What if You can’t Give a Reference? Here’s some Advice from a Recruiter

Reference Check

K., a reader of the WorkMeTender’s blog, recently asked us the question:

I am in the middle of a recruiting process and someone asked me to provide references.

The organisation of the company where I worked one year ago attached me to a supervisor at a very high level in the organization chart (a director) and who therefore had no visibility on my work and my behavior. I therefore gave, by way of reference, the contact details of a more experienced colleague who had supervised me in a few missions. 

The head hunter insists to have a reference from my N+1. So I was forced to contact someone who barely knew me. This superior did not respond to my request and here I am in a race against well-recommended candidates. 

How to objectively interpret the silence to my request (je ne sais pas comment traduire correctement la phrase entre parenthèses)? In my specific case, would the reference from my N+1, if he had accepted my request, have any relevance? As a recruiter, what analysis do you make of this situation?” 

I am not a fan of systematic reference checks. On the other hand, when I am asked to do so, I take it as an “administrative formality”: I do it, expecting what I will be told, even if while digging I happen to sometimes discover surprising elements about an application. 

Be honest in all cases

For instance some people tried sometimes to share the contact details of another person (a friend or family member instead of the real person I was supposed to talk to). In order to check that I have the right person on the phone, I usually throw out some technical terms in a naive way so that the person thinks I don’t know what I’m talking about, and see if they pick up on it correctly. 

On the other hand, it is extremely rare that someone gives me a bad reference if I am talking to the right person…

Going back to your situation, I would not have wanted a reference from one of your colleagues either. He may have been the one who supervised you, but he was not the one who managed you, who gave you goals, and who was accountable for the quality of your work. 

The problem of your situation is not the fact that the reference is good or bad, it is the lack of a reference to provide, that causes a recruiter concern. 

It’s your responsibility to provide the data or the contact details

They must be wondering if you are trying to hide “a skeleton in the closet”. And I understand them. I have never met a supervisor who refused to give a verbal reference for a previous employee, except in cases where it went wrong.

Some companies have a rule that they never give references (neither good nor bad) but only give the employee’s title and his dates of entry and exit. Perhaps, you can contact your previous human resources department which, although it cannot judge your work, can attest your employment and its duration, and confirm that they are not aware of any problems in the past collaboration. 

It’s hard, but the reference check does not only point at your skills as a professional, but also questions a certain political dimension linked to your quality as a candidate (a good candidate is not necessarily a good professional, and vice-versa). 

Keep in touch with your potential referees

Many people will advise you: maintain your network. You will be very good at your job if you are competent. You can have  a great career if you know how to be “political” and maintain a network of contacts, previous employers and potential future partners. 

But a career is long, and not many people can say that they got along with all the people they’ve been working with!

Ps: if, like K., you have a practical question about recruitment that you would like to ask us, or if you need advice, do not hesitate to contact us. 

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