- Most former employers are reluctant to talk.
- All voluntary references provided by you result in positive feedback.
- References are a rubber-stamp procedure used only to reinforce the decision to hire you.
- References hardly ever eliminate you from the competition.
Reference checks are a formality and a rubber-stamp procedure used only to verify your titles and dates of employment
Reference checks are fast becoming the most scrutinized area for selecting candidates.
The reality in a tough market is that references can be used by potential employers to develop your work and personality profile before, not after, you make the team. Once you sign off on an employment application that authorizes contact with your references, the process could begin immediately or right after the final interviews. Therefore, it is very important to pay close attention to the reference disclosures, usually in microscopic print, at the end of every employment application.
The following discussion addresses the four most common myths about references and suggests positive steps you can take to minimize a poor reference.
Myth 1 : Most Former Employers Are Reluctant to Talk
Many candidates feel that company policies prohibiting references or discussions about former employees will protect a poor work history. Wrong!
I am hard pressed to remember the last time I heard the line "It's not our policy to discuss former employees." Unwritten code bonds top executives never to intentionally hide information on a previous employee provided the right question is asked by the interviewer.
To get to the heart of a potential candidate's character and work habits, a skilled professional will ask tough, open-ended questions that will draw an unbiased response from the former employer. I have seldom found a reference that intentionally distorted the truth. Why? RECIPROCITY! In most instances, people work within an industry for years, and someday the person giving the reference may need open feedback from the person performing the check. Make no mistake about it, managers, even competitors, talk openly about their mistakes.
References you hand-pick always result in positive feedback.
Many individuals with big egos will inadvertently provide negative feedback to demonstrate their level of competence.
Candidates - When managers' performances are measured by their ability to hire good people, you can be assured it's in their best interest to share information.
Myth 2 - All Voluntary References Result in Positive Feedback
In a two-year period, our firm disqualified forty-one people after speaking with their references. Here are a few of the comments made by references that were hand-picked by candidates. Keep in mind that these statements came from friends, associates, and former bosses.
- "Tom is a great salesman now that he has controlled his drinking problem."
- "Sue really knocks out a lot of work; it's just too bad that turnover in her department is over 50 percent. But she is working on improving relations with her people."
- "Mr. Miller is a good boss, once you learn to do it his way and only his way."
- "Judy's customers loved her, but I had to get personally involved each time we announced a price increase to ensure it stuck. Judy hated to bring bad news to her friends."
- "Bob will make a great Q.A. manager because he really cares. In fact, he's so good; he could shut your entire operation down and feel he's doing his job. Now that's a strong manager."
- "Tasha is technically astute and has great potential. I only wish we didn't have to lay her off so I could have developed Tasha into a strong contributor."
References seldom eliminate you from the competition.
Questionable references eliminate 10 to 20 percent of all candidates.
In each of these examples, the person giving the reference truly thought he or she was helping the job seeker. Needless to say, comments like these raise the interviewer's antenna, resulting in closer scrutiny.
After years of checking hundreds of references, I have developed personality profiles on individuals most likely to inadvertently sink a candidate with an offhanded, seemingly innocent remark. My experience indicates that a person with a strong ego or one who is a little insecure has a greater tendency to talk openly during a reference check. These individuals feel compelled to compare the candidate's performance to others and demonstrate their high level of intelligence by pointing out those few little idiosyncrasies that only they would notice. GMs, sales managers, and technical directors with strong personalities and inflated egos will feel obliged to say something negative.
I remember a specific instance when our consulting firm was hiring a young account executive. Since this person was only a year out of school, we decided to forgo formal reference checks and hire this young woman on her merit. Unaware that she had been accepted for the position, her former boss, who was also a close personal friend of her family, decided to call me in an effort to push along her chances of landing the job. In thirty minutes, this friend proceeded to go into specific details concerning his strong influence on this young woman. He went on further to list shortcomings she would have to conquer to meet his standards in the workplace.
It is inappropriate to ask your references to give you feedback on their discussions with potential employers.
It is critical that you maintain constant contact with your references to ensure the proper message is being translated to potential employers.
Had I received this reference before we hired the account representative, she probably would have been eliminated as a candidate.
The bottom line
Know your references and ask for their honest critiques before you give their names to potential employers. Avoid getting references from people who may hurt your chances of making the team.