We now require 12 references. This is at the final stage, when we think this person is a fit. We're testing if our gut instinct is correct or not. And more than once, talking to the last person on someone's list has saved us from making a very bad decision.
It can be pretty amusing when you ask for 12 references. Some candidates have an e-mail to us within an hour; some we never hear from again.
When I call references, I start by trying to get them comfortable. I make it clear that what they say will not travel back to the person. Then I often ask, "If you had to pick three words to describe this person, what are the first that come to mind?" It's very interesting, the picture that emerges after you've done eight or nine of these interviews.
I also ask, "If you had a magic wand, what would you change about this person?" I really push, and they usually come up with something: She's late for work all the time, he has difficulty with deadlines, she has trouble getting along with colleagues. Maybe we'll hire the person but learn something that will help in managing him.
There are some people who you can't get to say a word negative about a candidate, and oftentimes we put that to the side because it's not a credible reference.
Before we started this our average length of stay was 2.3 years. Since then it's gone to 4.7 years. That's not saying people don't leave, but we're avoiding the bad fits.
--Andy Levine, president Development Counsellors International