I get calls on a regular basis to provide formal and informal references on people in my industry.
First things first: reference checks are not background checks.
Reference checks are subjective. Reference checks are unreliable and invalid ways of measuring someone’s knowledge, skills and abilities. Reference checks are what you do when you want to know if someone is a jerk.
Background checks give you facts like name, rank and serial number. You’ll learn about prior convictions and educational achievements.
The difference between a background check and a reference check is essential. Background checks will tell you if someone has been arrested or convicted; however, reference checks will give you gossip and tell you if someone is an itinerant drug addict.
When I’m asked to provide a reference for someone, I have a few rules.
- First, do no harm. Unless you’re Mitt Romney, you probably need a job. I don’t want to hurt you or your family. It takes a lot for me to throw someone under a bus.
- I only answer questions I’m asked. Sometimes people are fishing for information. Sometimes these reference checks are infuriating because the hiring decision is already made. The sooner I answer your specific questions, the faster we can get back to our lives.
- I’m choosy about my audience. Do you want to know what I think about someone? Ask me, but don’t ask a junior recruiter or an executive-recruiter-in-training to call me. I will never speak to someone more than one degree removed from the decision-making process. If my input is necessary, invest the time in seeking out my counsel.
Now I just gave you my three guidelines on reference checking, and I have to tell you that I violated one of them just recently. An executive recruiter asked me what I thought about a man in our industry. I had a pretty strong reaction because, frankly, I don’t like the candidate. He’s a dick.
I sat with my words and thought, Jesus, that’s not fair. This dude seems like a good husband and parent. I don’t know him beyond industry events and social media. While I have an opinion on just about everything in this world, my viewpoint is layered with my personal bullshit and baggage.
And I had to admit that he has what it takes to move this company to the next level.
So I called the recruiter and ate some crow. I walked through my thinking and took back my words. I admitted that I was reacting from the gut, my opinion was unimportant, and I think this guy could do the job.
(He was hired!)
So remember that, unless you’re protecting an organization from a serial killer or a child molester, you should either decline to offer a reference or stick to my three rules.
You never know when those three rules will help you out, too.