That’s Your Opinion (or is it a reference?) Reply

“What do you mean that jerk gave my name to you as a reference!? I’d deck him if I saw him.”

I actually heard that comment years ago while following up on a candidate’s background.  It was surprising then and remains funny now.  It certainly set the tone for the conversation that followed.

Throughout the time that I’ve been recruiting I’ve often been asked by a hiring manager or some other interested party involved in employment, “See what you can find out about this person.”  That is not so much a request for a reference as it is a request for some outside perspective that supposedly will shed some mystical clarification on the candidate’s abilities, personality and so forth.  It is a vague request that could have a major impact on not only a candidate but a company as well.  Should we really be seeking an opinion outside of our normal reference checks?  One has to wonder is there really a big difference between opinions and references.  There is and it is significant.

In companies following best practices in recruiting, the reference check is hallowed and respected.  When I was a recruiting lead at Amazon.com in its early days we had full-time employees who would do nothing but tape and transcribe up to seven individual references on a given candidate.  These transcripts were then distributed back to the individuals who interviewed the candidate.   The interview team would reconvene after reading the references to discuss the nuances, questions and concerns they had.  Much effort was made to qualify the candidate’s references as well (no college roommates posing as past employers, that kind of thing.)   The process was laborious, candidates became impatient, hiring managers became frustrated but we stuck to our process.  The success of Amazon today shows that our efforts in the early days truly paid off.

A reference check should involve much more than queries about punctual arrivals to work and how well a person functions on a team. Those are helpful things to know, but they don’t give the full portrait of the candidate.  Detailed behavioral examples such as discussing a time when a candidate creatively solved a problem or faced a personnel challenge will yield much more value than a simple fact check.  Reference checks should include examples of situations that a candidate faced, the actions they took and the outcomes – good or bad.  The more a recruiter can drill down into situations and actions the clearer the picture of the candidate becomes and the better future performance can be predicted.

So what of opinion?

With the massive expansion and embrace of social networks it is easy to find an opinion on anything or anybody.   A quick glance at a Linkedin or Facebook profile and we can see how we are connected to a candidate.  Friends of friends tell in writing about the candidate’s virtues (have you ever seen a bad reference on a Linkedin profile?)  It is easy to see who former co-workers are and even easier to reach out for an opinion.   These sidebar chats can undermine the best of recruiting efforts.

“He dated my ex-girlfriend.  We all used to work together.  Made things tough, but, yeah, we worked side-by-side.  He is the smartest coder around.  Let me tell you about a time when…”

I completed that reference check with a smile on my face.  In my summary I removed as much subjective rhetoric as I could and focused on the work behaviors and examples of success and challenges.  My candidate was all the things we had hoped for, even remarkably human as I could tell from the situation with his former friend and co-worker.

When we take an opinion without checking for substance, we are doing a huge disservice to the candidate and our client or company.   One man’s jerk may be another man’s genius.

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