Can you get useful information from job references?

July 5, 2012, 6:03 PM UTC

FORTUNE — Dear Annie: I’m in my first job as a manager and have never hired anyone before, so I hope this isn’t a dumb question. How can I get references to tell me more than the corporate equivalent of name, rank, and serial number? I’m looking at three candidates whose credentials and experience are all equally impressive, so I was hoping that references would serve as a tie-breaker. But everyone I’ve called so far has been very correct and conscientious about observing their companies’ policies against commenting on anything useful — such as, for example, what the candidate is like to work with on a daily basis.

Our HR department is no help (I suspect because our company has the same kind of no-comment policy), and hiring a professional reference-checking service isn’t in the budget. Any suggestions about how to deal with this? — Hitting a Brick Wall

Dear HBW: It’s not a dumb question at all. “The biggest mistake most hiring managers make is asking a candidate for three references, and then calling those three people and having totally meaningless conversations,” says Greg Moran.

A former recruiter who “got very frustrated trying to check references,” he says, Moran is now president and CEO of, a company based in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., that markets software aimed at making the process more efficient for big clients like Disney (DIS).

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“Reference checking is often a missed opportunity, which is too bad,” he adds, “because all the research shows that peer reviews — which is what references are, when they’re handled right — are the single best predictor of how a candidate will perform in a new job.” Getting the most out of checking them “requires you to become a bit of an investigator, but it is worth the effort.”

Where do you start? First, instead of asking for the usual three references, ask for five (more in a minute about why). At the same time, request that all five be former or current peers, bosses, or subordinates, not human resources staffers. “You want to speak with people who worked with this person on a day-to-day basis,” Moran says.

Then, let the candidate know that he or she is going to be in charge of the checking process. “If you want real information, the candidate has to get involved,” says Moran. “It creates a whole different dynamic. Instead of your calling someone you don’t know out of the blue, ask the candidate to call each reference, talk a little about the job she’s trying to get, and set up an appointment for you to call.”

Doesn’t this give the candidate a chance to coach references about what to tell you? “Any smart candidate is going to do that anyway,” Moran notes. “But having the candidate pave the way, by essentially asking for a favor, increases the odds that the person you’re calling will make an exception to the no-comment policy.”

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Next, before each appointment, take a few minutes to prepare. “Phone conversations can get very unfocused and meandering. So, to save time and stay on track, analyze exactly what traits and skills will lead to success in this job,” Moran advises. “Write a short list of specific questions that pinpoint those things.”

You may still run into some managers who balk at revealing more than titles and dates. “That’s why you ask for five instead of three,” Moran explains. On average, he has found, two out of five references are policy sticklers — “so even if two won’t make an exception and answer your questions, you’ll still have three who do.”

Two other suggestions you might find helpful: “Bear in mind that you aren’t necessarily limited to the references a candidate gives you,” Moran points out. “If you know people on LinkedIn or elsewhere who also know this person, you can certainly ask them about him or her. Also, when you do reach former colleagues and bosses, ask them, ‘Is there anyone else you’d recommend I speak with?’ Taking a little extra time to dig around a bit can give you a really well-rounded picture.”

Another way around the standard pro forma reference check is to ask the candidate in an interview what he thinks former bosses would say about him. “Go through the person’s resume and, for each position, ask, ‘Whom did you report to at XYZ Corp.? What is he or she likely to tell me about you if I ask?’” says Moran. “You might also ask, ‘Out of all these people you reported to, who would give you the least enthusiastic review? What about the most enthusiastic? Why?’”

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Most people have a pretty clear idea of how they were, or are, regarded — and the possibility that you will call a former boss for a reality check may well prompt an honest self-appraisal, Moran says: “Even if you never actually call anybody, you’ll learn a lot.”

Talkback: When asked for a reference, do you usually give only titles and dates, or are you willing to say more? If you’re a hiring manager, have you found it hard to get useful information from references? Leave a comment below.