Reference Checks Gone Wild

Last week, I was scrolling through emails when my assistant buzzed my office to let me know that someone was on the line. She assured me that she asked for the caller’s name twice, but she was crying hysterically and she couldn’t get through to her. My first reaction was that it had to be my daughter who, just a few months ago, called me from her first job in Manhattan. From the way she was sobbing, I was sure she had been mugged, but, thankfully, her hysterics were an overreaction to her first cavity, which meant a hefty copay. It took all the willpower I had not to burst out laughing. I began reminiscing about the trips to the orthodontist and the more I tried to convince her that the gap in her teeth was very Lauren Hutton, the quicker the braces came. My assistant assured me that it wasn’t my daughter on the line, which made me even more anxious to pick up the phone and identify this mystery woman.

And so the conversation began. “Hi, this is Joan. How can I help you?”



“Joan, you’re never going to believe this one,” she screamed. It was hard for me to believe anything at that point because I had no clue who was on the other line. And, in almost 30 years of recruiting, I was convinced that I had heard just about everything. But boy was I wrong! As she continued to cry, I had to raise my voice just to get her attention. I told her honesty that because I didn’t know who I was speaking to, I didn’t know what the heck she was talking about. I gave her a few moments to collect herself, and when she finally told me her name, I was genuinely shocked. It was an executive I had known for several years – let’s call her Beth.

Because she was employed at the time, Beth decided to seek a new role quietly – one that offered her more leadership experience and enhanced her career. She applied to a confidential job posting, and, apparently, this company could post a job anonymously but refused to extend the same level of courtesy to its candidates. When the employer saw Beth’s resume, he immediately called a good friend of Beth’s boss to do some digging. He demanded to know what was happening in Beth’s life – Why was she looking? Were there issues at her company? Did she dislike her boss?

Within 24 hours, Beth was sitting across from her boss explaining why she was looking for a new role. Shocked and overwhelmed, Beth could barely string a coherent response together. Beth’s boss felt like she had betrayed her, and, by the end of the conversation, she found herself unemployed. Beth asked me if I had ever heard of a situation like this, and I had to admit that I knew people who have gotten into confidentiality jams, but not like this one. Sure, I felt sorry for Beth, but there was a bigger issue here. What do these backdoor employer practices mean to today’s job seekers?

Employed job seekers shouldn’t have to worry if their resume will be treated with the same level of respect that a company treats its intellectual property. Would a person ever want to work for an organization that checked their references before they decided if they even wanted to pursue the open position? Will job seekers be judged unfairly because someone didn’t like them? I started noticing that “underground reference checking” has become a reality in today’s job search process.

I realize that many employers don’t see a problem with checking references early on and without a job seeker’s knowledge because who wouldn’t reach out to contacts who can speak on behalf of a potential new hire? I understand the impulse to confide in people they know, but how reliable are these practices, and is this informality relevant to the job an employer is looking to fill? I believe that references can be powerful tools for uncovering a person’s true character and talent, but only when they’re done ethically and with full disclosure.

Just like intellect is not the only indicator of success, there should be a way to check a person’s background that – I don’t know, call me crazy – actually relates to the job and company culture. With the high cost of turnover and a disengaged workforce, it would seem to be worth the effort. As all these thoughts were passing through my mind, Beth’s parting words really caught my attention. “Well thanks for listening, Joan, and please keep me in mind for future openings. I need to get off the phone because I have a meeting with my attorney.” she said. Employers, we’re not in Kansas anymore. There are no curtains to hide behind here.

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