…..checking the present employer’s reference

Hey, you employers out there… HR people, consultants, administrative folks and even the employers that are doing the hiring (who should be doing the reference checking) don’t ever, ever, ever, ever check a present candidate’s employer as a reference. Even if the candidate tells you that it is okay to check their present employer as a reference…don’t do it.

Unfortunately, one of our clients was interviewing one of our candidates as a finalist. He was a great candidate and our client knew it. They asked our candidate for a number of references, including the name of his present employer. On their form, they asked if the names of the people could be contacted. The candidate clearly filled in a little box that designated that the present employer should NOT be contacted.

Unfortunately, the human resources/recruiter, who, by the way, is very nice and well meaning, did not detect the box. I have to admit that the box was extremely small and it was very easy to overlook. The candidate gave the name of one of the people he worked with as someone who could be contacted regarding a reference. (I still would not agree with this. I will explain later.)

Well, the human resources department called candidate’s direct supervisor, explained that the candidate was applying for a job with the company and asked for an employment reference. OMG! Amazingly enough, the candidate’s present employer gave him an extremely good reference. The guy is an absolutely excellent worker, but he is really under employed in the job that he has now and his present boss knows that. The job is relatively challenging but nowhere near the potential that the candidate has. The new position that we found the candidate is tremendously challenging and, as much as anything else, would double the guy’s income.

Of course the candidate called, really upset. He actually found out about the phone call from one of the people that overheard it, but never heard from his present boss. (They are mostly working remotely and so the candidate’s present boss is not within proximity of the candidate.) In fact, fortunately, the candidate never heard from his present boss about the incident.

The candidate did call our client as upset and as mad as he could be. At first, our client asked, “What’s the big deal? You put that person’s name and phone number on your application.” The candidate explained that he also marked the little box that stated, “do not contact!” Upon seeing this, the person who checked the reference became phenomenally apologetic. The candidate, still upset, couldn’t do much of anything but wait and see if he was going to get fired.

He didn’t! So far, no one said anything to him at all about it. Our client went through with the offer and, fortunately, the candidate has received it.

The apology by the HR person was very “coolly” received. The candidate was obviously upset, but what was he going to do? At the time, he was simply going to have to wait and see if he was going to get canned. After the offer was made, the CEO of our client called the candidate and apologized to him. The CEO was extremely gracious and the candidate had calmed down by then. At the time, he had still not spoken to his direct boss.

So, here are the lessons. If you’re a candidate, you might want to give the name of your present company as your employer, but don’t give the direct supervisor’s name or phone number. Our candidate did the right thing by marking the box, “do not contact,” but, I wouldn’t recommend running that risk. Make it really, really, really clear that your present employer is not to be contacted. And, the best way to do that might be to give your present company’s name but not the name of your supervisor.

This may be obvious to most people, but just in case people aren’t aware, companies can be held legally responsible for causing someone to lose their job. It doesn’t really matter how fair or unfair any of us think it might be, none of us can cause someone to lose their job. We can be held legally responsible. And only God knows the number of lawsuits that have come about because of mistakes like this.

Secondly, a hiring organization should NEVER check the reference of the candidate’s present employer, NO MATTER WHAT. Even if the candidate gives the hiring authority permission to do it, the hiring organization should not initiate that kind of call. Relationships change rapidly between employees and employers. Even if a candidate says that he is on his way out and it’s okay to check with his present employer about a reference, that is going to be a very vague line of defense if the candidate loses their job because of a reference check.

Now, if the candidate thinks that his present employer will be willing to give him or her a good reference, then tell the candidate to have their present boss give you a call and offer a reference. Make a candidate have his present employer initiate the call if that’s appropriate. It’s really simple.

I wouldn’t even recommend checking with the peers of an employed candidate. Relationships can change and no matter how wonderful candidates think their relationships are with their peers, their peers can turn on them in a heartbeat.

I had two sales candidates come to interview with me together a number of years ago. They both worked at the same company and were both upset with what was going on and both decided to leave. Since they were good friends, they decided to come see me together. After interviewing each one of them, I told them both, separately, that it would be a really good idea if they didn’t communicate about each other’s job search with each other just to keep things from getting complicated.

Of course, both these guys thought they knew better and since they were close enough friends, what I told them wouldn’t matter. Well, one of them got promoted to a managerial position and all of a sudden his best buddy, best pal, best friend was his subordinate. The first thing he did was to fire his best buddy, best pal and best friend. He explained it real simply. Now that he had a group sales quota to meet, he couldn’t afford to have anybody on his team that was actively looking for a job. He had his own job to protect as a manager, so he fired his friend.

We all have enough problems with running our businesses. We don’t need to create problems for ourselves. Checking someone’s present employment reference isn’t a good idea.





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