The Recruiter's Soapbox

Judge holding documents

You have to love an off the record reference… (or not)

I don’t think there is a topic that can raise my blood pressure like “off the record” references.  It seems that you are either for or against them and there is nowhere in between.  Overall I am against them.  I fully expect a tirade of criticism for coming out and saying this from certain quarters but I’m prepared to stand by my guns and take the flack on this one.

I can see the appeal of taking an off the record reference.  However, they concern me. Far too often I see an off the record reference taken as gospel and I think this is dangerous.  If you are going to have such conversations and the information gleaned from these talks raises concerns then my belief is that you need to do 2 things:

  1. Use this information to dig deeper with their “on the record” referees to ensure that any issues are looked at in context.
  2. Be open with the candidate, raise these concerns and give them a chance for a rebuttal.

Let me give you some examples.

Example 1.  We recently were working with a candidate and had them at 2nd interview stage with a client. It was a meeting of the minds and an offer was forthcoming.  Not ten minutes later, my client called me in a panic.  Someone in the business had seen the candidate, recognised them, and put in a call to a “friend” at their old company.  Now let’s leave the privacy issues aside which is a whole other topic.  This person absolutely character assassinated our candidate.  I am talking a total personality demolition job.  Had this off the record account been taken at face value, this would not have moved forward.  What our client did was request on the record references specifically targeting the issues raised, asking for context.  Yes our candidate had made a few mistakes, but taken in context, we found out that lessons had been learnt, there are certain requirements this person needs including a specific environment and management style to bring it all together.

Example 2.  We had a candidate at final interview stage.  They had been through 3 tough interviews + a psych test.  On the record references were completed and had come back strong.  2 hours before the final meeting the interview was pulled.  Why?  A Director had done an off the record reference.  He had called a friend who currently works with our candidate’s old employer.  He asked for billings to be verified and the response came up short.  Bear in mind that that this friend didn’t even know the candidate in question – he just pulled up the company billings sheet and found a lower figure against his name.  What happened here?  This information was taken totally out of context.  What should have happened is that this newly gleaned information be taken to the candidate or the on the record referees for a chance at rebuttal.  When a consultant leaves my business, quite often I will rejig placements around on our company documentation, putting them against employees who will manage those relationships s moving forward.  There are a million things that could have happened behind the scenes here, to create this disparity.

How many times have you seen a Consultant perform well in one environment and fail in another?

Everything you look at when in hiring mode, needs to be taken in context and not at face value.

If you are going to do an off the record reference, please ensure the following:

  1. Think carefully about privacy issues and think carefully about your actions.  I believe you have to respect someone’s right to look for new employment and you have to respect the their rights to confidentiality.
  2. By all means, have your off the record conversations if you have someone’s opinion you trust but please ensure this information is put into some context.  Do not treat it as gospel – this is one person’s opinion, there are a huge range of factors that influence this opinion and they may not have all of the information.

References are a valuable part of the assessment process, but like a psych test, they should not be a pass or fail scenario, they should be taken in context.  I actually believe that conducting references right at the end of the process, can be a waste of time.  I love to conduct references earlier in the piece if possible, so that if any questions marks are raised, there is another face to face opportunity to talk these through.  Let’s face it, no one is perfect and a useful reference should raise things for potential new employees to be aware of.