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Can A Negative Reference Help To Find The Best Job Candidate?

A hiring manager says he learned a lot when he started calling references with a chip on their shoulder, but some say it’s not a smart move.

Can A Negative Reference Help To Find The Best Job Candidate?
[Photo: Flickr user Daniel Oines]

When a job candidate gives you a list of references, it’s a pretty safe bet that they’ll all say positive things. Smart job seekers vet this list carefully, finding only people who will sing their praises.

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For Bart Lorang, CEO of the cloud-based contact management company FullContact, however, it’s not the typical, run-of-the-mill reference he requests from management candidates; he wants their most negative one.

“This didn’t start as something intentional; it was a spur-of-the-moment question,” he says. “During an interview, I was connecting with a candidate, and we were in a very trusting moment. I said, ‘I’m sure you’re giving me great references, but would you mind if I spoke to someone where things didn’t work out so well? God knows I’ve upset plenty of people, and I learned a lot from those experiences.’ That question turned out to be a fascinating exercise.”

Rifts represent a separation in values, and you can learn a lot from a candidate when you see where belief systems part ways, says Lorang. “I tell candidates, ‘You have to trust that I’m emotionally mature enough to discern how and why those relationships ended,’” he says.

While the job candidates are often surprised at the request, the reference is even more shocked when Lorang calls. “I usually have to tell people, ‘Don’t hang up,’” he says. “I tell that I know the reference will be less than positive.”

Since Lorang uses this technique when hiring for leadership roles, references are often former direct reports, and the feedback they give sometimes turns into mini therapy sessions. “Some admit they were immature or young at the time,” he says. “Some are still upset and welcome the chance to vent. But even when someone is giving a bad reference, they are usually able to acknowledge the person’s strengths. In fact, whether it’s a poor reference or a great one, a person’s strengths are universally agreed upon.”

Lorang says his bad-reference experiment has revealed deep insights that wouldn’t have been learned by conventional means, including character clues. During the conversation with the reference, he tries to get at the root cause of the value separation to understand what happened. Then he calls the candidate and talks through the feedback.

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“I ask [the candidate] for their interpretation of the events,” Lorang says. “I ask how would they improve the situation. What they’ve learned over time. And what they would have done differently.”

Workplace psychologist Karissa Thacker says someone’s enemies say more about a person than their friends. “It takes a strong person to make enemies and an even stronger one to acknowledge exactly who they are,” she says.

But not everyone’s a fan of Lorang’s approach. “The only person that’s dumber than the guy asking that question is the guy who gives an answer,” says Tony Beshera, author of Powerful Phrases for Successful Interviews. “When you’re hiring, your only concern should be trying to find out if the candidate is good at what they do. I would recommend that the candidate respond to the request by saying, ‘I’m sure there’s somebody, but I just can’t recall.’”

This question could also scare away good candidates, adds Kirk Sears, president of the executive recruiting firm Precision Metrics: “Although the CEO is well meaning in looking for those vulnerabilities, his technique can become an issue for a more experienced professional candidate in high demand,” he says. “It just comes off too negative, and I’d like to think a more progressive company would want to stay away from a pressure interview. At a 5.1% unemployment rate, selling why someone should work for your firm is equally important as qualifying the applicant.”

But the process works for Lorang, who says he’s hired employees who are a better fit for his company as a direct result: “This fits my style,” he says. “I’m open and honest and willing to be vulnerable, and this shows trust. Asking them directly for a bad reference is more above board than searching for one beneath the surface.”

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