When I first began leading faculty searches, I had no hesitations about contacting references, whether by e-mail or by phone. Just a part of the process, I thought. Doing due diligence.
Now that I’ve been running searches for a while, I have completely rethought reference checks. I now reserve phone calls for the final stages of the search. References communicate with candidates almost immediately (“I got a call about you today! They sounded really interested!”), which means that the contact is actually a form of communication with the applicant. If the position hasn’t been fully released for interviews, I no longer make phone calls unless I am highly convinced that the position will be funded. Not only does this prevent applicants from getting their hopes up based on contacts coming too early, it saves me work in the long term.
I have a different standard for e-mail contacts and I will usually include a disclaimer of sorts, something like, “We are in the early stages of vetting some promising applicants’ information; as we move further into our process, we may request a phone interview with references for more in-depth information.” In these early e-mails I only ask general questions: possible defense date where applicable, general teaching abilities, scholarly promise, noteworthy accomplishments, and so forth. The more general the better, at least in the earliest stages of the search.
When is the best time for a search committee to contact references in terms of balancing the need to have detailed information and the need to avoid unfairly signaling candidates that the process is farther along than it actually is?