Reference Checks – Reputations, Truth & Diligence

Personal brand trust and reputations can rise or fall from the integrity and due process of reference checks and feedback.   Leaders, recruiters, head hunters  and hiring managers have a crucial  role in ensuring the integrity of reference checks and how they inform decisions.

Reputations and trusted due diligence is fundamental in building reliable  personal and business relationships and market trust.  It also impacts attracting  other staff  who via market reputations know that reference checks are valued highly and not lazy, dismissive or even nepotistic or sycophantic.  

I have had plenty of experience in reference checking having owned a media recruitment agency, Dynamic Visions Group for 11 years until 2015.  Recruiting for some of Australia’s biggest brands and household media names,  reference checking was a essential part of placement success, risk prevention  and my own personal brand reputation.

An ethical CEO

It was in mid 2006 when I was recruiting for a very senior role with a media organisation I received this reference check feedback :

“ Sue, I’m telling you this in total confidence and if it ever gets out with my name on it, I will never give a reference to you or anyone again. I like XYZ very much. We are friends and play sport occasionally and our wives lunch together.  

But he is very lazy and stuffed up the whole division when we hired him.  As a CEO and in charge of a multi-million dollar bottom line, I know the damage that giving a slack friend a good reference can have and I just will not do that to anyone else and their bottom line.“

Wow – I nearly fell off my chair listening to this reference 16 years ago from a this very highly respected Australian CEO and Chairman..  He firmly put  business integrity and morality before friendship. 

What an amazing lesson that I was privileged to have been given and one that underpinned every single reference check I did from that time on.   This person had market gravitas and his word was his brand and it was fair and trustworthy. 

The Myer hiring debacle 

In 2014 the hiring debacle of Myer was front page.  Conman Andrew Flanagan  posing as an ex Zara C Suite executive and with other ostensible high profile  roles was appointed via a recruitment agency to a C Suite role reporting directly to the then CEO of Myer.

Here are two media articles outlining the outrageous issues of the fraudster and the appalling lack of due diligence of the recruitment process  here in the Sydney Morning Herald  and Smart Company   

Whilst there are many elements to that  Myer hiring issue, I will  just focus on the reference checking component. 

Lack of due diligence 

What planet of business stupidity did the people doing the reference checks for the Myer role come from?  Assuming that the people making the calls were not complicit in the deception, it would have to be the biggest reference joke in the country to date (that at least became public).

Digital footprints abound across Google and LinkedIn for all professionals.   And even in the rare cases of little to zero online information,  there are plenty of networks who know someone who knows someone.  

So in the case of the Myer hire,  why didn’t anyone  reference check the referees to confirm they were who they were supposed to be ?   I’m tipping there would not have been a landline number given into a multi-national business HO but just a mobile and personal email address. 

And what part and intersection occurred between HR and the recruiter – its a minefield of unbelievable lack of due diligence.  All the references Flanagan gave were duds – all mates complicit in the web of lies and deception.

Was it due to: 

  1. laziness, 

  2. lack of maturity,   

  3. lack of sophisticated high end interviewing techniques, 

  4. lack of digital footprint, social media and and other research prior     

  5. unwillingness to make overseas calls after hours? 

Or was it a combination of all 5?   All referees must be checked out prior – it’s not rocket science to do so and especially for senior hires. 

We all know that friends give friends  references,  we know there is often some  reward/bribery, we know that fear halts feedback and we know that a large majority of references can be taken with a grain of salt.  

So how can you minimise and almost eradicate lies and useless  reference checks? 

Until there is legal legislation that puts the fear of compensation back square on the referee (now there is an idea ?) we need to focus on a few key tips.

But the first is to STOP BEING LAZY and do the work that is required before, during and after reference checks.

Never ignore negative and dangerous references  

Back in my recruitment agency days I was working on a very difficult placement that required a high level of technical skill. The client  desperately needed to fill the role as the resource gap meant potential revenue was being lost and market share compromised.  It was urgent but the client wasn’t going to compromise on skill set tot train.  Candidates were very short on the ground.

One candidate ticked the technical boxes but had some personality red flags.   The client wanted the candidate and so I undertook detailed reference checks.  The feedback from several people was serious and disturbing to say the least. .  But the client hired the person despite my protests to NOT do so. 

The person was hired and eventually the workplace suffered significant damage. 

When desperate for a role to be filled never ignore  red flags and bad reference checks.  Training in skillsets takes a little longer with a better person and will save $$ and damage in the long run.  And it will strengthen  EVP and a reputation as an employer of choice for the right reasons.

Navigating risk and reference tips  

Verify and  re-verify again who the referee really is. Don’t just call a mobile. Check on LinkedIn, business email, call the prior/existing company HO landline to verify their past/current position.  

Reference check the referee thoroughly 

Also ask yourself (if you know the referee) do you respect their opinion? 

Even if someone is legitimate their feedback may not be worth much if they have a low professional benchmark and/or are twats themselves.   Credibility and respect of opinion is key also.

1/ Relieve the pressure with humour  

Giving references is not much fun and can raise anxiety levels.  So helping to relieve the pressure is essential start

Humour is a wonderful opener and neutraliser which can release tension yet set important  expectations clearly.   Remember “you can always catch more flies with honey than with Mortein”. 

I like to open with something along the lines of “now no one is perfect except Gandhi or myself (self-joke there), so if I hear nothing but 200% gold star feedback about XYZ I know that they have paid you handsomely” . 

Or person/situation dependent you can take the same intention but re-frame a little more conservatively – eg. People are humans and all have strengths and flaws – no one is perfect.

Being real and with a realistic yet professional demenaor So I like to be real and human when doing a reference check.   Both techniques give the referee permission to ‘be real’.  And ‘real’ is what is what you are after.

2/  Experienced professionals  

For mid-senior roles DO NOT, repeat DO NOT have a junior or nervous person call a senior manager/CEO and rattle through a long laborious list of repetitive banal questions. Enough said ok.

3/ Two way conversation 

Take a human business mindset. Quality questions with depth and reflection will draw quality answers with same.   

Minimise the banal inhuman list of  repetitive questions and get a real 2-way dialogue happening for the most part.  Specifics can be asked of course when appropriate and drilled down as required for verification.

4/ Enough Rope Technique

As in the words of Andrew Denton – give them enough rope and sit back. Mind you if you do this really well and the referee is blurting things which border on discrimination you must caution them and stop the process.

5/ Mosaic guide

A persons individual  valid opinion  is given through their own prism of bias/fears/relationship etc.

So you may get a bad rap from a legit referee but that just means you need to do at least another 2 to verify and put a full mosaic together to ensure overall un bias.  Its the patterns to draw from the mosaic that matters,

The reference from the CEO I mentioned above was then confirmed by other referees.  The other referees were not friends of the candidate but gave clear indicators of the issues of concern, albeit in a much more gentle fashion.  

6/ Tone vs Words

Yes its quite a good idea to ask the common question : Would you ever employ / work with XYZ again ?    But NOT  just to hear just the actual answer but to listen to the tone, delivery, pausing, inflection, speed etc. This is the gold.

There are many other tools for great human reference checking but it all comes back to the ‘why’ and ‘how’ you go about it. Intention and integrity is crucial.

Lower your voice pitch and use inflections across some difficult questions.  Pregnant pauses work well.  And of course listen for the throat gulp from the referee to questions they do not wish to answer. Sometimes no answer is the answer.

Summing Up

The quality of the reference is aligned to the personal brand trust, fairness  and industry respect of the referee.   As candidates are becoming thin on the ground in 2022 and companies become more desperate to hire, this is NO time to scrimp on reference checks and recruitment  due diligence. In fact its even more important now than ever






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