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Is a Reference Check Really Just “Name, Rank and Serial Number?”

The reference to what soldiers were instructed to the tell the enemy if they were captured seems to be the expected norm of some job seekers when it comes to reference checks these days, although it’s generally – confirmation of employment, dates of employment, and title.

The reality is, that’s just not true. I’ve done hundreds, if not thousands, of reference checks over my 12 years in Executive Search, and I don’t think anyone has ever given me “nothing but the facts” about a candidate. I always get color on the person and their performance, and I mean always.

I recently spoke with an old friend of mine who lost her job. I say lost, because I’m pretty certain that’s what happened, even though she said, it was pretty mutual between her and her boss. Subsequently I heard all the reasons why it wasn’t working out. Well, now is not the time to be without a job while looking for one, and I know she knows that, so I really think things didn’t work out between her and her boss for some reason.

Back Channel Checks: As a pretty large retained executive search firm in Southern California, and with relationships with over 4,000 executives through The McDermott & Bull Executive Network, there aren’t many companies we can’t call to get more information about someone without that company being given to us as a reference. I recently had a candidate who worked for a company 10 years ago, where I happen to know the most senior person in the Western U.S. today. While he didn’t know my candidate, he did some checking and found out a lot from people that had worked with the candidate 10 years prior. In fact, I don’t recall a search in the recent past where I wasn’t able to conduct a back-channel reference check, or my client wasn’t able to call one of their peers in the industry for more information.

When I asked my friend (story above) what her boss would say about her if called by a prospective employer, (being that it is a small world) she said she assumed in this litigious environment, it would be “name, rank and serial number.” I said “that’s absolutely incorrect”. People in her industry know each other, and sometimes are old friends and former co-workers. Would you not tell your friend about an employee that might have been a handful, or maybe didn’t perform up to your expectations? Absolutely you would.

I told my friend to reach out to her old boss, let him know that he would likely be getting called by future employers, and ask him what he would say. If it wasn’t positive, I suggested she take him out for coffee and have a heart to heart. Mend those fences. It might be as easy as falling on your sword and saying, “While I know you expected this and this out of me, I didn’t feel I had the resources to deliver that, or I was honestly in over my head and in my future pursuits, I will make sure not to bite off more than I can chew.” If nothing else, your former boss will likely have a more positive impression of you after you confront the “elephant in the room” and talk it out, and you will have a better idea about what he will say about you.

While companies are on the hiring trend again, they are still doing it cautiously, and there are good candidates, both working and non-working today. Any questionable reference could torpedo your chances, so make sure you know what your former bosses will say about you, even if you don’t mention them as a reference. Count on them being called.

And if you’re a hiring manager, make the “back-channel check” a must-complete before hiring item on your checklist. If you don’t know people from a candidate’s former employers, call us and we’ll see if we do. I often get calls from Human Resource leaders at client companies, or other hiring managers that I know, about a candidate they’re looking to hire on their own, asking if I can do some checking. I’m always happy to do that for a client or a friend.

Rod McDermott
Managing Partner
McDermott & Bull Executive Search

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