MARCH 31, 2002
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Stanley Fischer Unplugged
He has the rare distinction of having advised through the half-a-dozen economic crises of the 90s. But now economist Stanley Fischer is calling it quits at the International Monetary Fund, and joining Citicorp as Vice Chairman. In India recently, Fischer spoke on IMF, India, and the global recession.
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Do You Know These People?
No, we're not suggesting employers have to pick from a veritable rogues gallery, but in the absence of alerts-much like these wanted posters-they're realising the importance of reference checks.

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 references.
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 bit.