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What a Neutral Personal Reference Says About Your Candidate

You’ve reviewed your candidate’s resume, called him or her in for an interview, and kept him on the short list while crossing off one contender after another. You’re now down to three or four top choices, but you only have one position to offer, and the final stage of the selection process–reference checks– will hopefully simplify your decision.

The particular candidate in question, even though he’s still in the running, is a toss-up. A few members of your team like her and a few others would prefer someone else. So you’re listening very hard and reading between the lines of every conversation you initiate with the references. But you aren’t getting very far, because the references aren’t giving you much to go on. Their comments are bland, vaguely positive, pleasant, and non-specific. What does this mean? Here are a five ways to interpret these neutral responses.

1. Your candidate isn’t a risk taker. He toes the line, does what he’s told, and he doesn’t make very many mistakes. He can’t be accused of messing anything up, but that may be because he’s never broken a rule, never made a bad suggestion, never shut down a bad idea, and never made an unexpected or unsolicited proposal.

2. When it comes to personal relationships, your candidate travels light. He hasn’t left any broken friendships or partnerships behind, but maybe that’s because he never put these relationships to the test, and they may not have been very strong to begin with. He doesn’t share much at the office, doesn’t disclose her feelings, doesn’t passionately defend ideas, doesn’t argue with anyone, and consequently doesn’t form lasting bonds.

3. Your candidate is modest and unassuming. While the squeaky wheel gets the grease, sometimes the wheels that never fail are also never really noticed.

4. Your candidate is strongly disliked, or even feared. If former employers have absolutely nothing to tell you about a candidate, it may be because they have nothing positive to say at all. And it may mean they expect personal or legal backlash if they reveal the unpleasant truth.

5. Your candidate isn’t very good at choosing references. Selecting a list of people to recommend you during a job search is an art and a science, and even the best candidates may not possess this particular skill set.

Regardless of the possible truth behind any of the above scenarios, a glowing report full of enthusiastic praise is always more reassuring than polite silence. If your candidate’s references are consistently bland and neutral, be sure to factor this into your final decision. For more information, reach out to the staffing experts at PSU.