One of the basic services expected of an executive search firm (especially a retained one) is to put together valid and thorough professional and character references on short-listed candidates. Obviously, the temptation is to ask said candidates for a list of references, but isn’t that tantamount to asking a dog to sit in order to get a treat? Granted, in that list of names, there will be some qualified sources, but not all can be. Nobody is perfect, and I would strongly advise against hiring someone who appears to be too perfect: there are closets everywhere, and many contain skeletons. The candidate who volunteers the negative information about him/herself is the real hero and the one we will strongly recommend, all things being equal. The fact that a candidate was terminated from a job 10 years earlier for being too outspoken at the wrong time should not keep him/her from getting the job. It should, however, be brought to the attention of the new potential employer. A DUI during your 10th class reunion should not be held against you (unless there is pattern of recklessness).
Written references are usually barely worth the paper they are printed on. The word here is liability: we are a culture of legal disputes and anyone can sue you at any time, accusing you of keeping them from getting a job by having written a bad reference. At the executive level, a written reference should always include the phrase: “Do not hesitate to contact me for any additional information”. It implies there may more to the reference than the letter states. Do keep in mind, as the past employer, that you expose yourself to a lawsuit by failing to warn about a former employee’s past criminal activities.
As a candidate, you should expect that my team will call not only those on the list you provided but also several peers and subordinates you did not mention. We will also call former superiors you may have failed to list.
Last but not least, whenever the reference is truly negative, I will do my job as a recruiter and share it with my client. I often have to tell the reference provider that our exchange will remain “off the record”. When such is the case, I have to respect the request of the provider, and exclude his/her name or tell my client verbally that “a reference that was received unfortunately convinced me you should not hire this candidate”. And stick with it.
For search firms who deal with division or department head positions, most companies have a policy not to provide references beyond title and dates of employment. They used to be obligated to provide rehire status: in recent years, this matter has become a bit cloudy and many companies have the policy of saying “we are not allowed to provide that information”. Per Charles Conine, noted hospitality human resources consultant (and a fellow Cornell Hotel School alum) “many employers have been advised by their lawyers to discontinue providing any information in a reference or employment verification that could be used against the employer.”
PS: By the way, do not forget to Google yourself. You’d be surprised what you can find.