There comes a time in every executive recruitment process when the prospective employer, client or recruiter asks for your references. It’s tempting – and probably correct – to interpret this as a “buying signal”; why would someone bother to follow up with references if he or she didn’t intend to hire you?
By the time recruitment gets to this point, it’s become deeply personal. You’re way past the “sending in your CV” stage, well past the initial call from someone who viewed your profile on LinkedIn and liked what it said. You’ve done your research, met the client, met the recruiter, probably multiple times.
With the request for references, the process veers outside this tight circle of people concerned with the immediate task at hand, to ask the views of someone else, someone external, who knows you and your work well. Most people nurture their references carefully, so as to be able to call on them when needed, and count on them to be accurate and positive. Even if the progress and likely decision at that point are positive, the third-party validation is an important final step.
The trouble comes when that’s not the reference’s only purpose.
Consider what else a reference represents: A person who’s worked with, and/or had as a direct report, someone as experienced and successful as you. To an on-the-ball executive recruiter, who recruits people at that level (witness, they’re working to recruit you for their client), a reference looks an awful lot like a prospective customer. It’s natural to think that someone who evidently hires and engages senior business leaders in that industry or functional area might need help – from an on-the-ball recruiter, naturally – hiring other senior business leaders in the future.
On one hand, the recruiter speaking professionally with your reference and dropping a gentle sales message into the conversation describing their firm’s capabilities isn’t the end of the world. It even makes sense.
On the other hand, if that sales mission overtakes the reference’s stated purpose (to gather information on you and your performance), or worse, if the reference is just a pretext for enabling a sales conversation, something is seriously wrong.
Misusing references for sales purposes definitely happens in recruitment. Many firms have reference checks as a Key Performance Indicator (KPI), measuring and targeting their recruiters on how many references they speak to (sell to) every week. Converting a reference to a new brief is considered something to celebrate. I even know of one firm that made a little online marketing project out of it, writing to their registered candidates and asking them to “pre-reference” themselves, providing their references’ names and contact details on spec, the promise being that having references already provided would let the recruiter create more opportunities for the candidate, or at least, speed the candidate more smoothly through the recruitment process once they were short-listed. The references were databased as sales prospects.
Executives working with a recruiter to secure a new role can guard against misuse of their references in several ways:
Controlling the timing of referencing. Generally, references should be used to validate the chosen candidate, rather than as a factor in selection. In the best situation, you’ve already received a “subject to references” offer. If you aren’t the final candidate yet, be careful about sharing your references so early in the process. This is easier said than done, especially if you know your references’ feedback would position you strongly. You may decide that the benefit outweighs any risk.
Controlling who speaks to your references for relevance. Ideally, you’d want the line manager you’ll be reporting to to speak with your references, because the information is most relevant to them. They’ll have the best context for it. Next best is the HR function inside the employer or client organisation. A professional recruiter with a strong track record in your industry and role can certainly gather relevant information from a referee, but probably not quite as well as someone inside the company. It’s also possible that information gleaned in a referencing conversation could be interpreted in more than one way; the recruiter’s interpretation may not be the same as the client’s, perhaps because of contextual factors like competition, legal factors, or other industry dynamics. Recruiters checking references also creates further problems:
Controlling who speaks to your references for the avoidance of conflict of interest. Speaking with references can actually put the recruiter in a conflicted position. If the reference says something adverse, a professional recruiter knows they must share the feedback with the client, even if it means losing the prospect of an imminent successful placement (and their fee). They may or may not be forthcoming with the client. As the person who wants the job, your instinctive reaction is that you probably wouldn’t want bad feedback shared either, but withholding information can have damaging repercussions down the line, on all of you. (And as I’ve said above, sometimes there can be misunderstandings, something sounds adverse on its face but to someone in the company or industry it wouldn’t occur that way.) Avoid this wherever possible, even if it looks like the conflict could work in your favour, by striving to have the employer or client contact your references directly.
Not supplying references on spec. In any event, do not supply references on spec; only offer them when you’re actively engaged in a recruitment process. Spec references are actually of little relevance for future roles you might interview for. They’re more like old-fashioned “letters of reference”, which of course state in generic terms that you’re a great person who can do anything. What a client about to engage or hire you wants to know is whether you’re likely to deliver in the specific environment or situation they have. Supply spec references and you’ll probably find yourself supplying further references down the line anyway.
When you’re the client, retain your recruiter rather than paying them commission only. Recruitment firms run the gamut from those that have hard-edged, aggressive sales cultures and earn their fees mostly on commission, to those that have professional service cultures and earn retainers as well as success fees. The temptation to treat references primarily as sales leads is much stronger in an overly-salesy culture. And the conflict of interest about reference information is much reduced in a recruitment firm whose clients retain their services, because the whole fee isn’t at risk, and if the hire falls over at the last minute, the recruiter (because retained) will have the opportunity to re-execute the search.
At Executives Online, we recommend that our clients speak to the references supplied by our candidates. However, oftentimes the client will ask us to do this for them. Our recruiters and directors will probably mention our capabilities during reference conversations, but it won’t be the primary reason for the call, more an afterthought. We strongly recommend to our clients that only the final candidate’s references be contacted – that references are not used in selection but rather in validation of the choice about whom to hire. For permanent executive recruitment and search assignments, our pricing includes a modest retainer.