The litigation explosion has made it harder to check references on job applicants, as previous employers grow nervous about possible lawsuits from their ex-employees. But there are things you can do to improve your chances of getting accurate information, according to Peter LeVine of Framingham, Mass., who has built a business as a professional reference-checker:

* Decide what you want to know in advance, and then ask all of your prepared questions before posing follow-up ones. That way, you'll be sure to get to the major points.

* Keep your questions neutral, so as not to offend, or lead, the reference. Don't ask, "Does he knuckle under pressure?" but rather, "How does he handle pressure?"

* Avoid mentioning the job until you've discussed the applicant. Otherwise, the reference will focus on the position, not the person.

* Don't waste time with personal references. "They've never seen the applicant in a working setting," says LeVine. In checking work references, moreover, don't just talk to the applicant's previous boss. Often the best information comes from peers, subordinates, and outsiders, such as suppliers, customers, or auditors.

* Check academic and previous job credentials. "If he's lied about those, I'll guarantee he's lied about things you can't verify."