Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Checking The Right References

I ran my co-op for many years.  For all that time, we had a resident manager who reported to me.  He was good, but extremely difficult to manage.  Ultimately, he left and was hired by another co-op.  I was actually very surprised that I was not asked for a reference by their board. I determined that the manager gave other names, but not mine.  Not surprisingly, I heard that he was gone in under a year.
Advertising is no different.

I have had this discussion with other respected advertising recruiters.  We are all surprised that our clients rarely ever ask us about people they are going to hire.  I have been recruiting for long enough to know most of the major players, and if I don’t know them personally, I know them by reputation or can quickly get an objective reference about them.  Clients should trust recruiters to give them honest feedback about people and their reputations; even when those candidates are found directly and not from a recruiter.

Getting references from candidates is important.  Surprisingly, I have called people whose names I have been given and found that those people do not like the candidate who gave their name.  One even told me he was shocked to be given as a reference since he had fired the candidate, not once, but twice. However, more important than the references you are given, particularly for senior executives, are the people whose names do not appear on the candidate's list..  How could a co-op board fail to call the person who the resident manager reported to for over eleven years?  How can a company hire an executive at any level and not check with their previous employers, especially if their names are not on a reference list?

As an aside, if the person is currently employed, it is a no-no to call an existing employer, but previous companies should be checked out. Anyone looking for a job knows that this may happen. It is part of the process.  However, overlooking references happens all the time.

I can think of one case where a “name” executive was simply hired as a president based on his excellent résumé.  Remember my post, “Falling Up”?  They never checked him out; they assumed that with his previous credentials, he just had to be good..  If they had spoken to knowledgeable people he had worked for and with, he would never have been hired for what was, essentially, a new business job.  The company would have determined that new business was his single weakest attribute.  Could it be that the hiring company executives simply did not want to be proven wrong in their decision to hire this person?  At any rate, it was a disastrous oversight.

I can think of another case where an executive was an EVP at a respected ad agency for many years.  He joined another agency as president, lasted under two years and then had three more presidencies, none of which lasted more than two years.  I asked the chairman of one of those agencies if they had called people at the other places where he was president to determine why his tenure was so short.  He confessed that he only called someone he knew at the first place where the executive was an EVP.  This chairman is a good friend of mine and he never thought to call me. If he had, I might have told him what I had heard, but  I certainly would have given him names of people at the other companies.

I am not sure I understand the psychology of not thoroughly checking references of very senior people to determine their management style, philosophy and their strengths and weaknesses.  Can anyone explain this phenomenon?


  1. Guilty as charged, Paul. I have fallen in love with a candidate and been so sure of my instinct about the person, I do not check around. Also, if a candidate is leaving a previous employer on a sour note, it is pretty easy and credible to lay the blame for the fall out on the employer.

    1. Livingston: At least you are honest! We all want to trust our instincts. In terms of a sour departure from a previous employer, that is where the person's reference list can be very handy in terms of confirmation. There are some companies and people who are in constant flux and it they are easily checked out.

  2. Paul -- I understand what your saying here, but I've never been a big believer in blind reference checks. You only get one side of a story and it can be really unfair to a potential candidate. Don't you think?

    1. Rob, I hear you. But depending on seniority, a company owes it to themselves to thoroughly check potential employees out. I can think of two of your former employers where they failed to do so and it lead to severe issues. At junior levels, it may be less significant.

    2. Fair enough, Mr. Gumbinner.


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