We have all done it at one point or another—called references who were supplied by a potential employee, new vendor, or client.
You can pretty much predict what they are going to say, but it’s a “normal” course of business and generally, it’s a good practice. It’s certainly better than not calling at all.
The problem is that the information that you get is pretty much what you would expect. I mean, who in their right mind is going to provide the name of someone who would provide anything less than a glowing reference?
And we are not just talking about employment references. An investment fund may provide the name of its best client to a potential investor, or a new executive vice president may provide the name of his or her favorite colleagues.
If you want a truly unvarnished opinion about someone, contact people who are not listed as references.
Call the chief investment officer’s previous employer to ask why he left and if he is capable of running his own portfolio; call the new executive’s former boss (or—better yet—underlings) to see how other people viewed him or her within the company, how they communicated with others, and if they were considered to be a team player; or call one of the new vendor’s other customers to see how quickly they deliver.
You may be thinking to yourself, why would anyone want to talk to you?
We’ve been doing this for quite some time; you would be amazed at what people will say. People generally want to be helpful, and if they have something positive to say, they typically don’t have a problem saying it.
On the other end of the spectrum, you have the people who can’t wait to drag that person or company through the mud, and are willing to say something negative to anyone within shouting distance.
The key getting valuable information, however, is catching someone off guard.
That is when you get the truly unvarnished opinion, unlike that personal reference who’s bound to give you a glowing review.