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Should You Insist On Having A Reference From A Candidate’s Current Manager?

Should You Insist On Having A Reference From A Candidate’s Current Manager?

22 Jun 08:00 by Nicola Crocco

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The Situation

Success! You’ve found your ideal candidate but with the consequences of hiring the wrong person ringing in your head, you move on and check out their references (read more on the subject here).

Looking at the candidate’s work history, you can see they’ve been with the same employer for some time and whilst you, or your recruiter, have spoken to previous managers, it’s not quite the full picture you were looking for. So, you request a reference from the candidate’s current manager to complete your due diligence. Although there are some situations where the candidate will be more than happy with an approach like this, my experience is that most candidates will feel uncomfortable about it, for valid reasons.  However, there are some strong cases for pursuing this level of authentication in the reference checking process.  If this is something you’re considering, here are some pros and cons from my experience:

The Pros

It can often be tricky to get a complete picture of a candidate’s skillset without speaking to their current manager, especially if they’ve been working at the same place longer than 12 months.

The role in question may be quite a step-up, so how would you get feedback on the candidate’s potential for a more senior role? Speaking to a previous manager may tell you about their capabilities and their integrity two years ago, but what’s the current situation?

As well as gaining an overview of their conduct and capability, you can also get some insight into any support that might be needed for them to flourish.

When a candidate provides a list of referees, they’re in control. We assume they won’t pass on details of anyone who would give them an unfavourable reference (although I have known it to happen). So, by holding ground on securing a reference from their current manager, it could provide a more balanced view and hopefully, a more accurate picture. However, as we’ll discuss later, that might not always be the case.

When informing the candidate that a reference from their current manager is needed, their reaction can also be telling. Whether they are spoken to or not, a candidate’s response might just give you some insight into their work relationships and highlight any problem areas that you might like to probe further.

The Cons

Seeking a reference from a current manager opens up a whole raft of issues, but the main one is that they will then know of their employee’s desire to go elsewhere, which they may not have been aware of until that point. This is therefore a piece of news that could damage the existing employment relationship. If, after this reference is completed, the employee does not proceed with the job-offer, the residual situation with their current manager could be very challenging.

On top of that, as the recruiter, how do you know that their manager is giving you the full picture? If the reference isn’t as positive as you had hoped, it is possible that it might not be 100% accurate. They may be painting a negative picture to retain the employee, or they might just simply be upset to hear the news that they are looking at moving on.  

Let’s also not forget that the candidate wants to leave. Of course, most of us look for a new job at some point for various reasons, but in some instances, it’s because of the manager. In fact, a Gallup survey found that 50% of employees tend to leave because of their manager, whether that’s down to their people management skills or whether there are wider team issues at play.  This dynamic may come through in the reference and may give a negative tone to the overall account of the candidate’s performance.  The recruiter’s consultation back to the employer needs to reflect the balance of a negatively toned reference with the candidate’s transparency regarding their relationship and reasons for wanting to move on.  This then needs to align with what the candidate has communicated directly to the employer about their reasons for looking elsewhere.  We must keep in mind that some candidates do not feel comfortable being overly negative about their current manager in an interview as it could count against them.     

The recruiter also needs to think about when they seek the reference during the recruitment process. Introduce the idea too early and you may risk the candidate pulling out, as they don’t want their current manager to be aware that they’re interviewing elsewhere (when a job offer isn’t certain and at that stage, they might not know if they even want the job).  On the flip-side, an early introduction of the concept to the candidate will quickly reveal whether there are issues within their current environment and will also promote a very honest and open discussion about their true motivations for leaving.

Takeaways

There are a number of pros and cons to carrying out a reference check with the candidate’s current manager, although I have found that most employers won’t insist on one to avoid jeopardising the person’s current employment.

However, there are some good alternatives to keep in mind:

  1. Try offering the role on the condition of a satisfactory reference from their current manager. This can be a great approach, as the candidate knows that they have the offer on the table and will be in a position to talk to their manager, whilst you gain valuable recent feedback.  
  2. Is there a manager who has recently left the business? This can certainly be a win-win approach; however, always double-check that the person is genuine. As a phone call would likely be made to a personal number or a new business number, make sure you can verify their working relationship and position.  “Counterfeit referees” aren’t as rare as you might think; read here for an unfortunate experience I encountered in the past that I think we can all learn from!
  3. Can psychometric assessments or work-sample tests replace this step to give you confidence in their current capabilities and potential?

If you’re not comfortable offering the role without a reference from their current employer, then do request one, but do it with caution. Where possible, however, I would always advise weighing this up to ensure the benefits outweigh the risks.

I’m interested in hearing your views. What do you think? Are you in favour of requesting references from a current manager?