By Jean M. H. Fergus and Colin Fergus
The National Law Journal, July 13, 1992

In today's stubborn economy, every hiring decision is critical. With legal employers spending more time interviewing, evaluating and selecting candidates, it seems appropriate that additional time also should be spent on the final step in the hiring process-the reference check.

Often viewed as a perfunctory process, reference checking can be used to achieve much more than one might expect. The reference-checking process presents a legal employer with a unique opportunity to gain insight into how to manage a candidate once he or she is hired.

Reference checks are most commonly used to verify information supplied by a candidate on his or her resume and during the interview process. One corporate investigative agency found that almost 30 percent of the applicants they screened had exaggerated or misstated their educational or employment history.

Exaggeration may be less common with attorneys than with applicants in other fields, but it does happen. One way to avoid this situation is to let candidates know in the first meeting that the hiring process involves careful reference checking. Those candidates whose backgrounds may not survive a reference check are likely to quickly bow out of future interviews.

Reference checks also are designed to determine if there may be ethical violations or misconduct in a candidate's past that would preclude employment. If a reference check reveals a willful violation of the law or ethical misconduct, clearly the hiring process will end. But more difficult questions arise when a candidate receives a negative or lukewarm reference.

Negative References
A negative reference is difficult for a candidate to overcome. But savvy legal employers know that most people have burnt a bridge or two at some point in their careers. When a candidate has other redeeming features, an employer may want to invest a little more time to see what's behind a negative reference.

For example, did the candidate have a personality clash with the reference? Without breaching the reference's confidentiality, the candidate should be advised that something has come up that may affect the hiring decision. The candidate then should be given an opportunity to address the negative information. If the candidate can satisfactorily explain and overcome the negative comments, and if the criticism is not material to the employer's needs, hiring may still be in order.

In the case of a lukewarm reference, if other factors weigh in favor of the candidate's being hired,, then more probing again may be appropriate. For example, is the reference reluctant to see a valuable employee leave for a competitor organization? Or perhaps the reference has difficulty in talking about anyone in positive terms. The additional references the candidate has supplied should be contacted to see if they can offset the poor reference.

As a management tool, the reference-checking process is woefully underused. Information learned during the reference check can be used to draw a clear picture of a candidate's strengths and weaknesses. This information can also allow a manager to benefit from the wisdom and experience of a previous supervisor. Although the past might not necessarily be repeated, the information can be valuable in getting the candidate up to speed quickly, and effectively integrating him or her into the group.

Most legal employers wait until after a candidate has been selected to think about references. There is one reference source, however, that is available at the start of an interview process: the candidate. A "self-reference" can be very useful in evaluating the candidate's candor and self-knowledge, and it can give an employer a preview as to future comments from other references.

During the interview, the candidate should be asked for whom he or she has worked in the last five years and to describe the work he or she has done for each employer. The candidate should then be queried about what past supervising attorneys are likely to say about his or her performance. More specifically, an interviewer can ask questions that will give further insight into the candidate. For example, the candidate can be asked which of the supervising attorneys were the most difficult to work with and why.

Other possible questions include: What sort of client matters were the most troublesome, and how did clients respond to the candidate's legal advice? What does the candidate feel his or her partners or supervising attorneys would say about his or her particular strengths or weaknesses? What comments in performance reviews were the most accurate, and how has the candidate learned from that information?

Additional questions can invite the candidate to evaluate his or her supervising attorneys: Were they good lawyers, did he or she get along with them and what influence did they have on his or her training and development?

A candidate's own evaluation can serve as a standard against which the references' comments can be compared, and it can provide a context by which a potential employer can evaluate these comments. A candidate's evaluation also gives him or her a chance to anticipate negative comments and present them in the best light.

Approaching The Reference
The attorney who will supervise the candidate should make the calls to the candidate's references. As a general rule, two or three references should be contacted.

To ensure cooperation and candor from the references, some advance planning will be necessary. To break the ice, the supervisor can begin by telling the reference something about his or her background and, in search of some common ground, can ask the reference some general questions about the reference's background.

Once a rapport has been established, the supervisor should ask the reference general questions to confirm the information the candidate presented on his or her resume: dates of employment, departmental assignments and work assignments.

The next set of questions should go to the candidate's particular abilities, personal qualities and other unique skills or attributes. The supervisor should paint a picture of how the department is set up, what the candidate's responsibilities will be and what the supervisor's expectations are.

The interviewer should let the reference know that his or her insights are valuable. In addition, the supervisor should tell the reference that this information will be useful once the candidate joins the department.

For example, the reference checker could say: "As David's supervisor, you have important insights into his performance that will help me assist him in making a successful transition into our department." The supervisor should then follow with specific questions:

"How did David work as part of a team? Does he work well under pressure?"
The reference check, however, is not and should not be a substitute for one's decision to hire a particular candidate. The decision to hire a candidate is made during the interviewing and selection process; the reference check merely confirms that decision. Thus, the reference may be asked about the candidate's ability to handle the work required, but should not be asked if the candidate should be hired.

The "back-door" reference - such as checking with a friend at the firm, or even a professional colleague at a competing firm - is seldom useful and may produce incorrect information. Unless the person has worked with or supervised the candidate, or read evaluations and performance reports on the candidate, any information obtained this way is likely to fall into the category of office gossip.

No candidate is perfect. All individuals have their own unique strengths and weaknesses. Reference checking puts the finishing touches on the hiring process, helps avert catastrophes and is the first step in making a candidate a fully productive part of a new group. Armed with references' candid comments and insights into the candidate's abilities, the legal employer can motivate the candidate and contribute to his or her personal and professional growth.

Questions to ask a reference.

© 2003 Fergus Partnership Consulting Inc.
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