What Every Recruiter Ought to Know About Candidates With Questionable References

May 10, 2012
This article is part of a series called Opinion.

If you have ever been in a situation when checking references on a candidate you uncovered negative references and/or performance reviews, you are not alone. What you do with the information is key.

This is one of the most misunderstood, hence mishandled, situations preventing good candidates from being hired. I have seen people get poor reviews because of “sour grapes,” and it happens more often than you may think. I’ve had managers tell me negative things about a former employee, and upon diving in and asking more detailed questions, determined the negative feedback to be sour grapes or a poor fit with culture or the manager. Oftentimes a hiring manager calls a former associate of his whom the candidate worked for and gets a lousy reference. In a split second the candidate is dropped from consideration without further investigation.

The opposite holds true of positive references: if the same manager gets a glowing reference on the candidate, he makes an offer. But neither of these situations individually indicates whether or not the candidate is “right” for you.

Benefit of the Doubt

When checking references on potential hires, remember that you must look at the circumstances by which the candidate received positive or negative feedback. Assuming a candidate is the “right” one for the job because of positive evaluations is just as problematic as assuming a candidate is the “wrong” one for the job because of negative evaluations. Due diligence is critical; dive deeply into any evaluation an individual received prior to you extending an offer of employment.

If you are able to uncover information about a potential hire who received poor evaluations or references from past employers, consider yourself ahead of the game. Remember … the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know. I can’t tell you how many stories I’ve heard about candidates who received glowing reviews, only to totally fail in their positions. Look at this as an opportunity to dive headfirst into why they received it. You need to speak to the evaluators as well as the candidate in question. Create a safe space for the evaluator and candidate to speak freely and without repercussion. Ask thoughtful questions that determine what was behind the negative or positive review. Just because a candidate was successful or unsuccessful in his last position will not directly indicate success or failure with your organization.

I’m not saying that a candidate with multiple poor employee evaluations shouldn’t raise a yellow flag. I’m saying that it’s imperative to ask questions of the evaluator that will provide you with answers that help you determine if it makes sense to move forward with your candidate.

Here are just a few questions to keep in mind that may very well cause an employee to receive poor evaluations:

  1. Was the employee a cultural mismatch with the company? This can be one of the biggest causes of trouble with an employee.
  2. Did the past company truly know the profile of a successful hire and determine it through an objective assessment? Many companies never assess and benchmark their employees to determine hiring profiles. Have you evaluated your employees to determine if this individual will be a fit for you? Gut feelings don’t count.
  3. Was he a fit with his past manager(s)? Maybe the manager turned out to be a micromanager. I know few successful professionals who will tolerate being micromanaged. In my experience, these folks end up leaving their company because of the manager.
  4. Did the hiring manager end up leaving and was he replaced with someone the employee was unable to work with? This usually happens because of what I’ve mentioned in #2 and/or because the interview process doesn’t work.

Since many companies don’t have clear alignment around talent and business strategies, you may have recruiters, HR professionals, and hiring managers automatically discounting candidates because they don’t know how to effectively check references. They may not have the knowledge to ask the best questions. They may not have the ability to get someone to open up to them about a former employee. They may not have the power or respect to have an open discussion about these things with their hiring managers.

Just remember that there is always a gray area and it is here where you need to be looking.

This article is part of a series called Opinion.
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