I am quite often named as a referee for old colleagues who are looking to change their roles. I generally have no issue with doing this, but I have been surprised that on some occasions I have had no prior knowledge that they have given my name as a referee until I actually get a call from the reference checker. This does put me in a difficult situation, as I therefore have no understanding of what the intended role entails, and sometimes even no understanding of what the sourcing company actually does, meaning that I first need a lengthy conversation to try and understand whether there may be any fit at all. In most situations such as this I try and politely decline, suggesting that I should first speak to the applicant, despite the fact that I know that this will most likely add some negative element to them being considered for the role.

via Wikimedia Commons

via Wikimedia Commons

I am also faced with the situation quite often when I am asked to be a referee for someone, and then agreeing to do so, of not being asked by the applicant as to what I would actually be prepared to say about them. I had this situation very recently when I was asked to act as a referee for a sales manager who had worked for me some 10 years earlier and who had become a CEO during the past decade. I received the referee request by email, replied in the positive by email, and then heard nothing until I received a phone call from the PA of one of the recruiting board members to establish a time that I would be free to have a conversation about the applicant’s suitability. It was not until this call with the board member took place that I realised that the vacancy they were trying to fill was for the role of CEO for a mid-sized global business. As I had no idea whatsoever about the applicant’s ability to fill a CEO role, having only worked with him as a country sales manager, I had to politely decline to act as a referee.

From the applicant’s viewpoint, for a referee to be suitably supportive it is critical that the applicant does not only get agreement to getting the referee to act on their behalf, but it is also critical to get agreement that the referee is prepared to support their application for a particular role in a specific company. It is also most important to find out what the proposed referee intends to say about them both from a positive and negative viewpoint, as even the most average reference check will definitely want to get an understanding of both sides of someone’s skill set.

Author: Steindy; CC BY-SA 3.0, 2.5, 2.0, 1.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Steindy; CC BY-SA 3.0, 2.5, 2.0, 1.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

I have also found that from the recruiting side, the people who do the reference checks will quite often use the reference checking process not so much to verify the applicant’s view of career realities, but more as a way to justify their personal selection for the role, thus accentuating the positive and tending to diminish any negative elements that come out of the reference check discussions. I had this happen a few years ago with one company who went on the search for a global CEO. One candidate in particular excited some of the board members, and the decision was taken to progress to the next stage with this applicant through broad-based reference checking with four referees provided by the candidate and two that came from personal board member contacts. The resulting reference check discussions resulted in four positive responses, one negative response and one seriously damning response. What was also interesting is that the worst response came from a referee actually provided by the candidate, as did also one of the more negative responses. At our board review I was surprised to find that the board members who favoured this particular candidate actually tried to justify their selection by suggesting that the negative responses were the result of politics rather than pinpointing actual deficiencies in the candidate.

The other board members insisted on further reference checking which ultimately unearthed serious discrepancies in the candidate’s view of reality compared to the views of those that had worked with him.

I am also disappointed that I am often faced with a fairly standard and predictable set of text book questions that I get asked by reference checkers, such as:
– Are they a team player or better on their own ?
– What are their 3 strongest qualities ?
– What are their 3 greatest weaknesses ?
– What areas should they develop ?
– Why did they leave ?
– Would you rehire them ?

Author: Jonathan Steffen; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Jonathan Steffen; via Wikimedia Commons

I must admit that for any senior management roles I prefer questions like:
– What did they do that drove you crazy ?
– What was their greatest success ?
– Did they leave a legacy ?
– Did they create and build talented people ?
– Did they change anything ?
– How far could they have gone in the company ?
– Did they act as a mentor to younger people ?
– How well did they protect the status quo ?
– Having been their boss in the past could you work for them ? What would they need to change ?
– Who did they not get on with ?
– How big a network did they build internally and externally ?

Author: Mamunjoy; CC BY 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Mamunjoy; CC BY 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Reference checking is a critical part of any executive selection process and I believe that most companies do it badly. I also believe that if they do this half-heartedly they do so at their own peril.

The best response that I have heard from a referee when doing a reference check on a potential candidate’s management strength was “Is there a category below inadequate ?”.



  1. Padi says:

    I like the questions about the legacy. The developed talent is probably the biggest legacy you can leave within your former employer. Great post, thank you very much!

  2. My favourite reference was … “I don’t like to say anything bad about former employees. I have nothing to say about this man.”

  3. Peter Kirschbauer says:

    Hi Les, another great blog and sharing experiences, many thanks. This is always very helpful and valuable for us readers. And always enjoyable the way you express yourself. And of course the nice mix of funny stories and experiences like driving in Italy and serious business matters like this one. Thank you and enjoy upcoming holiday season.

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