Job references, as movie mogul Sam Goldwyn said about verbal contracts, may not be worth the paper they're written on. John Courtis of Courtis and Partners, the recruitment specialists, agrees. He never asks for written references when recruiting for a client. 'After I have sent a job description and candidate criteria to a referee, we talk on the phone. Initially, I spend four or five minutes chatting, so he feels comfortable that we are reputable and discreet.' Like a skilled dentist, a good recruiter has to probe gently. Courtis favours positive questions such as: 'If you were hiring him, what would you do to get the best out of him?' Courtis adds: 'You may pick up nuggets, like the fact he disintegrates if hassled under pressure.' Unlike Courtis, however, most recruiters do ask for written references although they unanimously agree that, ideally, these should be followed up with a phone call. But beware the candidate bearing gifts in the form of ready-written testimonials, and act on your hunch if something doesn't ring true. Marie Taylor, assistant director of human resources at Scope, the charity, received a convincing-looking reference on headed notepaper of a well-known company.
Oddly, the pages were held together with a dressmaker's pin instead of a paper clip. Her instincts were right - the candidate had been dismissed from his job and had left the building with his P45 and a supply of company stationery. Taylor cautions that one should also beware of the over-glowing reference, and ask yourself whether the referee might be just a little too keen to be rid of the candidate. Scope has a standard reference request, so that omissions and evasions are usually glaringly obvious. Taylor finds it useful to ask very specific questions such as whether the individual has met set targets. The charity also has to be especially careful about anyone who will be working with children or vulnerable adults.
Checking out references can be time-consuming if the candidate comes from another country. On paper, the Australian nanny Louise Sullivan, who recently confessed to shaking six-month-old Caroline Jongen to death, appeared to be 'perfect'. A little more probing would have revealed that she had been sacked three years before by an Australian family - for mistreating their baby.
Inevitably, there is a hidden language of references because people are wary of legal comebacks, says Yve Newbold, a consultant with headhunters Heidrick and Struggles. The skill of the recruiter lies in reading - or listening - between the lines. 'When appointing a non-executive director, I might ask a referee whether a person is suitable to sit on the board of a large or small company,' reveals Newbold. 'If the response is 'definitely a small business', the underlying message may be 'don't put him near anything important' - so I enquire further.'
It is important to discuss the job description with the referee to ensure that the candidate has the appropriate skills, says Christine Little, chief executive of the Federation of Recruitment and Employment Services (FRES). There is no merit in being a brilliant number-cruncher if the role involves training IT operatives.
'Written references with personal follow-up are important but they are only a small part of the selection process,' says Simon Cartwright, group human resources director of Orange, the telecommunications provider. 'The cost of recruiting senior people is now so high that the recruiter uses a range of tools, which can include psychometric testing and team exercises as well as interviews.'
The experts are far too canny to get caught out themselves. John Courtis was considering a candidate to join his own consultancy, who gave out strongly positive vibes and a referee with a phone number in Holland.
Courtis put a note on the FRES network asking for information. He received a flood of phone calls reporting that the man had tried to obtain money by false pretences. The phone number was that of his accomplice. 'We didn't hire him,' says Courtis, dryly, 'but probably some poor fool did.'.