I've never understood the whole idea of checking references when hiring a new employee. Sure, in theory it makes a certain kind of sense: An employer would want to know that the person he or she is about to hire has enough social competence to merit a favorable word from a previous employer or colleague. But how valuable is any information gleaned? After all, if I provide the name of someone to serve as a reference, an employer will logically assume that the reference is going to say nice things about me--else, why would I provide that name in the first place. I've always thought that the very provision of a person's name as a reference obviates the need for an employer to call the reference.
Well, I had always thought that.
The other day, though, I received an e-mail from someone who had been listed as a reference for someone we were considering hiring. I opened the message, fully expecting to read some boilerplate commentary about how wondrous the prospective hire was. Instead, the reference explained that he was surprised to have been asked for a recommendation, as he actually had very little knowledge of the applicant's skills and had not even been told that the applicant was listing him as a reference.
I have a newfound appreciation for the reference check--not so much because I find great value in the hosannas most references will sing, but rather because I have come to understand that the ability of an applicant to select an appropriate reference is a small but effective way to assess an applicant's judgment. Could save an employer a lot of heartache in the long run.