The kiss of death

Reference checks are a joke. You know it and so do I.


The average job seeker provides the names of three former associates who not only wax poetic about her multiple talents but volunteer that, given the opportunity, she'd be able to transform water into wine and walk on water as well.

That's why the best firms go beyond the references provided, dig deep into an applicant's past and make inquiries among friends and associates with whom the candidate worked.

This just happened with two former Peppercom employees. Both were finalists for significant positions and both had undoubtedly provided the requisite three references who sang their praises. But, two diligent individuals, one another agency owner and the other a smart recruiter (now, there's an oxymoron for you), called me directly.

The first asked me about Jane Doe. I was startled, and asked my fellow CEO if Ms. Doe had given my name as a reference. 'Nah,' he said. 'But, I know she worked for you and wanted to know the real scoop.'

In the second instance, the recruiter had really done some digging. She called me and prefaced her question by stating, 'John Smith is being seriously considered for a very senior position at Widebottom, Top Heavy & Partners. As you know, he was director of PR at Artery Clogging International when Peppercom was the agency of record. So, what can you tell me about John?'

And, that dear reader, is when I used the code words that every senior PR executive and recruiter recognize as the kiss of death. I responded by saying, 'All I can tell you is that Jane worked at Peppercom for three years.' Or, in John's case, I stated, 'All I can do is confirm that he was, indeed, our client for 18 months.'

Invariably, those comments are first met with deafening silence and then a sigh. 'That's what I suspected,' the CEO replied, 'I knew something wasn't right.' And the recruiter said, 'You're the second person I've called who wasn't provided as a reference and used those very same words. That's all I needed to know.'

I've been schooled to never, ever denigrate a former employee or client. But, if another professional calls and tells me they're about to hire someone who was either a washout as an employee or an abusive, anti-Christ of a client, I'll confirm the dates of our mutual association and offer nothing else. That's code that every other professional immediately cracks. It means, 'Stay away. This person is positively toxic.' In effect, it's the kiss of death in PR.

Public relations remains a very small industry where everyone knows everyone else. So, it's wise to never, ever burn bridges with an employer or abuse the agency if you're on the client side. Because, sure as rain, someone, some day will call the head of that agency and say, 'So, we've got Lisa Farthing-Penny-Farthing in our reception area and are thinking of making her an offer on the spot. Figured I'd do one last check with someone whose name she didn't provide. What can you tell me about her time at Peppercom?'

11 thoughts on “The kiss of death

  1. You’ll appreciate this Steve, from our past; the SEALs have a saying, “Reputation is everything.” It’s a good guiding principle for our business (or any business) as well. Of course they also say, “The only easy day was yesterday,” which all too often turns out to be true.

  2. Yes, I did feel ethical and moral qualms, which is why I said it’s a good question for “The Ethicist.” This wasn’t entirely my choice.
    Yes, it bugs me, but not as much as Alec Baldwin’s popularity and there’s even less I can do about that now.

  3. Duly noted, PEngel. Still, didn’t you feel you had an ethical and moral responsibility to alert the other organization? And, if the candidate ends up out on the street again in six months, would you alert her next, unsuspecting victim or remain silent?

  4. Excellent post. I’m always amazed at how quickly some people forget, especially in the DC PR industry, that everyone knows everyone else. And word definitely does get around. Especially if you’re a jerk.

  5. Thanks Repman. While the legal implications were certainly an important consideration, so was the idea that no one likes a tattletale. Nor do many organizations want to hear from outsides like recruiters that they may have made a serious hiring mistake by not doing their homework.

  6. That’s a great story and an equally great question, PEngel. Thanks. I’m all about doing the right thing. But, by doing the right thing and warning the other organization about the candidate’s bogus credentials, you may leave yourself wide open to a lawsuit. It’s quite the conundrum. Other insights welcomed.

  7. When I was a recruiter, I had a candidate who provided three glowing references. However, the background check revealed that her Social Security number didn’t match her name. Getting suspicious, I called HR at a listed former employer. They had no record of her working there.
    When confronted with this by phone, the candidate protested that this must be a mistake, would get back to me, and hung up. I called back several times over the next two hours. Then she sent a brief email saying she had accepted another job offer. After telling our client it wouldn’t work out and why, I tracked down the candidate and found out who hired her.
    At the time, we felt that telling her new employer what we had turned up wasn’t our business. I think that person is still employed there.
    Maybe I should have asked The New York Times’ “Ethicist” if just letting it go was the right thing. What do you think?

  8. When I was a recruiter, I certainly contacted non-reference contact who said, “all I can tell you is that John worked at our firm for x number of years.” It saved a lot of grief for all parties involved.
    My “favorite” is the candidate provided those 3 glowing references. However, a required background check revealed a social security number that didn’t match his name. In addition, I contacted HR at his listed former employer, They had no record of the candidate ever having working there. Nice.
    The candidate called back and left a voice mail protesting that this must be a mistake, and promised to clarify it. I called back several times. Six hours later he sent an email saying he accepted another job offer at a PR firm I knew of.
    That leads to one final question that perhaps I should have asked the The New York Times’ “Ethicist:” should I have let the firm that hired the candidate know what my background check turned up? At the time we felt it wasn’t our business because the other employer hadn’t been equally thorough.
    Still, this post makes me wonder…

  9. Once again, RepMan, you are spot-on accurate. My current employer also asked for the requisite 3 references. However, they didn’t call the 3 I provided; rather, they called industry folk who they knew I interacted with on a regular basis (who all sang my praises with no prompting from me). That’s the smart way to do it.