Reference Check-The Fault in our Systems!

4 May , 2017  

Our referees are usually friends, past bosses who will swear by our name. They could be people who are committed to us about a positive feedback. So how can you be sure about the reference check of your next hire when this nexus is at work. Even the LinkedIn recommendations are a cozy club of mutual interests. I recommend ‘you’ and in turn ‘you’ recommend ‘me’. How on earth can we trust a tangle like that?

Time Gap

Recently I got a text from a friendly competitor CEO. He wanted to check about my ex colleague whom we wanted to hire. Off course, she had forewarned me about this call and I was sort of prepared for this conversation. I quickly realised that I wasn’t doing justice to the faith her prospective employer had put in me. Furthermore, I wasn’t feeling sure whether I was loyal to her trust in me about a positive reference. No’ she wasn’t an underperforming colleague nor had she crossed our loyalty boundaries.  Just that the role she had worked with me and the current role she was being considered were distantly different. She last worked with me about 10 years ago.

I am sure she must have developed/changed in a decade. I tried to be honest and held my reference to the time and role she worked with me. But, I realized that her new employer was looking for something more like an assurance. This, I couldn’t provide as the role was new and there was a considerable time gap. I am of a belief that the core of a person cannot change with time, but then people do acquire or lose skills(age?) over a period too. So, then how close can we get to providing a fair reference checks for both parties involved? Probably never!

One Bad Apple

Reference checks can only be ‘one’ of the many parts of assessing a person while hiring. In a long career beyond integrity all other things related to an individual are contextual and debatable. Last week one of my friends called me to give thumbs up after his last round of interviews with the VCs. A week later the VCs told the promoter that they discovered that his exit from his ex-employer was not smooth. After 5 meetings with various stake holders he was rejected because somebody whom the VCs knew thought differently about him. 10 plus hours of interviewing, assessing were discarded just becoz amongst his 4 previous employers one had cast a doubt. There are two sides to any story but in the hiring process only one side of the story is relevant.

Reference Check Process Complexity

Multiple reasons :

  1. Timing: First, you can’t call the current employer and then if you have a long tenure here the information from the previous employer will become dated. So, talking to the ex-employer will only be just a tick.
  2. Conflict of Interest: The referees are always favourite ex-bosses, peers or customers of the job seeker. So, expect to hear only positive stuff from them. I know all of us can claim a high moral ground that we are honest, fair as referees. But, let’s look deep into the mirror and ask ourselves one thing. Will we talk about the not so good skills/behaviours of our friends/ex reportees when their future is at stake?
  3. Relevance: The time and role for which reference is sought do get irrelevant with time. People acquire new skills, it’s also said that people are hired for potential, so the past becomes a barrier to hire?
  4. Exceptions: one isolated incident often can’t be a final assessment of the person in question. But, there are organisations and certain years in our career which wouldn’t have been our best. That actually shouldn’t qualify for us to be written off forever. Whereas, that’s a likelihood in a reference check situation.

The Trail

Why do all pundits keep saying that ‘leave’ your employer on a good note? It’s for this reason, future references. What do you do if your boss or employers are nasty during your exits, trouble you for relieving letters, Delay Final settlements? You are supposed to keep your chin up, thank them for all the harassment, write some nice send-offs note for all the ‘learnings’ you had. Are you the honest types & want to give a candid feedback in the exit interview? It could come to bite you someday as a ‘bad exit’ by the guy who was your boss at that time. So, don’t leave that trail!

Imagine looking for your next job when you make your CV?

If you need referees for your next job, are you the type who will say, “call anybody amongst my ex bosses” or will say “I shall get back with the names?”. I presume just like me it’s the latter for you too! Obviously in a long career we have made friends and colleagues/enemies. So, it’s the friends who get us most of the jobs and the un/known colleagues/enemies who cost us some of the opportunities. We need to be smart enough to know who can cause harm before arriving at a curative list of people we can use.

Trial your Reference

They say know your enemies in corporate life. A simple test to start this is to ask your past bosses for recommendations on LinkedIn. The non-responsive ones are the ones you should strike off for future references. But then the system is such that phone calls will still reach them if your luck is not with you. To minimise damage, I suggest you keep wishing them on their birthdays, anniversaries. Also ‘like’ their dumb posts and comments to ensure they don’t cause harm even if they are not endorsing you. I just did a test, 4 of my ex-bosses haven’t responded to my requests 🙂

Back to the topic again. My thinking has changed on reference checks of my future staff. I believe it’s a huge chance factor to get to talk to the right people and get a balanced perspective.

There is a saying that people are not bad, situations are! But who is listening?

The universal rule when we move around in our career is to leave with Happy Pictures!

20 Responses

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    Enjoyed the read Kamal.
    On the other hand, you were ready to give a thumbs up for someone who didn’t hit it off well with you. I thought it was great and the right thing to do – Quite different from what we generally experience in the corporate world.

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