candidate says on a resume or in an interview is an obvious red flag, so pay close attention and compare information. Employment dates, title and responsibilities, compensation if mentioned, and reason for termination if given, should all be 100 percent consistent. If there are any meaningful discrepancies, you must decide whether and how to question the applicant about them, as this is one area where you could potentially create problems for the referrer, and you don't want to do that. In all cases, stick to documented, indisputable facts when challenging an applicant's information.

Obviously it's important to try to get as much information as you can extract, through targeted questions and follow-ups. I also always ask the old standby "would you hire him again?" It may be cliche, but the way it's answered, if at all, is also telling. There's a difference between "I'd consider her again" to "omigosh, in a heartbeat." And there are other questions, which if asked in a carefully worded and friendly way, can loosen even tight HR lips.

A word on personal (family/friend) references: They are usually not worth much and should be taken with a grain of salt, for obvious reasons. But even these can sometimes, if unintentionally, give away a nugget or two. Multiple personal references may have very inconsistent stories or descriptions, or the opposite, transparently prepped and identical answers. Personal references might hint at some traits or habits that don't sit well with you, or they might even be completely surprised by your call -- suggesting maybe the candidate didn't do his homework. More than once I've actually had someone say, "I don't know why he/she put me down as a reference."

By no means is any of this to be taken as science; I'm certainly not suggesting passing judgment on a job candidate based on hints and subtle clues alone. I am not an HR person, I'm a small business guy, and this isn't legal advice. In fact, I'm sure HR professionals will find all kinds of reasons to jump down my throat about what they consider to be a reckless, risky, amateurish, seat-of-the-pants approach. But I'm just talking about my own experience over 20 years and countless hires (most of them good ones). And for me, these cues -- when added to all of the other hiring information gathered -- have often contributed to the overall picture and outcome.

Every small business owner knows that gut goes a long way.

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