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?'