A Leading Perspective

Pragmatic insights for the leader in you


They’re not talking…so now what?

I ran into a colleague the other day who had been interviewing for one of his vacancies.  Upon asking about the selection, I learned he had identified his top candidate but then changed his mind because he couldn’t get a reference.

WHAT?  His assumption was that if the candidate’s ex-employers weren’t offering references, the candidate had something to hide.

I offered to get him a refill on his coffee so we could have a little chat.  It went a little like this.

Dude, there are lots of reasons why people won’t give references on past or current employees; some of them are valid and some are not.

  • Some employers prohibit reference sharing.
    This phenomenon befuddles me as much as people who pass on dessert!  Somewhere, in the deep dark belly of the organization is a Human Resources practitioner (and perhaps one too many attorneys) who has spent numerous hours developing a policy to prohibit the act of sharing information.  Lord knows why…perhaps the employer had a rogue supervisor who spread vicious lies about an ex-employee and now all supervisors are gagged.  Perhaps corporate counsel believes the risk of defamation is “scarier” than the risk of negligent hiring.  Perhaps the HR Director went to some crazy conference and learned that a “don’t tell” policy was popular and, since everyone wants to be popular, he/she hopped on that bandwagon.
  • Supervisors may be ignorant.
    Mind you, I’m sure they are geniuses in their craft but it’s likely their genius label stops there; most don’t make a habit of keeping abreast of HR best practices.  And honestly, most of them forward reference inquiries straight to the HR office anyway (they probably just read the new policy noted above…egads!)
  • The candidate may be “to blame” for the lack of information sharing.
    Maybe he/she failed to contact/prepare the reference about the ongoing job search.  Maybe he/she didn’t provide a written release to the ex-employer.  Maybe he/she didn’t realize there was this crazy “don’t tell” policy floating around.

I suppose it’s possible the candidate is as bad as a poorly made oatmeal cookie on a cold and snowy Sunday but, as the above suggests, there could be valid reasons to explain why information wasn’t shared.

I digress…I suggested to my colleague to 1) try some Biscotti, as it is divine, and 2) try some of the tactics below before he rejected the candidate.

  • Put some ownership on the candidate.
    Communicate that you cannot/will not consider an offer without gaining previous employment information.  Offer ideas on how he can arrange for relevant, factual information to be shared.
  • Be respectful of the Reference’s time
    Arrange a time to call him/her.  Some people like sending questions via email but it’s my experience that this doesn’t work well for getting the information back.  It does, however, help to get the person “prepared” for your phone call.
  • Be a good interviewer when calling the reference.
    Start with sharing information about the job (what the responsibilities are and what types of competencies the candidate would need to have in order to be successful).Continue with what you learned about the candidate.  Then share what information needs to be validated, and then offer that the candidate suggested the Reference would be a good person with whom to talk.
  • Be persistent without being annoying.
    Give some gentle reminders, solicit some empathy, etc. to make it clear to the candidate or the Reference that you cannot pursue an employment offer until you do your “due diligence” in gathering information.
  • Stop the madness!  If you work for an employer that prohibits factual information sharing, do something about it!  How hypocritical is it of you to seek information but yet refuse to give information?
  • Do some research so you can inform others or be better informed yourself.  We are all concerned about negligent hiring/negligent retention legislation – that’s why we need to get employment references.  In addition, many states have laws protecting individuals who, in good faith, disclose information about the job performance of an employee or former employee to a prospective employer.  They are typically called “immunity from good faith disclosure” laws.  As my mom used to say, “Look it up and learn something!” 🙂

I’ve since learned that the candidate was contacted…and that two successful references resulted in an employment offer.  SWEET!  One down, let’s keep it going folks!

EmploymentImmunity from Good FaithLibelRecruitmentReferencesSelectionSlander

Heather Kinzie • January 22, 2012

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  1. Tracy Hazen February 6, 2012 - 12:06 pm Reply

    So riddle me this, Heather: As you know, my employer is in a very specialized niche market. In our industry everyone knows everyone else. Say an applicant’s references check out beautifully but a couple of current (trusted) employees (who may have worked with said applicant in the past) have very negative information. How does one handle this with the applicant?

    • Heather Kinzie February 8, 2012 - 8:07 pm Reply

      Ahhh, the case of the bad reputation. Very tricky, Tracy, but here is my advice. Try to put yourself into the applicant’s shoes – if you had previous coworkers bad mouthing you, wouldn’t you want to be able to tell your side of the story? Of course you would! Anytime I get a bad reference – from anyone – I always take the information to the applicant and ask “what say you?” I try to be discreet and not divulge too many specifics but I do give the applicant a chance to show his/her side of the coin. For instance, I may say something like, “It has come to my attention that you have a tendency to be a bit stubborn and/or close minded. Do you see yourself in that way and, if so, what have you done to get past it? If you don’t see yourself in that way, why do you think others perceive you in that way?” What I love about putting the ball back in the applicant’s court is that he/she has the chance to win…and lose! If he/she immediately gets defensive and obstinate, you know a good fit may not be possible! If he/she has a decent story to tell, you may be willing to accept him/her into the workplace…coupled with knowing you may have to do some team building to make sure the others who bad mouthed the applicant are open minded to the fact that people can change and improve. So should we all!

  2. Desiree February 25, 2012 - 7:25 pm Reply

    1) I was iiwirveetnng a Sales person for my office and I told the candidate he had to really be able to think on his feet- he asked what does that mean ? NEXT!2) Had one take a call from his cell phone and leave the room. But that wasn’t as bad as when I left the room later to get him water I came back and he had his full size laptop busted out on the table checking email (or something). I was only gone like 4 minutes. NEXT! 3) Had a woman ask me if I was married during a pretty intense interview. NEXT!4) This one is post interview but pre-start. My 40 something year old candidate emails me at 4:30 the morning he is to start and informs me he has had a diving board accident and is too injured to start!!! He didn’t realize it at the time that he would in-fact be starting- but I did!!!!!!!! After 17 years of Recruiting I have stories!!

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