During my assignment in The Hague (The Netherlands), I received a phone call from a British senior manager. He called to inquire about a person who worked for me that applied for a job that the senior manager had posted on my company’s job posting website. I first asked the senior manager about his job posting to understand the job requirements to see if there was a fit. After listening, I started to describe the strengths of the person on my team. Suddenly, the senior manager exclaimed, “Are you trying to pass along a poor performer? Give me the true lowdown on this employee, not the fluff!”
In my employer’s large international company, I noticed the tendency of some managers to transfer poor performers to other groups rather than doing the important, but harder work of trying to improve an employee’s performance in their current assignment. The senior manager was aware of this trait and wanted me to tell him the truth. He did not know the employee or me, so he had to rely on references. Employee performance records are sometimes coded with generic words that can belie negative behaviors and performances. There are supervisors of poor performers who would rather cover up performance issues and transfer the individual than do the hard work of developing employees, having hard discussions, or making the difficult decision to terminate.
Truthful references are needed when one is applying for new positions or advocating for a person’s competencies. The difficult task is determining whether the reference is truthful and unbiased. An optimal reference should be a person who has closely supervised an employee or has the qualified professional expertise while working closely with the referenced individual. A reference can also be a character witness, but this is less often requested for professional positions. Typically, it is a current or former supervisor, a professor, or professional colleague.
The first task in selecting references is to think of people who have spent time assessing your performance in a relatively recent period. This is usually during your present or previous assignment. The number of references should be small, around three individuals. Omitting one of these individuals may expose a gap in your work history which may cause an inquiry. It is best to be open and exhibit trustworthiness. Gain your reference’s approval. If you are changing employers, supply the references at the interview, if requested, and explain why it is best not to contact the referenced individuals.
A relatively recent issue is being asked to be a reference when you don’t know the individual well enough to be a trusted reference. Social media has impersonalized references and caused this important process to become irrelevant. People use social apps to accumulate hundreds of contacts to build a network of references. Yet only a handful of individuals can fully attest to an individual’s current competencies and deficiencies during the last five years.
How does one respond when asked to be a reference? First and foremost, be truthful. If you know the individual well, then respond positively and state that you will be candid, forthright, and discreet. If you don’t know this person well, tell him or her that you are unable to be a reference. If asked why, state that you had not worked closely enough to make a clear assessment.
Second, state that you will inform the person when a person calls you seeking a reference. However, the actual reference discussion is private. If the person requesting you to be a reference wants to hear your opinion, be truthful, direct, and respectful. This allows the person to hear your reference opinion in advance. The person may decide not to use you as a reference, which is their option.
Except for my early career assignments, most of my positions were determined by managers who intimately knew my skills and character. I was pulled through the maze of my complex organization by knowledgeable authorities. Only once during the last twenty years of my career did I interview for a position with managers who did not know me but relied on the recommendations from my current supervisor. The interview went badly as the hiring manager did not want anybody working for him except his trusted friends. His supervisor wanted to place a knowledgeable and competent into my supervisor’s group and my supervisor insisted that I be part of the swap for my development. It was a political interview that was a mental scrummage. I got the new assignment, but the first year was sheer hell since the hiring manager was overruled by his supervisor. After I performed well, he finally accepted me, and we made peace.
Selecting references is important. Do it wisely and limit your selections to those who truly know your abilities and character. Gaining a new assignment may be your goal, but achieve it based upon your actual competencies and organizational fit and not through deception. Deuteronomy 5:20 states one of God’s commandments: “Neither shall you bear false witness against your neighbor.” God commands truth in references, whether seeking one or being one.