Earlier this year, I was working on two different searches that only had one thing in common: in both cases there was an issue with the references of the lead candidates. One of the searches was for a CFO of an owner-managed industrial parts distributor and the other search was for a controller for a small professional services organization. In both cases, the positions I was recruiting for reported to the owner-manager / CEO.
Three Great References on the CFO Candidate
In the case of the CFO search, the lead candidate (let’s call her Jane) had a very solid resume. She didn’t have a lot of moves in her background, she had had some very challenging, interesting jobs and her track record was one of achievement and advancement all along the line. When I conducted her reference checks, the references from all but one of Jane’s previous bosses were uniformly glowing. She was a terrific employee, all-around great person, added tons of financial and operational value, great leader and communicator, etc., etc., etc. But when we did the reference with her most recent employer, we didn’t get the full throated endorsement of Jane that we had from her previous employers.
One “meh” Reference
It wasn’t that it was a bad reference, it was just that the person giving the reference added some qualifiers, codicils and editorials to the narrative that were entirely absent from Jane’s other reference. According to this reference, Jane had a “high capacity for work and got a lot accomplished” and was “very adept at pulling information together in a meaningful way”. In addition, Jane “put a very strong team in place, had high expectations on performance and was very well liked by her staff.”
So far, so good, I’m thinking. But then the reference says something to the effect that Jane had some difficulty in her dealings with the family that owned the business (Jane reported to the CEO, a non-family member). In the CEO’s opinion, “Jane was better at dealing with more analytical people than emotional ones. She was however always respectful and did listen”.
The CEO also commented that Jane “not really an accountant ” because in his opinion accountants are supposed to be primarily focused on explaining the numbers and there were a couple of times where Jane couldn’t give a detailed explanation for a couple of minor variances.
Who’s Giving the Reference?
When I’m doing a reference, I really try to get a fix on the person giving the reference because like anyone else, references can come in any number of flavours. By this time, I’ve got a pretty strong sense for this particular reference’s flavour. He sounded like the kind of person who is very sparing of praise and very quick to find fault in everyone that worked for him. So although I’m thinking to myself that he’s really not doing Jane any favours giving this kind of reference, he was probably thinking that he was giving Jane a glowing recommendation (it’s analogous to the university prof who takes pride in never giving As).
So when I put this reference in context of Jane’s resume, track record and other references, the client and I concluded that he should discount the last reference in favour of Jane’s obvious qualifications and her other references and offer Jane the CFO position.
The Controller Search
In the case of the controller search, the lead candidate (let’s call him Joe), had a decent resume although he did list a couple of jobs with pretty short tenure. But he had reasonable, believable explanations and so the client and I weren’t all that fussed about it. In addition, this search was in a smaller market and the client was looking for very specialized technical experience which Joe had.
Three Great References on the Controller Candidate
In three of the four references we conducted, Joe passed with flying colours. And we thought we were about to get the same feedback on Joe on the final reference until we got to the end. This reference said that Joe was hard-working, technically very competent etc., and then we asked the standard reference question: “Would you rehire him?” To which the reference replied: “Absolutely not.”
It turns out that Joe was very head-strong, argumentative and could be quite unpleasant when things weren’t going his way. In addition, Joe had been fired from this particular position and had not been laid off due to downsizing.
As far as I was concerned, Joe was no longer a candidate for the controller job as of the moment I hung up the phone. But when I reported what I learned from the four references to the client, he still wanted to consider Joe a viable candidate. He made the argument that if three other references spoke highly of Joe, wasn’t it possible that the fourth reference had an axe to grind and perhaps his characterization of Joe was inaccurate or at least overblown?
One Strike and You’re Out!
While I was willing to discount the iffy reference Jane got, I was not willing to discount Joe’s bad reference. First of all, my sense for the fourth reference was that he was a very reasonable person and certainly didn’t give me any sense that he had an axe to grind. In fact, he bent over backwards trying to give Joe a good reference. He didn’t volunteer that Joe was a huge pain in the butt until I specifically asked him if he’d rehire Joe.
Junior People Shouldn’t be Having “Personality Clashes”
Second of all, Joe is a relatively junior person. And at that level, in what is euphemistically referred to as a personality clash, in nineteen cases out of twenty, it’s not the boss’ personality that’s clashing, it’s the employee’s.
So why didn’t the other three references say anything negative about Joe? It could be that Joe was a model employee but it’s more probable that although they were happy to see Joe go, they don’t want to pooch his chances of finding another job.
Fired and Downsized Are Not the Same Thing
And last, but certainly not least, honesty, no matter how inconvenient, is always the best policy on a resume. If you get caught in a lie (Joe said he was downsized – he was actually fired), you’re automatically toast as far as I’m concerned.