You would be surprised how often I have contacted referees and spoken with them asking questions that require a certain level of detail, but that the referee is just unable or unwilling to give me that detail required to ensure the candidate (that is the person they once worked with, or are currently working with) has the job in the bag.

It’s one thing to have a decent number of referee names and contact details on your ‘Referees’ list on the old CV, but it’s another to have quality referees. People you have worked with who will provide a decent reference when asked to.

Not only should you nurture your referees, by staying in touch with them and ensuring you have that relationship where you can call in a favour when you need a good reference – that is just plain and simple networking. This also ensures your referees are the quality required to nab your next more senior level career opportunity. It’s crucial. Too many executives are making the mistake that just because someone says they will happily be a referee – it doesn’t mean they’ll provide a good reference!

Important also and something to be mindful of when sourcing your referee is the context of the role for which you are applying. It’s best you know what your referee will say about you when asked by a potential employer or recruiter. You can always ask that question of your referee – what will you be saying about me in the reference for this job? No harm, and this ensures you have a suitably engaged referee at hand.

I recently asked a candidates’ referee some really very basic questions, the ones like ‘what are the candidates strengths?’ and ‘could you detail their duties and responsibilities when working with you?’ only to get a one sentence response with very little information. This was the flavour of the whole reference check. Not only did the referee supply very little detail about the candidates actual performance when working and reporting with and to them respectively, but they were unable (or unwilling?) to provide any level of predictive narrative on the candidates’ ability to do parts of the job I was reference checking them for. You know, the one the person really wants and the reference check will nab the job for them or not? So back I went to the candidate to ask for another referee because the first one just couldn’t give the detail I required.

Think long and hard about who your referees will be. Are they going to be able to provide that comprehensive detail about the things you did and achieved during your time working with them? Are they also going to be able to provide opinion and comment about whether you have the capability and capacity to do the sorts of things that your new role will require? Possibly remind your referee (in an appropriate way) that they will be asked to highlight your skills, experience and attitude – just to prep them for the actual call from the hiring manager, HR Consultant or recruitment consultant. You need to know they will give you a good reference.

It’s interesting that GE Finance, a global finance, health and technology giant has adopted a ‘no reference check’ policy. That’s right, they did a survey of 1500 reference checks that were done on prospective employees, and found that not one single negative comment was made in those 1500 reference checks, so have thrown that idea out the window. It’s more than halved recruiters’ administrative workload as part of an ongoing simplification initiative. But is this the right approach coupled with having the potential employee complete real life case scenarios and present to a selection committee and doing social media reference checking? Their recruitment decision will be made using this information about a candidate, their interview performance alone. And possibly a psychometric assessment.

There is no right or wrong, and let’s face it reference checking has been around as long as people have held paid employment. Either informal (asking someone you know who might know the person being employed) or formal reference checks are common ground in any recruitment selection process. And then there’s the whole new world of reference checking using social media – we’ll leave that one alone for this Blog – but it’s happening and we need to wise up to it.

Just be mindful of who you ask to be your referee, or you might find yourself check mate and lose the game.