Reference Check

Throughout my career I have had the pleasure of interviewing and hiring dozens of people. Sometimes, resumes and cover letters come with references, sometimes they don’t, but once a candidate is chosen, I am a firm believer in checking references – at least three.

If you are a cynic, it is easy to think reference checking might be a waste of time. I mean after all, what candidate would ever list someone as a reference who would say anything less than glowing things? You’d be shocked.

One time I called the very first reference on a candidate’s resume and once I introduced myself, the individual on the other end of the phone said, “He listed ME as a reference? Wow, that really surprises me. He was a terrible employee and I told him as much, several times, before I fired him.”

We all make decisions and declarations based on references of all kinds – in this case by references, I am referring to things we know to be true. But think about this – what happens when we don’t fully understand the references on which we are basing these decisions?

Today I bring you three stories that illustrate the point:


In the early days of the Internet, I worked for a company in Rochester, NY that did website development for professional associations and societies. One of the things we did a great deal of was converting traditionally paper forms into online forms.

As straightforward as that might sound today, there was a lot of misunderstanding of how such things work. Early on, one of our customers actually asked us to set up forms that members could fill out online, the results of which their staff would print out and then manually enter the data into their system. I am not making any of this up.

There was one particular forms job that I will never forget.

Peter, our sales manager, worked out of an office in Washington DC, passed along a form that an important client wanted put online. Up the chain of command at this particular client were some folks who weren’t too keen on the idea, so our sales guy asked us to do the work but to show it to him first.

We took the one-page paper form, and the programming team created an online version containing all the same fields. We tested the form and found it to be functioning well, so we forwarded it on to the sales guy to review.

Later that day we were on call with Peter talking about another project. Once the business of that project was complete, I asked him if he had looked at the form we sent. He said that he had, but he was concerned.

“What are your concerns?” I asked. He paused for a moment and said, “well, the form I sent you is on a single piece of paper, but this form requires scrolling. Why doesn’t it fit on a single screen?”

I explained that screen resolution (at that time) was 72 dots per inch and print resolution is typically 300 dots per inch or more, so that accounts for the difference.

blog-2015-03-XC-resolutionHe then said, “I’m confused – I am holding the paper form in front of my computer screen, and it fits just fine. Please fix the form and let me know when it is finished. I can not show it to the client like this.”

The programmers sitting around the conference table were so dumbfounded, they could not speak. The speakerphone cut to dial tone before anyone made a sound.

Gray Area

Years after the form fiasco, I was the Director of Sales & Marketing for a CD and DVD manufacturer. One day I got a call from a company who was setting up an exhibit for Tiffany & Co., you know those jewelry people. I was asked to give them a quote for 5,000 CDs they planned to hand out at a trade show.

I sent the quote off, the client accepted it and then sent me both the master disc and artwork for the disc surface.

The first problem came when I realized that the master disc he sent was in fact a DVD, not a CD. I called the client to tell him since his disc was a DVD, the pricing would be higher. He responded by saying, “They look the same to me. I think you guys charge more for DVDs, just because you can.” I opted not to even enter into this argument, simply telling him that the previous pricing no longer applied.

At the end of that conversation, the client let me know that the color match of the gray color on the disc surface was of paramount importance. He asked if we were able to exactly match the Pantone color they had specified. I let him know that we had a highly precise ink measuring system and a calibrated light-booth in which we compare the printed disc with the reference books we get directly from Pantone every year. Without hesitation, I promised a perfect match.

The little light booth that assures a perfect match

The little light booth that assures a perfect match

The client was so concerned with the color on the disc that they chose to pay a additional $350 to get a pre-production “press proof” to review before approving the production run. I put my best printer on the job.

The team printed the proof, compared it in the light booth, and declared the work a success. They called me back to the screen-printing room to have a look and I agreed that the match was absolutely spot-on. I shipped the proof overnight to the client.

The next morning my phone rang, it was the client and he was hopping mad.

He declared that we were the sloppiest, most incompetent vendor he had ever worked with. It took me a minute to calm him down and once I did, he told me that the press proof, “wasn’t even close.”

I asked him if he was viewing it in fluorescent light or natural light, since different light sources have different “color temperatures” which can affect how colors appear. It was at this point he revealed the depth of his ignorance.

He took in an exasperated breath and said, “I’m looking at it under fluorescent, but that shouldn’t matter. I mean I am holding it right next to the color we specified on my monitor and, as I’ve already said, it isn’t even close.”

I took a deep breath of my own, and calmly said, “Does your monitor have a brightness knob?” He quickly replied, “yeah, what does that have to do with anything?”

“Okay then,” I said, “hold the proof up to the monitor and then turn the knob until it matches.” After about thirty seconds, the client spoke again saying, “huh, okay, thanks, proof approved.” I hung up the phone, but I continued shaking my head for hours after.

You can see the future from here

In early 2013 I was working on a project for a large educational publisher. They had an older math program that was written in Adobe Flash and they hired my company to reprogram it all in HTML5. In non-technical terms we were re-writing everything in a more modern programming language that would work on mobile devices.

For each module we re-wrote, we would test the code on a specific list of web browsers including different versions of Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome, Safari and Opera. The different browsers and the different versions were mutually agreed to at the outset of the project and clearly documented in the contract.

Every week, we had a status call with both my team and the client team, which included their testers. One week in April 2013, we were walking through our weekly status, when one of the testers spoke up saying, “I’ve discovered what I think is a significant problem. I tested several of the modules on Internet Explorer 11 and they don’t work properly.”

This sounds like an actual problem until I let you in on two significant details:

  • Internet Explorer 11 was not on our mutually agreed list of browsers to test
  • It was April 2013 and Microsoft did not actually release IE 11 until October 2013 (the tester was using a very early “alpha” copy he had received from a buddy at Microsoft)

So, not only were we not supposed to be testing on IE 11, it wouldn’t be released to the world for another six months! This however is not the end of the story.

After explaining to the overzealous tester that he was out of line on two fronts, he uttered yet another room silencing question. While ceding to all those present he was technically wrong, he wrapped up by asking my team, “well, can you to confirm that all of these modules are being programmed for forward compatibility?”

Just like the other two situations, everyone on our end of the phone was so taken aback by the words of the client they were rendered speechless. We chose not to embarrass the tester with twenty people on the phone, but later that day I had a chat with the program manager and the topic of “forward compatible” programming was never mentioned again.



In all three stories above, the problem was not in the thoughts of the uninformed person, but rather in their individual misunderstanding of the reference material that was the underpinning of their argument.

No matter how well a house is built, if it sits on a foundation of sand (or ignorance), it will not stand.

So, the next time you are about to take a strong position on anything, make damn sure that the reference points in your mind are known to be both accurate and complete. This is a philosophy about which I can absolutely promise limitless future compatibility.


Copyright © 2015 – Stephen S. Nazarian – All rights reserved.

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2 thoughts on “Reference Check

  • Being that “facepalm” person is not easy, but we have all been there!
    Steve’s wake-up call gets to the heart of two possibilities once the employee has “passed” the reference/non-reference test in the first place: (A) Is the employee on the wrong bus? (B) Is the employee on the right bus, but the wrong seat? Another through-provoking article written with humor!

  • Being that “facepalm” person is not easy, but we have all been there!
    Steve’s wake-up call gets to the heart of two possibilities once the employee has “passed” the reference/non-reference test in the first place: (A) Is the employee on the wrong bus? (B) Is the employee on the right bus, but the wrong seat? Another thought-provoking article written with humor!

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