Monday, August 30, 2010

Don't Force References on People

Many candidates who I have out on interviews ask at me at some point in the process if they should have someone call the company to put in a good word for them. Often they know someone who knows the CEO, head of human resources or another senior executive at the agency or company. My answer is always a resounding, “NO.”

I just had it happen last week. A candidate who was doing well at an agency is friendly with the general manager or president of that agency’s west coast office. She asked me if she should have the GM call the hiring manager to put in a good word for her. I told her it is bad form for several reasons.

First, no hiring manager or agency executive likes to be put under pressure. It could also be embarrassing for the person being called if the candidate is not right for the job. The person making the call undoubtedly does not know what the job is really about and whether the person they are calling for is right for the job.  Consequently, the call might actually reflect negatively on the candidate. Second, the chances are good that the person you may know does not know the hiring manager and calls someone else in the organization; those people are then put in a difficult position because they generally do not want to interfere with or are not involved with the hiring process. Finally, despite what one may think, you never know about the relationship between these executives.

I had a not so funny incident a few years back. A candidate who was the lead to get a job as the senior most executive running a major account asked if he could have his former boss, the chairman of one of the country’s largest agencies, call the CEO to put in a good word for him. I said no. I told him my reasoning. But my candidate insisted that the two executives were good friends and that it would be a good thing for his candidacy. I begged my candidate to save it until a reference was asked for.

Well, you know what happened.

A few days later the CEO of my client agency called me and told me he would no longer be pursuing my candidate. He told me that the chairman of the other agency had called to give an unsolicited recommendation for my candidate. The CEO was offended by the call because the hire was much too important to the agency to have another agency executive push him without knowing anything about the issues of the job. He did not want another agency executive interfering with his business. But most important, the CEO told me that he thought the Chairman who called him was a “horse’s ass” and that therefore he would take a pass on the candidate.

It may be stupid. It may be petty, but why take a chance? If they had wanted to check references prior to making an offer, the Chairman would have made a good reference.
The point of all this is not to give a reference before it is asked for.

Do any of my readers have a reference story to share?   I would love your comments.


  1. I completely agree with you Paul. You NEVER know how people within an organization feel about intervention of this kind, or the person intervening.

    Meanwhile, I just had a creative director friend lose-out for a big job because the other candidate had the president of a major brand as one of his references.

    Love your postings.


  2. Paul, in one of my past interviews through you, I made the dumb mistake mentioning that I was friends with the prominent (and strong-headed) Chicago CEO who owned a piece of the agency I was meeting with. I thought it would create a bridge with the two interviewers. Instead, the interview was over before it began, for the reasons you mention above, and the two partners interviewing me behaved as if I'd insulted their mothers. Too bad. I was even over-equipped for the role.

    Follow the path set by the recruiter. Listen, be coached. He or she knows what closes deals, and what sinks them. Thanks for the reminder, Paul. Keep cooking.

  3. Paul, solid words of wisdom. Candidates should always want to secure a role based on their merits. Far too often good intentions are riddled with unfavorable results. And may be perceived as crossing boundaries and may give the hiring person a moment of pause and wonder if the candidate is so great why are they not working for the person making the unsolicited reference! Food for thought.

  4. Agreed. Human resources professionals take pride in working to find the best fit for any particular team within an agency. Forcing unsolicited feedback/pressure on that process is unnecessary and can be counter productive. For example, if there happens to be an open window for someone to make a recommendation on your behalf and (for political or other reasons) results in an employment offer, it does not necessarily mean that you are a fit for the position/team. In the long run, it may actually be bad for all parties involved.

    Follow your recruiter's advice, put forth your best effort and always be genuine. In the end, let the chips fall where they may.

    Excellent and relevant post, Paul!

  5. Great piece. I would, however, recommend that people who have connections to agency positions to put in good words for them if they've submitted resumes but have not yet been called in.

    Employers are bombarded with applications, so it often helps to have a connection put in a good word for you to move your resume to the top of the pile.

    Of course, this can backfire too. But it has helped me land interviews when I may not have been able to, otherwise.


I would welcome your comments, suggestions or anything you would like to share with me or my readers.

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