Reference checking with a pinch of salt

Life is never black and white, and hiring is no exception. Reference checking is particularly tricky; it is one of those things that must be done; yet there is no guarantee it will make the recruiter any wiser.

Many years ago, at my dad’s workplace, they interviewed a woman for a secretary’s post. She was about 23 years old, single, articulate and poised. At the interview, when she was asked why she wanted to quit her old job, she said that she was the secretary to three brothers, all of whom together ran a cinema house — and that each one would give her separate and clashing instructions — something that was confusing to her. This sounded like a valid reason for her to look for a change, and my dad’s firm hired her.


As company policy demanded that they perform a reference check, the HR manager sent a letter to the three brothers. One day, the HR manager walked into my dad’s room and said, “A very sad thing has happened. The reference letter we have received…”

He went on to read it out. It said something to this effect: “We regret to say that this woman was the worst employee we ever had. From day one, we found her stupid; she could not understand any instructions at all. As a result, she could not perform any task. If you have made the mistake of hiring her, we suggest that you fire her immediately.”

My dad asked him, “How long has she been at our office now?”

“About a month.”

“Does she show signs of being stupid or inept?”

“No, far from it; in fact, she is very efficient! As you know, she passed the test and got in here; she did not come in by anybody’s referral. Now, I’m really confused what to do, now that we have received such a letter…”

“How long did she work at the old place?”

“A year and a half.”

My dad immediately recalled the experience my mom had had only a couple of years earlier at her workplace. He said to the HR manager, “This is interesting. They retained such an ‘inefficient’ person out of the goodness of their hearts, and they recommend that we fire her?!! Well, I can take a good guess — one of those guys probably made a pass at her. Anyway, now that we have hired her, let us observe her carefully during the probation period of three months.”

Not surprisingly, they found her perfectly acceptable, and she went on to serve for over three years; she quit of her own accord when she got married and moved to another city. Sure enough, we did later hear from a close friend of hers that she had been a victim of sexual harassment at her old workplace. Looking back, it was easy to see why she had not stated that at the job interview — any woman who does so is perceived as a ‘problem’, and it will only jeopardize her chances of getting hired.

Moral of the story: Just as with everything in life, it’s better to depend on our own judgment. And here is the interesting thing about us human beings: if we perform the reference check a little after we have got to know the candidate, the check will enlighten us more about the reference provider than about the candidate!

One thought on “Reference checking with a pinch of salt

  1. Last line is a clincher! But do we have the guts to accept it?

    One thing that the HR must not do is to share the reference check feedback with the manager. Instead, as with any employee on probation, HR should work with the manager/co-workers/subordinates, and get feedback – both objective and subjective. Then use both feedback together to decide whether to confirm or extend the probation or to let go after due notice.


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