Bad References Equal Career Disaster

With the escalating emphasis on quality hiring, not to mention the increased thought to internal security, employers are becoming more careful in checking references of new hires or potential new hires. There is even a whole new industry that has sprung up just to service that HR function – outsourced reference checks and background investigations. Up until a few years ago, most candidates could expect a drug test as a condition of hire, but now days, candidates can expect the full platter of checks – drug test, background check, reference check, and credit check. And these are done on hourly wage earners, too, not just management. Employers have discovered it is cheaper in the long run to make sure the selected candidate is a good hire up front rather than finding out later after spending thousands of training dollars.

As a former recruiter, I have checked references. In particular, I remember one candidate who was an absolute perfect fit on paper for the job I was sourcing. He had the right skills, the right amount of experience, background in the correct project areas the employer was seeking – everything looked great. He interviewed beautifully. He had a good personality; he was relaxed; and he knew his stuff as far as skills went. I was excited about finding a good candidate that I could present to the employer. I gave the employer a heads up that I had a good candidate but I wanted to vet his references before I sent him to them for an interview. The employer was anxious to get the position filled and they insisted I send this candidate on to them. Against my better judgment, I agreed to send him on for them to meet while I got busy checking references. It was a bad call.

Checking references isn’t just calling the names of the people the candidate provides. Reference checking involves calling former employers and talking with them. It is calling people in my personal network who may have worked with the person or who could connect me with someone who has. Checking references does involve calling the people who the person lists but then asking those people for different references or people recruiters call “developed references”.

I was working on developed references of this stellar candidate when I started getting some red flags. First of all, the listed references weren’t as enthusiastic as such people usually are and they were eager to give me contact information for other people the candidate had worked with whom he had not listed on his application (it sounded like they were passing the buck). As I started to dig and talk to developed references, I started to get more candor and less hesitation in the information that was forthcoming. It seems the candidate was not only not well liked, but seemed to be something of a terrific con-man. When I talked to former supervisors of him, they would give me the standard “I can only confirm the dates he worked here and what his function was.” Like any good detective, I would try to dig out some further info from his supervisors and what they said in their tone of voice, the hesitations in specific places in their sentences, and just their overall attitude started to speak volumes to me. Something was definitely not right with this candidate.

I pulled his background check and credit check and found that he had been arrested for writing bad checks the previous year but the charges had been dropped after restitution had been made. He had failed to mention this on his application. His credit check showed he had very poor credit with lots of bad debt just written off against him that he had not attempted to settle or pay.

The credit and background checks alone would have caused me to hesitate, but I would have proceeded with caution. Everyone falls on hard times at some time in their lives. He could have lots of reasons for having bad credit. However, all that info coupled with the references immediately eliminated the candidate from my consideration. Unfortunately, the candidate was a great interviewer and he looked really good on paper. So good, in fact, that I had considered him as a strong potential placement.

The employer also thought he was a good candidate. They had liked him in the interview just as I had. As a recruiter, though, I had to keep up my reputation for placing excellent candidates and I had to eat crow with the employer, apologize for sending them an unvetted candidate against my better judgment, and reduce my fee slightly to compensate for wasting their time.

Bad references will kill your job search. If you are moving through your industry leaving a trail of destruction, it will catch up with you. If you have a fake degree or an arrest record, it will be uncovered by potential employers and recruiters. Think now about what you are doing. Good careers are built on solid foundations and if you aren’t building a sound foundation, your house will fall eventually.

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