Deconstructing a Bad Reference

How to decode and analyze a bad reference

Quality referencing is getting more and difficult to accomplish due to companies being concerned about liability. And yet, referencing is an important hiring tool and career management tool.

There may be times in your career when referencing does not result in you winning the job. At such a time, there is a strong tendency to blame your reference. Think carefully before you do so.

There is something very important called fit. There are different aspects to fit. Personality is one. Work behaviour is another. There may also be more subtle aspects that might not be evident. Fit into a certain sized organization with its corresponding operating realities. Fit into an organization going through a particular kind of change - rapid growth or turnaround being two examples. Fit in terms of the culture of business and the markets served. Fit in terms of the kind of business relationship the CEO or hiring executive wants with their executive. I could go on.

Fit is an important part of job success. Companies want to hire people who can both do the job and who fit. More importantly, you want to put yourself in situations where you are set up to succeed. Fit is a necessary element.

What happened here?

It is very possible that there was a bona fide reason why someone was chosen over you. It may have been about experience, or it may have been about fit. When this happens, I recommend doing nothing about it except moving on t the next opportunity. An experienced referencer asks questions designed to get real information about how you operate. You could have a 100% positive reference from someone, but the information provided may not be what the hiring company is looking for. This is a fit issue.

There are situations where what is coming up in referencing is something you might want to think about doing something about. For example, some executives find themselves blocked at a certain level because of an issue with how they manage teams, or how they relate at senior levels. If you suspect that there is something developmental you can work on, think about doing that.

Of course, it is also possible that someone gave you a bad reference, or a negative part of an otherwise positive reference. It happens. If you feel sure about your reference list, this probably isn’t it. However, you can elect to re-arrange who is on your list if you suspect that someone isn’t delivering what you had hoped.

If you aren’t certain who it might be, and you feel compelled to follow-up, you can try a debrief with the reference. A question like “did any issues come up that might be helpful for me to be aware of?” could uncover something useful and explain what happened. However, if you value your reference, be very careful to do this in a constructive rather than accusatory tone.

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