Catching Out the Phonies

Catching Out the Phonies

22 Feb 10:00 by Nicola Crocco


My son recently turned five, and to mark the occasion, I threw him a Superhero birthday party with all the bells and whistles. An Infinity Stones treasure hunt and a musical Superhero statues game were among the crowd pleasers, followed by a Captain America shield birthday cake. With mini Hulks and Iron Men running around my legs, I managed to have a couple of adult conversations during the party with some parents, which inevitably turned to our respective jobs, careers and employers. A discussion of executive leadership developed; specifically, that some leaders manage to continually ‘pop-up’ in senior roles from organisation to organisation despite poor performance and poor decision-making, not to mention the irreparable cultural damage caused along the way. The overall sentiment of the conversation was bewilderment that this could happen time and time again. How do some people keep getting these gigs without their pasts catching up with them?

There are many reasons why, and I have seen them all play out over my recruitment career. These are the individuals who bring their best performance to the interview and know what to say to get through. They can be charismatic and charming and are often described as being able to manage-up well. All of that aside, the most likely reason they keep one step ahead of their track record comes down to a flawed reference checking process when they were recruited.

Reference Checking Like a Superhero

A high integrity reference checking process is an essential part of any recruitment exercise. It is one of the most professionally valid ways we can catch-out the phonies. Just like my five-year-old Captain America, we need some Superhero reference checking moves to ensure the ‘goodies’ prevail. 

Some of the strategies that I have found to be particularly effective in weeding out the phonies during my career include:

  • Starting the reference checking process during the interview. 

Watch body language and eye contact when you ask if the candidate could provide a reference for roles they have left. Most importantly, ask them if they could provide their direct line manager from previous roles. If they start to dance around the question or suggest they are not in contact with them any longer and that alternative references could be provided, keep probing. Alarm bells should be ringing in your head if they can’t provide any direct line managers at all as references. 

  • Asking if they would provide their current line manager as a reference.

Watch how they react. If they have a good relationship with their direct manager, they should be able to put them forward as a reference under the right circumstances, and at the right time. I've written a blog on this, here.

  • Doing your background work on the referee.

This allows you to make sure you are talking to the real deal. Ring through to reception of their employer and confirm they work there and check their title. It doesn’t hurt to cross-reference this information with an online search.

  • Preparing your reference check questions carefully and cross-checking facts.

Confirm all the information you have been given by the candidate with the referee. “X has indicated that they grew sales by 30% over a two-year period at your organisation as General Manager. Is this also your understanding?  If so, how did they achieve this result, in your view?” 

  • Ensuring that the reason for leaving a role matches up to the story you were given.

If it doesn’t, this indicates a need to have an honest and revealing conversation with the candidate, post reference.

  • Listening for what the referee doesn’t tell you. 

If they don’t answer a question directly, or divert the conversation to another topic, there might be a good reason why.

Closing Thoughts

I could write screeds about each of these points, and I admit that years of experience and a willingness to listen to your intuition during the process will help to unveil the facts. At a high level though, the above points offer an impression of the rigour that needs to go into a reference check to make it count.  The phonies will likely self-select if they detect the lengths you are prepared to go to validate their story. On the other hand, authentic candidates will be only too happy to have their story affirmed by their references.

A vigilant reference checking process is, indeed, Super-Powerful.

Do you have any tips of catching out the phonies that you’d like to share? I’d love to hear them! If you need any advice on reference checking or support with your HR recruitment, get in touch with me.