Jacob Kaplan-Moss

Checking References:

What to do if a reference check goes wrong

Welcome back. This is the final part of my series on checking references. This time, I’ll be covering what to do when a reference check turns up something concerning. This will probably make the most sense if you read the previous parts first: why you should check references, and how to check references.

Most of the time, reference checks go very well. That is, you only turn up information that confirms your decision to hire this candidate. This shouldn’t be much of a surprise: recall that I’m talking here about “formal” background checks, where the candidate has supplied the list of references to talk to. So it makes sense that you’ll mostly hear good things.

Still, if you haven’t conducted many reference checks, I think you’d be surprised that red flags do come up. Sometimes — I estimate about 10% of the time — the reference will tell you something concerning.

So, let’s look at some scenarios, and how to address them if they come up. These are based on real scenarios: they’ve either happened to me, or they’re stories I’ve heard first-hand. See if you can spot the themes and develop an intuition for how you’d handle these kinds of situations, or skip to the end if you just want to read my general rule.

The reference will only confirm dates of employment

We’ll start with something that’s unfortunately pretty common: the reference refuses to answer your questions, and will only verify dates of employment.

This is the policy at some large companies: they prohibit employees from answering reference questions (and HR won’t answer them either). I believe they do this out of a perception of legal risk – e.g. if they give a bad reference, the candidate sues; if they give a good reference and it doesn’t work out, the company sues. I’m not a lawyer, so I can’t speak to the level of risk here. Unfortunately, I’ve also seen individuals copy this approach even when speaking in a personal capacity.

If this happens, here’s what to do:

First, ask a few questions anyway. I ask these three questions:

  1. “What can you tell me about the circumstances of their departure?”

    Sometimes, staff are allowed to tell you if they were fired, laid off, or if they quit. That doesn’t tell you very much, but it’s at least something.

  2. “Are they eligible to be rehired?”

    At big companies, they usually track whether former employees are eligible to work there again (likely), or if they should never be given another role at the company (unlikely). Sometimes, staff are allowed to tell you which. Again, not a ton of data, but if they’re ineligible to be rehired that’s rare. It usually means they’ve been fired for cause, and probably not a good sign.

  3. “Is there anything else you can tell me about their time working there?”

    Most of the time, you’ll get a “no”, but sometimes there’s something they’re just dying to say, and this can give them an opening to break the rules and say it.

Unless the few questions above get you anything – and assuming the dates of employment confirm the candidate wasn’t lying on their resume1treat this kind of reference as totally neutral. It doesn’t tell you anything about the candidate, good or bad, so it doesn’t count.

That means you need to go back to the candidate and ask for someone else. You should tell them that the reference could only speak to dates of employment, and therefore you couldn’t complete the check. This can be a mildly uncomfortable conversation, but you’re doing the candidate a favor: they’ll want to know that they have a reference they can’t count on!

Sidebar for candidates: this is one of many reasons why, when you’re job seeking, you need to be sure of your references. If you’re even the slightest bit unsure what your references will or won’t say. it’s a good idea to have a friend call your references posing as a potential employer so you can find out.

If the candidate doesn’t have any other references, this might mean that you get only one reference from them – or none! You’ll have to decide if that’s serious enough to result in rejecting the candidate, or if you believe you’ve seen enough from your interviews to have confidence moving forward despite thin or non-existent reference checks. My recommendation is to base this to some degree on length of work history: someone with, say, 5+ years of work experience shouldn’t have much trouble producing 2-3 references who can speak to you. I’d be pretty concerned about someone with a decade of work history who can’t find 2 people who’ll say nice things about them.

You hear something concerning, but not necessarily a dealbreaker

The next scenario: you hear something concerning. Not terrible; not something that immediately makes you no longer want to hire the person – for that, see the next section – but a fact that makes you somewhat concerned. For example:

  • The reference tells you the candidate often misses deadlines, for a role where timeliness is important.
  • You’re hiring for a highly collaborative role, but you hear they work best when they put their head down and work solo.
  • You hear that they weren’t very good with some technical skill — SQL or whatever — that you were hoping they’d be able to use at a skilled level right out of the gate.

These sorts of things might not be dealbreakers: everyone has some weaknesses, and it may be the case that you’re happy to live with or work around these. But you may not: maybe you have another candidate who you now think is stronger. More likely, if you hear something like this, you’ll feel conflicted and unsure.

The right thing to do here is to have a frank conversation with your candidate about what you found out. Be direct: tell them what you learned, and ask them to respond. Don’t do this over email; it’s a discussion. You want to have a conversation here, and you want to be able to see how they react and respond. When you ask, aim to sound friendly and neutral: you’re not accusing them of anything, but you’ve heard something and want to ask them about it.

I might say something like this:

Hi again, thanks for getting back on a call with me. So, when I spoke to your references, I heard that you sometimes missed deadlines at Company X. Can you tell me more about that?

This can be a difficult, uncomfortable conversation for candidates. They’re likely to have been experiencing a lot of anxiety from the moment you emailed them asking for a follow-up from references, wondering what you’re going to ask about. Don’t be surprised if they’re initially nervous, flustered, dismayed, defensive, etc. – those are all pretty normal emotions to be feeling about a conversation like this. Don’t pass judgment based on their initial emotional reaction. Having had a few of these conversations, I find people relax a bit once they start talking and see that you’re genuinely curious and want to find a way to move forward.

There are three possibilities for what happens next:

  1. The candidate acknowledges the problem, and you can talk about it openly. Sometimes, you’ll find out the problem was situation-specific – something that was a problem then but was related to some external factor that’s unlikely to be repeated at your job. For example, the “missed deadlines” situation I’ve been mixing in here is based on a true story. When I asked the candidate about it, they explained it was related to a health issue that was now not a problem. The real mistake they’d made, the candidate explained, was not taking enough sick leave! This additional context was all I needed to move forward – people get sick, I’m not gonna hold that against them.

    Other times, it’ll be an issue that still exists, but you can discuss a way to make it work. Generally, I’m inclined to still move forward if we can work out an agreement: everyone has weaknesses, and if a candidate is aware of theirs and willing to work on it with me, my experience is that it’ll generally work out. For example, another time I had a candidate with a bit of a reputation for being overly harsh with their colleagues – they’d give true feedback but do it in a way that was too harsh for the situation. We agreed they’d run feedback by me first until we got to a point where I was comfortable trusting their judgment. This took about six months; after that, they’d properly recalibrated their internal jerk sensors to the point that I no longer needed that level of oversight.

    This is the scenario I’ve experienced almost every time. The candidate is uncomfortable, maybe, but open about what happened. There’s usually more context that makes the behavior understandable, gives me confidence that it won’t be repeated when they join my team, or otherwise gives me clues about how I can manage the behavior.

    That’s why most of the time when I hear something concerning on a reference call, I end up hiring the person anyway!

  2. The candidate is stunned, tells you this never happened, and that the reference is making things up.

    A reference outright lying is incredibly rare; it’s never happened to me personally, but I do know someone who did experience this. If the candidate claims the reference is lying, you’ll have to weigh the candidate’s credibility against what you heard from the reference. The main question to ask yourself is if what the reference told you makes sense given what you saw in the interviews. If it’s somewhat related to weak points you saw first-hand, you might be more inclined to believe the reference check. If it’s totally out of line, if nothing you saw even is in the same time zone as what the reference told you, that makes less sense.

    Also, if a reference is lying, the candidate will probably be desperate to prove it to you. They’ll probably offer – and if they don’t, you can ask – more people you can call to find the truth.

  3. The candidate gets defensive and wants to argue.

    If the candidate gets angry or defensive when confronted with their past behavior, that’s almost always a reason in itself to reject them. Once you’re this person’s manager you’re going to need to give them feedback, sometimes tough feedback, and defensiveness after feedback is a serious problem.

    While some defensiveness at first can be a normal stress reaction, there’s a difference between some defensiveness while trying to work through an explanation and anger or arguing. It’s normal for this conversation to be uncomfortable, but it shouldn’t be confrontational There’s a big difference between “yeah, that happened, but here’s more context…” (scenario 1), “wait, what? that’s not true!” (scenario 2), and this scenario.

    The red flags I’m looking for are anger (“screw that guy, he doesn’t know what he’s talking about”), arguing (“that’s not really what happened”), dismissiveness (“yeah but he deserved it”), and so forth. The theme is that candidates try to argue that the behavior you’re talking about “doesn’t count” for some reason. Sure, they missed deadlines, but only because the deadlines were made up by stupid managers, and their co-workers also missed deadlines too, and, hey, writing code is hard so we shouldn’t have deadlines anyway.

Candidates show their true colors in moments like this. Candidates who respond to negative feedback with anger or by trying to assign blame to everyone except themselves are likely going to be difficult to work with. But if they accept responsibility – doesn’t have to be 100%, context matters – and you can have a healthy, direct conversation about a problem area, that’s a good sign!

You hear something especially terrible

Information that raises mild concern is the most common “bad thing” that can happen during a reference check. It’s rarer to hear something that’s a huge red flag — but it’s not impossible. A colleague of mine found out that a candidate was fired for embezzlement; I had a reference tell me that the candidate I was thinking of hiring routinely showed up drunk.

Again I want to stress that this is incredibly rare: I know of three cases I’d put in this category (the above two, and one other that I won’t share because it’s too hard to anonymize). That’s out of, I don’t know, easily thousands of reference checks between me and my professional network. So it’s not worth spending a ton of time planning for these cases.

But they are worth talking about, briefly, because you likely want to handle them differently from the “mild concern” scenarios.

If your reference check turns up something this terrible, it’s acceptable to reject the candidate immediately. Generally speaking, it’s more compassionate to do what I suggested above and go back to the candidate for a discussion about what you heard. It’s possible the reference was wrong or even lying; the candidate may have a strong argument for why this behavior is in the past.

But the types of scenarios falling into this category also include behavior that might make you feel unsafe discussing it with the candidate. Violent behavior at work is uncommon but not unheard of; it’s not hard to imagine scenarios where you don’t feel comfortable confronting a candidate with their past behavior. I think that’s reasonable. You should consider going back to the candidate about a serious red flag, but if you don’t feel safe with that, it’s ok to outright reject them with only a vague explanation (“unfortunately, the situation has changed and we can no longer make you an offer”).

Something truly wacky happens

Lastly, a grab bag of the really weird stuff. Story time!

  • Once, I emailed a candidate’s reference … who told me they’d never heard of the person I was emailing about, hadn’t worked with anyone by that name, and couldn’t figure out how I got their email. Turns out: there were multiple people at the company with the same name, and the candidate guessed the email and got it wrong.
  • On a reference call, a friend of mine had the reference go off on increasingly-weird tangents about personal stuff, including at one point telling a long and rambling story about their child’s experience at summer camp. My friend ended up having to make up an excuse to get off the call — the person wouldn’t stop talking.
  • When a different friend called a candidate’s reference, the reference began pitching himself instead of the candidate, saying that he was way more qualified and that my friend should just hire him instead.

This stuff makes for funny stories, but realistically you’re unlikely to experience something this wacky, so these cases aren’t worth spending a ton of mental energy preparing for. As I wrote in my piece on another wacky hiring story, “designing a human process around pathological cases leads to processes that are themselves pathological”. That’s true here: don’t change how you approach references just to address outliers. The same general approach can apply here: go back to the candidate and tell them that they, uh, might want to find someone else.

General rule: a red flag in a reference check should become a conversation, not a rejection (usually)

I’m guessing that you’ve spotted the theme. To make it explicit: the general rule for handling a red flag in a reference check is to go back and have a conversation with the candidate. If you don’t feel safe doing that, it’s OK to reject a candidate without a discussion, but if you can have the discussion you should. Let them know what you heard, give them a chance to respond, and try to talk it out. It may well be the case that whatever you found out wasn’t the full story, or that it’s a problem the candidate has left in the past, or that it’s something you can work with.

You’re also doing the candidate a kindness, especially if the information is incomplete or wrong in some way. They’ll want to know that their reference isn’t a good one!

Ultimately, you’ll need to decide if you want to make this person an offer, knowing what you now know. There’s no hard and fast rule here: sometimes what you learn will make you too concerned to want the person on your team; sometimes, it’ll be useful information but not a dealbreaker.

My recommendation is that if you’re still thinking “maybe”, round down to “no”. If you have any doubts left after the reference check and a follow-up with the candidate, you should reject them. A bad hire can be devastating: they can bring the whole team down. Starting over is painful, but far less painful than hiring the wrong person.

Good luck with all your reference checks! Have questions about reference checking that this series didn’t answer? Or want to share a funny reference check story? Hit me up: @jacobian on Twitter, or jacob @ this domain.

  1. It’s not that uncommon for dates to be slightly incongruous — e.g. the candidate lists a start date of July 2012, but the employer says May 2012. I’ll ignore small differences than that as it’s almost certainly not deceptive: it’s either a records error or the candidate slightly misremembering the dates.

    If there’s a bigger incongruity (e.g., years) then that’s something you need to ask the candidate about. They might be lying — I’ve heard of this — but more likely there’s a reasonable explanation. This happened a lot with people who’ve worked for the government: they’ll shorthand and say something like “I worked for NASA for 8 years” when, formally, they worked for a NASA contractor for 4 years before being hired directly at the agency. ↩︎