Most of us like to believe that we know our circle of influence and those in our network pretty well. What I’ve learned over the years is that nothing could be further from the truth. Sometimes, this phenomenon rears its ugly head when we are conducting a reference review for one of our clients. When you work on a search assignment for 8-12 weeks (or longer) you would hope checking the box on the references should be a layup. Well, that depends.
I was recently working on a search and our best athlete was clearly rounding third base – my client knew it and so did he. He was so confident when I called him to get his references that he wanted to talk about the offer and the details of the cash compensation and the amount of equity he might get from my client. His message to my client “I want you to want me.”
This always makes me nervous as many of us have already seen this movie before – getting too far ahead of yourself in a search can, well, you know where I’m going with this… My candidate informed me that he would fax the reference release and the list of his references to me right away. And I mean right away! I think he just opened up his My Documents folder on his laptop and sent me a previously saved (multiple times) document called “My References” inside of 15 minutes. WOW! I called him back right away and asked him if he needed a day to reach out to his network to let them know I would be calling. “It’s all good,” was his response, “They all love me.” While his answer did not pass the smell test, I was ready to roll. And oh boy… here we go.
I always use a standard set of questions when contacting references – this would be no different. Typically I like to know where they met my candidate, verify tenure, role, discuss style, accomplishments, strengths, weaknesses and I like to know what others in the company thought about the individual. It matters. Some of his references were good – some not so much. After getting an earful from one of the references I added a new question to the remaining calls I still needed to make. I wanted to know the last time they had spoken to him. And I was shocked at their answers. The most recent contact he had with any of the references was 6 months ago. One was over 2 years ago. Was this guy cocky or just plain stupid? How do you interview for a killer dream job, blow away all other candidates in the interview and get slammed by the references? What a knucklehead. What was he thinking? Apparently he wasn’t. NOPE.
I definitely do not claim to walk on water and I’m not perfect. I do owe my clients honest feedback throughout the search – good – bad – or ugly. That’s part of our value exchange. I also realize how tempting it can be, particularly in a tough job market, to “overlook” or “water down” a reference summary to get a placement. The problem is it will probably come back to bite you – every time. When we receive a fee in exchange for the service we provide, we owe it to our client to do the right thing. We also owe it to ourselves, our reputation and what we stand for, even if that means our wallet takes a short-term hit. I provided the report to my client… and no surprise he gave this candidate the Heisman – and should have. I gave the candidate the news (updated our CRM with copious notes) and suggested he circle back with his references the next time he names them as a character witness for him on the next search. Still not sure he “got it.”
Once again, bad news early is good news. It was still painful. Very painful. Bottom line: Sometimes the truth (really) hurts – but we have an obligation to call it the way we hear it. Always.