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When to Make Sure Your References are Solid

magnifying lensIt’s 2pm and I’ve been sitting at Jury Duty since 7:45 this morning, with a break for lunch. Lots of time to catch up on emails, and to think about an impactful blog.

I just received an email from a former employee asking me to take a reference call from a potential future employer. Writers block solved!

I’ve blogged about this before, but it’s probably worth repeating. References can be job winners or job killers. Often, it can be the “back channel reference” – the one the employee didn’t give but where the potential employer knows people that worked with the candidate – that makes an impact. Rather than call references that should be well-versed in singing the candidate’s praises, including not being able to think of a single weakness other than the employee works too hard or really takes his or her job extremely seriously, the back channel reference is a confidential outreach to a co-worker or former supervisor that the job candidate didn’t give their prospective employer. We all know people, and if we can get the real skinny on someone without the concerns of having it sugar-coated, we have a better shot of making the right hire choice.

Just last week I had a candidate submitted for an interim assignment for a company who employed some former co-workers of theirs, and the response was not positive. Deal done!

In the case of the email I received, the employee’s tenure was mostly positive, but marked with periods of irresponsibility and, in two cases, outright dishonesty. After those events which occurred back to back, we made a change. Dishonesty is something we won’t overlook and when we see it, we try to be quick to act. I say “try to be” because we actually took into account the time in service of this person, and decided to not be punitive and let them have a few weeks to look for something else, being cognizant to watch our backs. The change was made and everyone was better off.

Fast forward nearly two years and today the email comes through asking me to be a reference. Now, again, I don’t want to be punitive, but come on. This person was dishonest in a few instances, nothing major, but they could have been. Furthermore, they were really inconsequential events but proved a character flaw in this employee. Were they really asking me to tell a future employer, someone whom I might, or my firm might, come in contact with to do business in the future, only positive things about them?

I decided to be straight with this employee and tell them that under no circumstances will I talk with a future employer without sharing my experiences of this person, therefore making it imprudent to have me as a reference. I reiterated our experience to the former employee and said they had to know there would be consequences for their actions, one of which was no longer being able to utilize me as a reference, at least a positive one.

Our actions follow us through our careers. I’m not here to preach and say I’ve always done things the right way, but I do feel strongly that I’ve always strived to do the right thing. I suffer from guilt – if I don’t do the right thing, it haunts me. I hope the people I have worked with or for, and interacted with in business, feel the same of me.

As I said in a prior blog, it’s never too late to mend fences. Had this former employee come to me long before needing a reference from me, addressed their actions, and shown some personal growth from the events, then maybe I would have felt differently. I wouldn’t have lied for them, and likely would have shared my experiences of them with a future employer; however I would have included their attempt to make things right in my discussion. I don’t know if it would have made a difference or not, but it certainly would have been better than getting either a negative or no reference. Unless they take their multi-year job with our firm off their resume, their future employers should call us.

They say it’s no longer “who you know.” It’s now “who knows you and what do they say about you.”

Well, what do they say about you?

I hope you enjoyed this and please feel free to comment.

Email Rod McDermott
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