Does one bad reference mean you ditch the candidate?

by HCA28 Aug 2013

When references say candidates are poor employees or had problems in the company, prospective employers tend to toss the resume out without a second thought. But should they?

“I think they are quick to dismiss. Culture makes such a difference,” said Vertical Elevation CEO and founder Carol Schultz. “The biggest issue is having a clear alignment between a company’s talent strategy and business strategy.”

Schultz stated anything from a mismatch of personalities to “sour grapes” can be behind a poor reference. A bad reference sees the candidate dropped in a split second, while a glowing reference could mean an immediate offer. However, neither of these situations individually indicates whether or not the candidate is a good fit, Schultz said.

Companies need to look at the overall drivers of the individual and decide whether their skills, talents and personality fit with the company’s culture and business strategies, rather than assuming that someone who was a poor fit at one organization will be a poor fit at another.

Instead of dismissing a candidate after a bad call, Schultz suggests knowing exactly what you need from an employee in terms of skills, culture and other esoteric factors. Once your talent strategy is aligned with your business strategy you can ask specific, pointed questions to determine whether the applicant would be a good choice.

Would you dismiss a candidate on one or two poor references? Let us know your deal-breakers in the comments!


  • by Glenda May 28/08/2013 3:13:16 PM

    If you get a poor comment, you need to probe for evidence just like you probe the candidate for specifics. I don't even like the term referee 'check' - it sounds as if we have made up our mind and just need a tick or cross. Your conversation with the referee is not a chat - it is a structured job-focused interview. I like to make an appointment first rather than "have you got a couple of minutes?". This says I am serious. In the intervening time I will email them the job or at least the key selection criteria so that they can reflect and prepare their responses. Of course a good candidate will have contacted the referee and briefed them as to what achievements s/he would like the referee to verify. Your job is to get a balanced report. As most referees are not keen to offer negative comments, try the following:
    "Could you rank the KSC from strongest to weakest?"
    "What would you have liked X to improve on more than anything?"
    "What was on their development plan?"
    and of course "Would you employ X again?"
    And then follow up with probes for specifics.
    Listen to the non-verbals: the hesitancy, the qualifiers ("well I would if...) and the lack or abundance of enthusiasm.
    I have even had surprisingly helpful responses to this question "Is there anything I haven't asked you that I should have?"
    If you get conflicting reports from two referees, you must go to a third. Something is going on!

  • by HW The Ethicos Group 30/08/2013 4:54:52 PM

    Unless you know (and trust) the integrity of the provider of ANY referee report or testimonial, negative or positive, you would have to be crazy not to go behind the report and talk with the provider in a structured way, against the KSCs... As an Appeals Tribunal member for ten years (state and Cwth - APS) I discovered many examples of false reporting, usually provided to get rid of a so-called 'poor performer', but in fact to make life easier for a poor manager.

    Providing a false report is of course a breach of most Codes of Conduct, and may amount to official misconduct. Unfortunately, too few false reporterts are disciplined.

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