Job references. Do you assume your past employers will just verify employment and shut up? Don’t assume.

Are you hiring people? Check references. Don’t assume that just because a candidate gave you the name, the references will be good. Do your homework.

I know nothing about Allison & Taylor, which calls itself “the nation’s leading reference checking and employment verification firm,” but I liked an e-mail the company sent me last week. It quotes Heidi Allison, president:

“People spend a lot of time working on their resume, brushing up their interview skills and networking during job searches, but many fail to select their professional references carefully,” Allison said. “We check references for clients and approximately half of our calls to former employers produce an unexpected bad reference. The bottom line is that people need to select their references more carefully.”

Apparently people do give a lot more information than company policy says they should. Quite often.

“The fact is most people have no problem talking and, with a little prodding, one can learn quite a bit from a professional reference–some good, some bad,” Allison explained. “You’d be shocked at what some people selected to provide professional references have said about candidates.”

What got my attention was the list of excerpts from actual reference checks, all of them from interviews conducted by Allison & Taylor staff on behalf of clients during the past year. It’s an interesting collection:

Comments regarding a candidate’s skills, ranking them on a scale of 1-5:

  • Oral Communications: “Can I give a negative number?”
  • Interpersonal Relations: ““He had a problem with a few of the people. I should have ended the relationship just after he started.”
  • Productivity: “Is there a rating less than inadequate?”
  • Decision Making: “He couldn’t make a decision if his life depended on it.”
  • Managerial Skills: “He couldn’t manage a group of children.”
  • Financial Skills: “That’s why our company had a major layoff–we left her in charge of the finances!”

Comments regarding a candidate’s strengths and weaknesses:

  • “I cannot think of any strengths, only weaknesses.”
  • “I’m sure there are some strengths, but nothing jumps out at me.”
  • “I’d rather not comment–you can take that however you want.”

Comments regarding the reason for the candidate leaving the company:

  • “I fired him! He and his buddy had some illegal things going.”
  • “It was a rather delicate and awkward situation. You should call her other past employers. I made the mistake of not doing that.”
  • “She was terminated in an investigation.”

Moral of this story: if you’re hiring, check references.

Tim BerryTim Berry

Tim Berry is the founder and chairman of Palo Alto Software and Follow him on Twitter @Timberry.