References: Be Careful What You Ask (For)

The line from former US President Harry Truman, “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen,” came to mind immediately.

Would I do a reference call with my prospective new boss?” my former colleague “Kim” asked.

Though Kim had worked for three years at a division of a major US company, her potential new boss in a sister division wanted to talk with employment references from before her time with the current firm. And I had worked with her about 10 years ago for a year, and had kept in touch, trying to hire again a time or two. She did great work for me, and apparently good work for the last three years.

There is a saying in legal circles that a good attorney never asks a question that they don’t already know the answer to. The same should be said of employment and background referencing. Don’t go looking for things unless you’re ready to deal with what you get.

My experience from running major HR and corporate staffing operations and assessing exec and teams for a living is that interviewing and hiring people –  if you cut through all the clutter – is pretty simple:

  1. Identifying the 3-7  key skills, background and abilities (technical, cultural, and role / group/boss centered interpersonal) that make someone successful in the prospective role, and potential related or advancement roles.
  2. Figuring out how those attributes are expressed. How do you know them when you see them (e.g. How are they evidenced, or displayed)?
  3. A thorough structured interview for those attributes (e.g. Consistently looking at the same qualities through the spectrum of candidates and using a similar process.)
  4. Thorough referencing of past employers, associates, etc. to affirm that what you heard or saw evidenced in the interviewing process is consistent with the candidate’s past behaviors and background.

Many employers use a variety of other mechanisms, some perhaps helpful, some clearly not so helpful. As I’ve written here and here about the use of psychological testing or case study methodologies which are suggestive at best, and dodgy, unpredictable, and fraught with problems at worst.

Companies use things like drug use tests for the use of illegal drugs, lie detector tests, criminal records checks, or credit checks. Sometimes the standards are applied reasonably, and sometimes too tightly; there is no good reason that I can think of to bounce a candidate with a bad credit score if they don’t touch money (payroll, purchasing, accounting) and never will for example.

What I’ve also seen countless times is the “great” candidate who has a blemish in one of those background areas, not infrequently after they’ve already started on the job. Keep the candidates who was arrested in a bar fight while in college ten years ago or let it slide – even though other applicants are bounced for not so dissimilar reasons?

This call about my former colleague Kim was odd, in part because I’ve never heard of something like it happening in the 30 years I’ve worked in the broad people business, both in my current role as an executive, career, and team coach, and earlier when I held roles such as an SVP of HR for a $13B corporation and the staffing roles mentioned earlier.

Kim has worked three years with her current firm, and referencing (I was part referencing then as well) was done when she was hired. The people who have worked with her for that time absolutely have the best current information about how she works, her assets and opportunities, and how she’d likely do in the potential next role.

Dated references – people like me who know her from when – have older data. While perhaps interesting, it’s not as crisp and current as the information from people who have worked with her day-to-day for the last three years.

I suppose it might be interesting – questions from Senators to 50 year-old Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan about a paper she wrote in college comes to mind – to get all the data you can get. But like the questions to Kagan, it’s likely not so relevant. Just because you can does not mean you should. And outside of things like confirming senior public officials (or dumpster diving for documents for public figures like Sarah Palin), firms historically have shied away from referencing candidates once someone got hired.

The problem, though it won’t be in Kim’s case, is that you stumble on information that requires you to do something you may not want to do; like tell Kim’s current boss. There are invariably things you can find about most anyone that puts someone in a less than flattering light. Few people have taken the advice of Will Rogers; “Live in such a way that you would not be ashamed to sell your parrot to the town to the town gossip.

Stuff that surfaces from added round of referencing – information that has no bearing on her current role but will nonetheless be perhaps interesting or curious – will now be part of Kim’s employment narrative.

And the heat that comes from that information and disclosure may make you want to get out of the kitchen.

Life Back West is an occasional set of writings focused on ways people, teams and organizations can be both more effective (doing the right thing) and more efficient (doing the right thing well). More about executive, career and team / leadership coaching services can be found at the “About J. Mike Smith and Back West, Inc.” sidebar or the “Hire Me” tab above. You can also read an online interview with me at WhoHub, as well as participate in my learning community courtesy of KnowledgeCrush.