Checking a job candidate's references has become a perfunctory task for many managers. Remarks are so general they become virtually meaningless. To find out what the terms hard worker, detail-oriented, and people person really mean to someone, managers at Octel Communications Corp., in Milpitas, Calif., spend up to an hour on the phone with at least three references per candidate, discussing not just the candidate, but also the reference's own work ethic and corporate culture.

"What we're trying to gauge is the frame of reference a person is using to provide an opinion," says president and CEO Robert Cohn. "It can be very revealing."

Cohn decided not to offer a job to one management candidate after a conversation with a key reference -- a senior executive who exhibited poor people skills.

Why? Cohn figures if the caliber of the references doesn't match Octel's expectations, there's a pretty good chance that the job candidate's won't, either.

Apparently the method is working. Octel's employee attrition rate is 5%, twice as good as Silicon Valley standards, Cohn claims.

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