I recently went through a round of interviews and had a candidate in mind who was "number 1" among the rest. Then I called his references and they were terrible!! He was great in the interview - totally professional, had examples for behavioral questions, great communicator, etc. So I called all three of his references and they were pretty bad – apathetic, didn’t have great things to say about his quality of work, etc.

I did not offer him the position. He sent me an email thanking me for the opportunity and asked for feedback about what he could do better next time. My peers say that I cannot under any circumstances tell him that his references were bad or even hint that his references were the reason he didn't get an offer. My friends who work in HR said the same.

I'm torn. On one hand, I think he should know that his references aren’t doing him any favors. On the other, I don’t want to betray the confidence of the references and/or open up a legal can of worms. Any advice would be appreciated. Thanks.

ashdenver's picture

Truly, the only thing you should tell the person is that "we selected someone whose skills and experience more closely aligned with the position."

It is HIS responsibility to ensure that his references are saying decent things, not yours.  If he doesn't want (or know enough) to hire someone to check his references - like a Private Investigator - then he can certainly have a realitve or trusted friend play that role of prospective employer to find out what's being said. 

Again: it's HIS responsibility to square away his references, NOT yours!

Hope that helps ...

Mark's picture
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Sorry, but we can't recommend you tel him his references didn't impress you.  It's either a terrible error he made...or it's a different terrible error he made.


ksg139's picture

Thanks Ash & Mark. I know that's the right answer. I hate that someone is going through this process at such a disadvantage and doesn't even know it. However, I will follow protocal. Thanks again.

stephenbooth_uk's picture

 I take it you didn't make an offer pending satisfactory references (the norm in the UK in my experience).  If that had been the case you wouldn't need to tell him, it would be implicit.

I wouldn't recommend telling the candidate that it was his references let him down and that's why you're going with someone else.  Tell him you went with someone who was a better fit.  The issue I have with telling him that his references are bad is that it might lay you open to litigation or bad publicity.  There is a common expectation, rightly or wrongly (I lean towards wrongly), that a reference is confidential and will not be shared with the person the reference is for.  Sharing it may lead to the person who wrote the reference finding out that you shared it and potentially trying to bring action against you (especially if they are being sued themselves, I know of two cases where someone has been sued for providing a bad reference).  Even if the actions fail it can still be costly of time, money and reputation.

Presuming that he did ask these people if they would be references and they agreed (without giving warning of the type of reference they intended to give), I feel that it is unethical for them to agree to be references with the intention of giving negative references.  I feel it's on a par with a manager who tells a direct they're doing great and performing well until it comes time to reduce head count, at which point they present the direct with a catalogue of 'failures' and dismiss them for performance.  I've only once been asked by someone to be a reference when I felt I could not honestly give them a positive reference.  I declined to be a reference and told him why

If you feel that you should give any feedback, although you have no obligation to, then comment on his interview but avoid mention of his references.  If he asks about his references I'd probably go with something along the lines of "I'm sorry but to maintain the integrity of the process anything related to taking up references has to remain confidential.  I'm sure you understand."  Possibly, to avoid the situation of being questioned about his references, rather than giving feedback verbally send it in writing.  Thank him for applying and coming in for interview, give him the feedback and finish off with something like "We decided to go with another candidate who we believe to be a better fit for our organisation."

I've heard suggestions in the past of getting a friend or relative to pose as a prospective employer but never heard of anyone actually doing it.  If I found out that someone had had me checked out in that way after I'd agreed to give them a reference I would question if I wanted to continue to be their reference.



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Experience is how you avoid failure, failure is what gives you experience.

ksg139's picture

Stephen - you always have such thoughtful comments. I really appreciate that, thanks.

I almost always call references before an offer is made. In some cases the person is currently working at a firm that would be a reference, in which case "offer pending satisfactory references" would be applicable. In this case, it is an entry level position so it isn't applicable.

Interesting point you bring up about the understood but not spoken promise of confidentiality with references. I have always assumed that whatever the reference tells me is confidential, although it is never discussed outright. I wonder if others work under this same assumption.

He specifically asked for feedback via email (phone issues) so I told him that I was not in a position to provide feedback, thanked him for his interest and time and wished him luck in his job search. End of story.

Thanks again for your input.

jhack's picture

"Confidential" needs to be defined carefully.  Nothing in business should be truly "off the record" and if information is revealed that would require one to act on one's fiduciary responsibilities, one would, of course, divulge the information.

These conversations, nonetheless, should be treated as "private" not "public" and the assumption I work under is that the information will be used only by those who decide whether or not to make an offer.

John Hack

tlhausmann's picture
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I believe it is mentioned in the Interview Series that one must keep references informed prior to the interview or application.

This step allows *you* to pick up on what your reference may share.

Contacting your references in advance helps maintain the relationship. You are afforded the opportunity to share what excites you about the prospective position.  In many cases your references have additional insight or contacts.  It does mean more work and time on your part.

Another good reason to invest in the Interview Series.

stephenbooth_uk's picture

 I have always presumed that any reference I write may be seen by the person I'm writing it for, any verbal reference may be repeated to them.  Just the same as I presume that any email I write may be forwarded, any letter may be forwarded or left on the break room table for all and sundry to see, any file may be left in a taxi on an unsecured memory stick, any photo may be posted on someone's MySpace page &c.  I'd much rather I didn't have to.  Consider Hanlon's Razor (a corollary of Murphy's law), whether it is by malicious act or simple error whatever you say will get out eventually.

I'm sure I remember someone saying "There are no secrets".  I think they also talked about how they over heard someone talking about them in a queue in a store.



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DiSC: 6137

Experience is how you avoid failure, failure is what gives you experience.