Here’s a common scenario we face in consulting, particularly where we are recruiting in close-knit industries where everyone “knows” everyone else.

A candidate comes to see us. We build trust with them. We interview them at length. We understand their strengths, weaknesses, reasons for leaving or wanting to leave their current role. We talk about where they would like to work next. Then we reference check them.

Throughout this process we are not naïve.  

We know red flags or where candidates provide fuzzy answers. We know answers that simply do not “make sense” based on our knowledge of the players and personalities in the industry, or from our many years of recruiting people. We know when there is a problem which we need to explore. We cover this in our questions and in our references. If we receive a poor reference or an issue about the candidate emerges, we keep referencing until we uncover the truth.

Only when we are satisfied that our candidate is suitable, will we present them to a client.

Unfortunately there have been numerous times where we have done this, where our client, the prospective employer, will get on the phone to someone who has worked with this applicant’s employer for a “reference check” – then refused to meet with our candidate. They might have heard something about someone from someone else.

If you are referencing someone informally, stop and consider this:

What you do not get from an informal reference check is context. You will probably never know whether the issue was a one off, or a continuing part of that candidate’s history.

The candidate has no right of reply. If there’s been a problem, you’ll never understand how that candidate has dealt with it. You may never get to understand their side of the story. There will definitely be another side – there always is.

We know we cannot stop informal reference checking.

But if you do reference check like this, you do lose the right to complain about lack of talent in your industry.

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