Checking a candidate's references is one of the tasks employers do least well. Here are some tips from a professional, Zuni Corkerton, president of RefCheck Information Services, a reference-checking company in Columbus, Ohio:
* Release references from liability. Have a lawyer draw up an authorization for you to check references, and ask candidates to sign it. It should also contain a release of liability to the parties giving out information. This document should encourage former employers to be candid.
* Develop a thorough application form. A good form solicits information that's not on the rÉsumÉ. For example, it should ask for the year and the months of employment periods. It should ask for the names of former supervisors and their current phone numbers. Insist that the form be completely filled out.
* Follow up on inconsistencies. Search for discrepancies between the application form and the rÉsumÉ. Note points that need to be explored with references. Prepare specific, open-ended, quantitative questions. What's considered good attendance at some companies may not be acceptable to you. Always confirm exact dates of employment.
* Assign the task of checking references to a good interviewer. Don't delegate reference checking to someone who's uncomfortable interviewing, dealing with higher-level people, or being tough.
* Document your findings. During reference checking, make clear notes that you can review to make your decision. Those notes should become a management tool, helping you gain insight into the new hire.
Dishonesty is sometimes a problem with candidates, but reticence is the chief problem with former employers. "In the long run, people want to be honest, but only when you ask that one critical right question," says Corkerton.