Referencing the Unreliable

February 15, 2008

What we need is a code word -- something you could say when those of us in the executive-search business call you to provide a reference and you don't want to be the source of the information we are seeking. You could use the code word, and we would know we had to do a little more digging about the candidate.

In our last episode, I made the point that search committees and hiring officials should be circumspect in checking a candidate's references. Given their all-too-human nature, references are inherently flawed and do not completely eliminate the risk inherent in any hire, regardless of the source or vehemence (positive or negative) of the recommendation.

After that column appeared, I heard from a lot of people who had stories to tell about their referencing dilemmas. But most of those stories were not about checking references, but about providing them.

So what if you are the person offering the reference? How are you to play your critically important role in the administrative search process without compromising your integrity or your relationship with your colleague, the candidate?

Very carefully.

There are two kinds of references in administrative hires. (That is also true of academic hires; for an article on writing good faculty recommendations, click here.) The most customary is the one that the candidate asks you to provide. We call those "on list" references, because your name comes to us on a list provided by the candidate. We have the candidate's permission to speak with you, and he or she presumably has some inkling of what you will say and anticipates that it will be positive.

Except that it doesn't always work that way. Have you ever been asked to give a reference for someone about whom you do not have an unflinchingly positive opinion? Did you decline to do so? Chances are that you did not, that you instead smiled and nodded your assent -- and then worried what you would say, even hoped the call would never come.

And what did you say during that reference call? You chose your words very cautiously. You answered only the questions that were asked and offered few insights beyond that. You provided context for every criticism, bending over backward to find some positive spin on every negative comment, most of which you attributed to the candidate's critics. You hesitated. You stumbled. You equivocated. You deflected. You never really lied.

But how much did you help?

The second kind of reference is the "off list" variety, of which there are two types. Typical is the call you receive from an acquaintance at the hiring institution asking for the "dirt" on your colleague because his candidacy has just become public there. However well intentioned, that approach generally degenerates into gossip mongering, and the quality of the information seldom elevates beyond hearsay. Unfortunately, it is not unusual for candidates to be eliminated from consideration on the basis of a call from one colleague to another without any verification whatsoever of the alleged "dirt."

A better version of that approach, however, is when search committees, hiring officers, and consultants reach out to "trusted sources" who have not been suggested by the candidate. That typically happens once the confidentiality of the candidate is no longer an issue. When done in an organized way -- with comments chronicled in writing and attributed -- those sorts of references can be exceptionally valuable.

When you are a "trusted source" reference, you benefit from the fact that the candidate has no particular expectations for what you will say -- and probably does not even know that you are being contacted. That, theoretically, allows you to be more candid. It also increases the influence that your comments will have on the final hiring decision, because your opinions are thought to be less filtered, less biased. That responsibility can be daunting, especially if you have strong feelings -- positive or negative -- about the candidate.

Make no mistake about it, when you are called for a reference, a lot is on the line -- for you as well as the candidate. Your judgment, honesty, candor, and other aspects of reputation can be calibrated in the reference process, especially if your colleague actually gets the job. If the person you described in your reference is not the person who shows up on the job, your credibility can be severely compromised. And you don't get a second chance. What we have in our notes from the reference call is forever your best judgment about the candidate. You get no mulligans.

I know whereof I speak. Years ago, I was called out of the blue for a reference on a former colleague, someone who had reported to me. I was immediately seized by the angst of being put on the line on behalf of someone with whom I had had some pretty significant conflicts over time. I chose to give my honest opinion. I think the person on the other end of the line was taken aback by the substantial negatives in my reference.

The strangest part of the story, though, is that the candidate had put me on her reference list! She had neither asked nor warned me. That she hadn't alerted me underscored my conclusion that she lacked both self-awareness and good judgment. I did not feel good about hurting her candidacy -- she ultimately did not get the job -- but I have slept soundly since, knowing that I did the right thing and that she had inadvisably put me in the position of doing so.

(Note to candidates: It is generally a good idea to ask people to provide references for you. It is also generally a good idea to have some sense of what they will say, preferably before you ask.)

Turning back to you, the provider of the reference, how should you think about your responsibilities in the search process -- to the candidate, to the hiring institution, and to yourself? How do you prioritize those responsibilities? My advice:

  • When asked to provide a reference, consider your answer carefully. In the experience I recounted, would my former colleague not ultimately have been better off knowing that I would not be able to provide her with a helpful reference rather than having me provide an unhelpful one? It could, of course, compromise collegial relationships to decline such a request, but it is ultimately a service to the candidate to do so.

  • If you agree to provide the reference, make it clear to the candidate that you intend to answer every question asked, fully and to the best of your ability. Be direct: Let the candidate know if there are areas in which you feel you will not be able to be helpful (whether because you cannot say positive things or cannot say anything at all). By being honest about what you can and can't say, you give the candidate the opportunity to craft a list of references that provides a full and balanced view of her performance and abilities.

  • When you are called, provide the person on the other end of the line with context. How well do you know the candidate and from what point of view? How long have you observed her job performance? Are you a personal friend in addition to being a professional colleague? Give the callers the data they need to know in order to understand how deeply they should "discount" your comments.

  • Most important, when you are called, tell the truth. Answer the questions honestly and provide specific examples where possible. Telling the truth in this context also means don't lie by omission: Don't confine yourself to the narrow scope of a question as asked to avoid giving your true opinion. It also means answering the questions asked rather than the questions you wish you were asked. A reference is not an opportunity for clever lawyering.

  • It is your responsibility to provide the hiring institution with a multidimensional image of the candidate. Leaders have to make difficult decisions, and they almost always have to make someone unhappy. There is no one in my experience who does not have critics. Pretending that your colleague is infallible will only compromise the credibility of your reference. It is the responsibility of the hiring institution to put your comments into perspective. Giving them the full story will help them do so.

It isn't easy to do any of the above. It is hard to look into the eye of a treasured colleague and/or friend and say that you are not in the best position to provide him or her with a helpful reference. It is difficult to criticize a respected professional to a stranger from another institution. I have no doubt that we will continue to speak with people who sweat their way through reference calls that they would rather have avoided.

Acknowledging that to be inevitable, I return to my original proposal: We need a code word.

Dennis M. Barden is senior vice president and director of the higher-education practice at Witt/Kieffer, an executive-search firm that specializes in searches for academic and administrative leaders in academe, health care, and nonprofit organizations.