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Are Neutral Reference Checks a Warning Sign?

Obviously, you’d think twice about a candidate if you reached out to one of his references and received a clear and straightforward warning. If the candidate voluntarily chooses to list someone who then proceeds to bend your ear with a description of all of his faults and flaws, that’s a red flag. But of course this scenario doesn’t take place very often. Most candidates choose references who can be trusted not to behave this way.

So if most references offer glowing reports, where should you set the bar of basic expectation? Should you raise an eyebrow if a reference stops short of wild hyperbole? What does a bland, neutral response actually say about your candidate? Here are a few things to keep in mind as you read between the lines.

Search for Signs of Enthusiasm

At the very least, a reference should be responsive to your attempts to make contact. If you find yourself leaving more than three voicemails over the course of a week, and the reference makes no effort to return your calls or reach out to you by email, this may be a sign of trouble. Some former employers who have nothing nice to say simply choose to say nothing at all.

Keep your Questions Difficult

If you ask easy questions, you’ll get obvious answers. These include yes-no questions like “Was this candidate a pleasure to work with?” and “Did you consider this candidate an asset to the workplace?” Of course these answers will consist of a string of yes’s. Keep your questions open-ended and thought provoking, and you’ll get more meaningful results. For example, try these: “Have you ever had a chance to witness this candidate in a leadership role? Please describe the outcome.” And “Can you name one task that you would rather give to someone else besides this candidate?”

Try to Establish a Connection

Keep your tone friendly and warm, not robotic, and you’ll encourage the reference to speak from the heart. If she opens up and offers unrehearsed, unguarded information, you’ll have an easier time reading between the lines of her remarks.

Watch out for Signs of Indifference or Disinterest

A positive reference usually involves an enthusiastic person who eagerly supports the candidate’s bid for success. Great references care deeply and personally about the outcome of the conversation. If the reference seems less concerned about the candidate’s fate and more concerned about his own role and his own risks, that’s a problem. If he seems to qualify and water down every statement as if he’s afraid of a lawsuit, or if he rushes to end the call quickly, take note.

For more on how to keep your reference checks meaningful and interpret signs of trouble, reach out to the staffing experts at PSU.