Over the course of my career, I have never been given a reference that provided anything but glowing reports and testimonials. Perhaps your experience will be different than mine, but the odds are slim. In every case each reference I contacted gushed ad infinitum about how wonderful the candidate was or how positively flawless the new product was, etc. From this you might conclude that it is a waste of time to even bother to contact the references, but this would be a bad assumption. The real reason to contact the references is not to hear the glowing reports that you are bound to get – it is to get the names of the second tier of people who CAN give you an unbiased view of the person/product you are investigating.
Concept: Nobody (not interview candidates nor control system or equipment vendors) will offer a bad reference. (Of course if they DID offer a bad reference, that would make the selection process much easier!) However, you can use that contact to get names and leads on other people who might provide a more accurate assessment.
Details: References that are provided as part of any evaluation process are practically worthless. No interview candidate and/or company would be so foolish as to provide references who will mention anything but complimentary details. However, that list can provide a path to a more complete evaluation with a bit of investigative work. If you are checking an interview candidate’s references, ask for the names of co-workers, bosses, or other individuals who might have directed the employee or worked with them. If possible, contact these individuals and see what information they have to offer (or what other people they know). Keep in mind that most people will speak more openly in a face to face conversation than over the phone. They will also tell a lot more to an acquaintance than to someone they do not know. Take advantage of this and try to meet people face to face or ask around and find if “someone knows someone” who can access these people.
Evaluating a company or a product is easier. If you are evaluating a product (such as a control system), ask for a list of recently installed systems. If you are evaluating a company (such as an engineering firm or a system integrator) ask for a list of recent clients. In either case, use the initial list of contacts to work deeper into the organization and access a larger group who might not have been primed by the sales person. The initial contact will often be a manager or other high level administrator who is far removed from the day to day issues and is not aware of any problems. Even worse, the initial contact may have been responsible for selecting the company and/or product and is loath to admit any problems that might reflect poorly on their career. However, if you can get past that initial contact and get the names and contact information of other engineers, supervisors, and operators, you may find a host of individuals who know a great deal and are more likely to share the pros and cons of the company or product being considered.
Watch-Outs: The human resources department is probably the LEAST suitable source for information about an interview candidate. When a human resources person identifies themselves on a phone call, the person on the other end usually clams up and will volunteer very little. Similarly, if a human resources person is asked about a particular candidate, they can offer very limited data or they risk making themselves the target of a lawsuit. Networking contacts (outside of human resources) will yield much more information.
Exceptions: An interview candidate is often currently working for a company and does not want that company to know they are job hunting. In this case it may not be possible to contact references at that company, much less get past them to dig deeper. One option is to ask for references and vet the employee’s work at a previous company (assuming they worked at another company before the one where they are employed today). Another option is to ask the candidate for the name of a trusted co-worker who might shed some light on the candidate’s qualifications without compromising the secret. Either way, the available information will be somewhat limited.
Insight: When you are evaluating a control system it is always best to go on site if at all possible. If the tour has been arranged by the vendor, they will likely try to limit contact to a few carefully chosen people. Ask for a control room tour and during this time have the evaluating team “fan out” to talk to technicians, operators, supervisors, etc. Ask them about the system and about any individuals who might know more about the system “behind the scenes.” These casual conversations and contacts with other people will provide the evaluation team a better picture of the strengths and weaknesses of the system in question.
Rule of Thumb: Never be satisfied with the reference provided. Treat it as a first step toward engaging a wider group of people who can actually provide a more realistic picture of the person/product/company being evaluated.