Off-List References

Due diligence requires calling people who aren't on a candidate's list of recommenders

Gwenda Kaczor for The Chronicle

December 16, 2013

One of the most critical moments for a search committee, and one of the more perilous for an applicant, is when it gathers information from people who are not on the candidate's list of references.

I am a strong believer in the value of "off-list" references. But I recognize that they raise some sticky issues, so I'm writing here to offer advice about how both search committees and candidates can protect their interests while reducing harm to the interests of the other. Since I am a search consultant, the context of my comments is administrative searches, but I hope these comments will also be helpful to those involved in faculty and other kinds of searches.

From the search committee's perspective. Off-list references are valuable because they can provide a range of candid commentary, not influenced by friendship. Many committee members believe that on-list references will say only positive things. But it is remarkable how often a candidate's own references raise reservations or even red flags. Probably half of the finalists in any search have at least one on-list reference who reveals a candidate's significant limitations as well as strengths. I think it is a moral responsibility of committees and consultants to draw fully upon on-list references before going off the list.

On-list references can be made even more candid and trustworthy. I suspect that written letters of reference are significantly less reliable than phone conversations. If a search committee requests only letters (as is often done in faculty searches), full disclosure and candor seem much less likely than if a committee member or consultant talks by phone or face to face with the person providing the reference. The listener can hear between the lines and can ask follow-up questions about areas of concern or ambiguities.

But even with the most vigorous on-list reference calls, due diligence requires contacting people who may not be on the candidate's list. To hire someone without talking with key colleagues—current and previous supervisors, peers, staff members, senate or union leaders, donors (as appropriate to the position)—is risky, even foolhardy.

Several recent appointments have astonished those of us in hiring circles who knew that the search committees must not have made enough off-list phone calls. The premature end of those candidates' appointments came as no surprise. In addition to the harm that might come to an institution as a result of a bad hire, an Ethicist column in The New York Times in May 2012 pointed out that "hiring the wrong candidate" is also bad "for the better candidate you would have hired had you done your homework."

Search committees often face challenges in approaching off-list references. Many candidates tell the committee that calls to their current employer will harm them. They will become a lame duck or appear disloyal, and so on.

What can a committee do to ease those concerns and act responsibly?

  • Ask the candidate for permission before making any reference calls—both for people specifically listed as references, and then later to get the applicant's general agreement that the committee or consultant may call anyone, with names unspecified. Place the calls carefully, and request confidentiality.
  • Committees should contact off-list references for only a small number of serious finalists, or for candidates whose public interviews have already ended their confidentiality.
  • In an extreme case, in which confidence in a candidate's strengths is high, or when committee members are persuaded that the candidate will withdraw if off-list calls are required, a committee might make those calls only to confirm information before extending an offer of appointment.
  • Try to control the content of these conversations, so they seem less like an investigation and more like a balanced series of questions seeking information about a candidate's strengths and weaknesses. Even if you are most interested in whether the candidate respects shared governance, for example, you should ask about a broader range of topics. Doing so can actually turn out to be equally revealing.

From the candidate's perspective. Remember that you can't always control a committee's decision to go off list. As soon as your name has been announced (or leaked), the free-for-all begins. Anticipate that, and be prepared for it. Don't accept an invitation to an open (i.e., nonconfidential) interview if you can't handle the risk that there will be calls to your campus to ask about you, including calls from the student newspaper. But as long as candidates' names are held only within the search committee, no off-list calls (or on-list calls, for that matter) should be made without your permission.

Most candidates, as much as they might wish it weren't so, recognize that a wide net will be cast as the field narrows. The risk to candidatesis clear. Even those who had been moving through the search process with great success can be fatally wounded by a single conversation between a committee member and someone who points to flaws. Candidates may never know who said what about them, and why they are suddenly less attractive to the committee. Even the most mature and sophisticated committee can find it hard to put a seriously dissonant note into context with many positive ones.

If the committee asks you for permissionto call off-list references, you can say no, but that, too, entails some risks. It may signal to the committee that you're not really interestedin the position. It may put you at a disadvantage relative to other candidates who have granted permission. Alternatively, the committee may not have any problem skipping that step. Especially if you are viewed as a strong contender, the committee or consultant may cut you some slack to keep your candidacy alive. Test the waters and see if the search committee is flexible.

When the committee or a consultant asks your permission to make off-list calls, think about how you can mitigate some of the risk. You might give permission for calls to a previous institution but not your current one. You might expand the list of names you've provided so the committee members feel some reassurance that you have gone beyond your inner circle, increasing their odds of hearing a report that isn't colored by friendship. You might give off-list permission except for specified people, hoping to hold those calls for a later stage in the search. Think about which people need to hear that you are job hunting, and then tell them yourself. That makes the likely reference call less of a surprise, and potentially less troublesome.

The biggest risk for you as a candidate is that you have critics, whether or not you think their views are justified, who might be called. Some of their criticism may have found its way into news reports or blog posts, which is another kind of issue that you have to deal with. Your opponents may vilify you and even bring their vendettas directly to the search committee, and you have little recourse.

But in some cases, the comments of your critics are fair. Perhaps you really have failed in some significant way. While it may not help you in a current search, you should consider over the long term whether you have shortcomings that you can and should deal with. Fix your habit of disparaging the views of others. Show greater patience with the deliberative process. Give greater attention to diversity. And hope that your colleagues will gradually start to say, "He used to be impatient, but I've really noticed an improvement in that lately."

Finally, try to inoculate the search committee against toxic information. Tell the committee members that, when they Google you, they will see controversy about some of your recent actions, and give them a context in which to understand why you feel you did the right thing in that situation. The committee will respect your directness and may be able to put aside the concerns they have heard.

The most damaging off-list information that I've seen lately is what I'll call the "elevator reference." Say a committee member is at a conference and runs into colleagues from a candidate's institution. The candidate's name comes up and one of her colleagues says, "She's so hard to work with!" That offhand remark tends to be privileged above all other references—and a candidacy dies. She probably will never know what did her in. It seems wrong that such information could cause a capable candidate to be rejected without validation or reflection. But it happens.

In the end, off-list references are essential, and it's the wise search committee that gathers them, and the wise candidate who prepares for them with care.

Jean Dowdall is a partner at Witt/Kieffer, where she specializes in executive searches in higher education.