Chennai-based Polaris Software Laboratory was
on the look out for a senior executive a few months ago. They'd
almost identified their man, whose resume claimed that he'd worked
with some of the most enduring names in the business. The candidate
had a Ph.D to boot, and the mother of all references, GE's former
CEO Jack Welch.
Thrilled with his catch, but just wanting to be
sure, Polaris' head of hr Raja Krishnamoorthy sent an e-mail to
the address listed under the reference. A reply came two days later-a
finely crafted tribute to the candidate. But Krishnamoorthy smelt
a rat: ''The contents of the e-mail were very similar to what the
candidate had said during the interview; and the repetition of some
phrases was too much of a coincidence.''
True enough, when Krishnamoorthy got in touch
with Welch's office, he was told no such e-mail had been sent. Some
more probing revealed that the mail had originated from a Banjara
Hills (a posh Hyderabad neighbourhood) browsing centre.
Piramal Enterprises was sure it had found its
man. After a long search, and protracted negotiations, it had found
just the kind of senior executive for one of its key businesses.
Everything was done, the offer letter was
typed out, and Piramal's president in charge of corporate development,
Leonard D'Costa, was going through the motions of calling up a common
(to him and the candidate) acquaintance to tell him the latest.
The call left him shaken: the candidate had been involved in a financial
scandal of sorts in one of his earlier assignments. Piramal Enterprises
dropped the candidate like a hot potato and is now far more rigorous
with its reference checks. ''We realised that only by speaking to
a cross-section of people would we know if the candidate can actually
walk his talk.''
Time was, when reference
checking didn't really matter: all it meant was cursorily calling
up a few people whose references the candidate conveniently provided
in his resume. Today, companies take reference checks very seriously.
Says R. Suresh, CEO of executive search firm Stanton
Chase: ''Today companies are very serious when it comes to reference
checking. For each finalised candidate we select at least two to
three independent referees whom we go to for an opinion.''
WHO TO LIST: Only peers,
managers, and fellow members in industry for a; family and
relatives are out.
HOW MANY TO LIST: Companies
may look askance at CVs with less than two or more than five
WHAT TO LIST: Name, designation,
contact details, and how he or she knows the candidate.
HOW DETAILED TO GET:
Subtle indicators on what each referee may be able to tell
about the candidate.
WHAT TO DISCLOSE: Candidates
should mention any problem or conflicts with past employers.
India still doesn't have
specialised reference check firms (the US does), but fact is, reference
checking has moved beyond the casual telephone call, sometimes,
as far as the headhunting firm retained by the company.
There's no arguing the relevance of reference
checks, especially for senior management positions. Hiring senior
execs is an expensive proposition, and one that could have an impact
on the company's long-term prospects.
Then, there's the thing about candidates being
primed for an interview and modifying their responses to the context
at hand; companies that need to know how a candidate behaves in
a live work environment have to necessarily resort to contacting
people the candidate has worked for, or with in the past.
The easiest part of reference checks pertains
to the facts laid out in the resume. Age, academic qualifications,
positions held, and salaries drawn are all easily verified. The
intangibles-the attitude of the individual, his or her ability to
work in a team, integrity, and leadership-aren't as easily verifiable.
Often, interviewers have to seize upon small,
almost inconsequential aspects of the candidate's behaviour and
build on them through reference checks. Paranoid as this approach
may seem, it could often stop a company from making a big mistake.
Late last year, Agilent Technologies was about
to sign on a 20-something R&D person for a key project in the
US. The candidate being considered had the right qualifications;
he was also an acknowledged specialist in an emerging technology
area. The company's business and technical managers were keen to
hire him, but Jayantika D. Burman, Agilent's head of hr wasn't so
sure. She thought him a bit too individualistic. With everyone else
pushing her to hurry up and make up her mind, Burman got in touch
with five of the candidate's former colleagues who were working
in different parts of the world. The feedback? The man Agilent was
speaking to was extremely competent, but a bit of a ''spoilt brat''.
''His personality and Agilent's values would
have clashed,'' says Burman, who vetoed his appointment. Another
thing Burman does is to run candidates' name on Google to see what
she can find.
If all this sounds like big time detective
stuff, perish the thought: it's as mundane as can be. Nor are candidates
unaware that they are being checked up on. ''They surely know we
will talk to people other than the references provided by them in
the CV; it's all kept very transparent,'' says Sunit Mehra, the
chief executive of hr consulting firm Horton.
It isn't always easy to get former employers
to part with information. Most employers rarely venture beyond verifying
an employee's designation and tenure of employment. Few Indian firms
have negative things to say of their former employees; in the West,
of course, former employers can be taken to court for providing
false information on performance.
''This is where the grapevine comes into play,''
says Bimal Rath, the head of HR at British Telecom's Indian operations,
referring to the need for human resource professionals to network.
The usual practice for those engaged in reference
checks is to ask former employers open-ended questions on a candidate's
strengths and weaknesses and look for subtle between-the-lines indications
that the respondents are being charitable about a candidate's capabilities
and track-record. You'd be surprised at how much it is possible
to say without really saying anything.
Most consultants believe two simple questions
(posed to former employees) should do the trick: would you re-employ
this person in your company, and where do you see him (or her) three
years from now?
Remember, every senior manager believes he
or she single-handedly turned around the company's fortunes, and
no one-this cuts across levels-is above burnishing the CV a wee