Reference Checks


 Every once in a while, we run into a reference who obviously has been coached just to say positive things about a candidate for employment.  What job seekers don’t seem to realize is that coaching a reference to say just good things can really backfire big-time!  How?  Suppose the prospective employer asks a reference how skilled the candidate is in analytical spectroscopy, and the reference says something like, “Oh, he’s one of the most capable people I know in that area.  You just won’t find anyone who knows more about analytical spectroscopy than he does.”  Now, let’s also suppose that the job seeker lands the job, but actually doesn’t know squat about analytical spectroscopy. 

 About how long do you think it will take the new employer to figure that out, a couple of days, perhaps?  And do you think the newly employed job seeker might be back in the job-seeking business in one or two heartbeats? 

 The point is encouraging a reference to do nothing but praise the job seeker’s skills, especially skills he or she doesn’t have, is going to do more harm than good.  So, the bottom line is trying to do a friend a favor by saying how wonderful he or she is may easily turn out to be more harmful than helpful to the job seeker.

 For people seeking employment, it is far better to ask references simply to give honest answers to the questions the prospective employer asks. 

 But how can an employer tell if a reference has been coached to give positive answers during a reference interview?  One way is by listening for non-committal answers to open-ended questions.  For instance, suppose the question to the reference is, “How would you describe so-and-so’s management style,” and the answer comes back, “He has a wonderful ability to adapt his management style to whatever the situation requires!”  That’s obviously an equivocation.  Every manager has a style he or she is more inclined to use than others!  Perhaps the candidate can adapt his style to different situations, but that’s seldom the case.  Just like asking about someone’s personality – everybody’s way of dealing with others is going to be as different as their personalities.  Or if the question to the reference is, “What do you think so-and-so needs to do to improve his overall performance?”  Then imagine that the response is something like, “Jim’s really good at everything.  I can’t think of an area in which he needs improvement.”  Well, you know that’s not an honest response.  All of us can be better at something.  Or put another way, none of us are perfect.  There’s always something each of us can do to improve some aspect of our job performance, so a glowing response that Jim is perfect is false on its face and suggests that the reference has been coached to say only good things. 

 Whenever that happens, the comments by the reference should be taken with a grain of salt.  The best thing to do when that happens is to call the candidate, suggest that the references seemed to be too glowing to be honest, and ask for some additional names or, better still, ask the reference whom else the candidate might have worked with who could be called as a reference.  In summary, there are job candidates out there who are outstanding, but nobody’s perfect.