Getting "Burned" by a Great Reference... | Tim Tolan | Healthcare Blogs Skip to content Skip to navigation

Getting "Burned" by a Great Reference...

October 23, 2008
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Pardon my absence from the blog as I have been dealing with the meltdown in the economy, moving my daughter back to Atlanta and… busy with a few search assignments that have kept me up at nightJ. While many of you are attending the CHIME conference in Las
Vegas, I’m here at my desk working!


This past week I’ve been working on references for a CIO for one of my search assignments, and as usual, it has taken days to get all of the references to return my many phone calls and voice mail messages… I my practice, I give my clients (and encourage them too!) the option to contact some of the references on their own as I think it is a very good practice to do so. It gives the client the change to talk openly with a former colleague, hiring manager or CEO to get a different perspective on how the individual performed in their previous role. A dangerous option to give clients by some standards (and some competitors) - but my clients’ actually appreciate the openness of the process.

During this reference check in which the candidate provided their “great references” my client got an “earful” and it was not “pretty”. My client instantly built a rapport with the reference and the flood-gates opened with honest candor about this candidate. OUCH! OUCH! OUCH! Now what? The only thing I could do at this point was to coach the candidate to call each reference and find out if they had heard from my client and to discuss how the call went. Unless the client is willing (and they usually are not) to divulge where the bad reference came from – it sort of it what it is.

Moral of the story: If you plan to use the same set of references during your career you are playing Russian roulette with the outcome. You may not even know where your reference is working as you may only have their cell number or home number. What if they are working for a competitor? What if something negative happened after you stopped working with that individual and somehow you were blamed for it and thrown under the bus and didn’t even know it?

I recommend you know your references- and I mean know them well. If they are a solid reference and you plan to use them during your career – you should stay in touch ….even when you don’t need to use them in a job search. Know where they work, what they are doing these days and make darn sure you call them and discuss the fact that you will be using them in your search. Tell them the kind of role you are in search of (you don’t have to tell them the name of the prospective company yet) and why you feel you are best suited for the role. Ask them if there is anything about being a reference for you that might make them feel uncomfortable. Dig, dig, dig and dig some more. Thank them for being your reference and once you land in your new role send them a hand written thank you note and your new business card so they can stay in touch.

Bottom Line: Know your references and know them well!



Thanks Tim. It was worth waiting for your post; your stories are helpful and validating of how recruiting has evolved and is really practiced these days.

Two quick recent experiences to share:

1) I was asked for a reference for a colleague from 10 years ago. His style is informed by classic IBM training. It can be perceived today as overly polished. The guy is a solid performer and the reference call was extremely helpful. It validated and overcame the concerns of the hiring exec, who called the references himself. (We had a great chat beyond the candidate as well.)

2) I've been asked several times to be a reference. Per professional standards, I review the resume of the requester, prior to being a reference, to make sure that I can, with high integrity, be the strong reference for the candidate. I'm specifically looking for accomplishments and behaviors that I can honestly attest to, in adequate detail to inform the hiring decision. So, I put 30 minutes into the process, exclusive of time with the person requesting the reference and my coordination time for the meetings. In several prominent cases, it's not clear to me that employers are calling the references.

Splash of Reality:  The only way you can get any insight into how the candidate will respond to the splash of reality your organization is going to present is by talking to those who have seen the candidate respond to the last splash!

In the words of our fellow blogger, welcome to another sausage factory, the world of retained search!

I appreciate your comments and I am curious on how much do references really play in the hiring companies decision process. Is it really fair to say that you did or did not get hired for your past performance? Also, how many companies really do check references?