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August 24, 2012


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Interesting perspective Kris. I would agree that you need to give unique and detailed description of the person you are referencing to help them as a reference. Highlighting someones qualities and how they specifically helped you is a better way to go.

Colin Finlay

Some good points Chris, although I typically stand firm in not providing references at all unless I have already agreed to it. If I am agreeing to it, it also means it will be a positive reference, otherwise I see no point in wasting anyone's time.

Greg Moran

@Kris_Dunn, thanks for bring up an important topic here. I had a lot of thoughts on this wrote a more complete response on my blog at but here is the gist.

There may be cases where this is true that neutral is the new negative, certainly for upper level, more professional positions. But, unfortunately if this is true that means that just about all of the reference checks conducted over the phone are bad references because it has become so hard to get any information. The larger issue is that phone based reference checking has turned into a joke that has little connection to how a candidate will perform on the job, which is ultimately what we care about right?

I don’t know how to say this without being a commercial (I am CEO of who does exactly this) but reference checking can be done so much better (higher completion rates, less time and predictive of future performance) though automated reference checking technology.

Its time to rethink the entire process and method behind reference checking. Hope you enjoy the full post I wrote in response and thanks for bring this up.

P.S. Love your favorite question.

Beth Burstein

People really need to be very careful in giving a negative reference. There are legal ramifications to this. That is why many companies do not give references but will only confirm employment dates. They don't want to be sued. I have answered many calls for references and have always been very careful, and yes, neutral.

Peter Hargraves

Kris - I don't agree. The comment is way too "generalist". The strength of responses to verbal references is quite different depending on the industry & job. For example if you call a Sales manager of a FMCG for a reference, neutral responses may well indicate that they are reluctant to comment on a low performer - or that they are annoyed at losing at top performer to a competitor. If you call a construction project manger the comment "he's OK" may well be the highest praise available from that particular person.
I do agree however that for verbal references to work, you need a trained person who also understands the position being recruiited & a set of questions that will get you past the option for a neutral response.
The old re-hire question is still a good one. I use it even when they refuse to give a verbal reference due to policy etc.
Changing it around a little.

"OK so I will note on the file then that you'd be happy to re-hire the person if you had the opportunity?"
Usually gets some kind of response.

Amy Jones

I am in HR and I train my manangers to forward all reference calls to me. While the chance of being on the bad end of a suit is low, I'd rather hedge my bets. Now, when I do my background checks (provided the candidate has checked "Yes" in the reference box on the app) - I will call his immediate supervisor and start with, "We want to make sure John succeeds". How can we ensure that will happen? Disarm them, be fair, and you may learn a great deal.


thanks for this insight. Had this experience with reference check. They are very careful in using the words and would never comment adversely or positively. They always would say, he would learn fast. So may be the questioning technique is where we need to work on if we really have to get the right answer. Appreciate Amy jones question. thanks and try in my next interaction. regards, Kartikeya

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