Should I Ignore A Bad Reference?

Question: As a hiring manager, I believe that reference checks can sometimes lessen the chances of making a bad hire. However, when is it wise to ignore a bad reference?

Answer: While you can never completely eliminate the risk of bad hires, references can help you make a more informed decision as they provide insight into an applicant’s strengths, weaknesses and past experiences. That said, there are times when you should think twice before taking someone’s feedback at face value, particularly when:

A former boss’s account differs dramatically from the listed references
A job candidate may exclude a former boss from her reference list for several reasons. But in today's hyper-connected world, hiring managers can easily find a candidate's former employer on their own accord.

So let’s say you've found a former boss of Emma, who's a candidate you're considering to hire. You then call up to ask about her, only to be told that she is “incompetent”, “insane” and “horrible”.

Before you strike Emma off your list, ask yourself – is this former boss the only one giving negative reviews whereas other references have said pleasant things?

If the answer's yes, you might want to disregard the bad reference. However, if all three references you've spoken to agree that the candidate is a nightmare to work with, believe it.

The bad things aren't bad for you
Just like how ‘one man’s trash is another man’s treasure’, a nightmare employee for one company could actually be an ideal employee for you. What’s more, if the candidate is applying for a position unrelated to her past experiences, those bad skills listed by her reference might not make a difference to you. For instance, someone who made a poor marketer may make an outstanding salesperson.

Also, bear in mind that not all managers are created equal. While great managers seek smart and enthusiastic individuals to drive the company, bad ones are intimidated by good employees.

If you ask “How was Emma as an employee?” and the manager says, "Emma thought she was superior to everyone else – she was always taking on multiple projects and responsibilities", you should consider two possibilities. 1) Emma tried to throw her weight around and didn’t respect boundaries and roles. 2) Emma was just better than the manager and hence, the manager resented her.

The bad things are prehistoric
Did you get into an argument with a customer when you were 16? Did you leave a temporary job without valid reason at 18? Were you once naïve and immature? To err is human, and chances are some of your candidates have made mistakes or done something stupid back in the day.

If it happened a decade ago, it probably shouldn't be relevant now as long as things have been good since then.

Would you disregard a bad reference? Share with us in the comment box below!

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