No, I Will NOT Call Your Ex-Boss

Last week Johanna Rothman and I noticed that we disagree on the topic of checking people's references. We thought it would be interesting to write one blog post each, and then let our readers decide on the matter. Please read Johanna's post about checking references, and also read my view on this matter below. We are very interested in hearing your opinions!

Seven years ago, when I got into a new relationship, it never crossed my mind to contact the ex-boyfriends of my new lover. And I was glad I wasn't asked for my own references, because I didn't part with some of my own lovers on the best of terms. (And that was never my fault, of course.) Sure, I would happily have given my last partner's phone number, since we’re still best friends. But my new partner and I decided to start with a clean slate, and not to distort our own observations and experiences with the feelings and opinions (whether good or bad) of the people from our past.

However, as a manager, people expect from me that I contact former employers of job candidates to ask them their opinions. And some of my former employees ask me if I can be listed as their reference, so that their new employers can contact me to hear about my opinions.

Well, I've decided to refuse on both accounts. Here's why…

  1. I've noticed that any former employees asking me for a reference are often the weaker ones. The ones I did not care to let go. It seems that the strong people are better able to sell themselves. Now, I don't see it as my job to support weak employees in their new careers. But aside from that, what does this tell me about new job candidates showing me references on their résumés? Are they the weaker ones, who are not able to sell themselves? Why do they want their former employers to influence me? And if they cannot sell themselves, why should I hire them?
  2. In the past, in the few cases when I did call a former employer, I was often disappointed at the feedback that I got. It never felt completely honest, and was therefore useless. The feedback was usually positive, which gave me false confidence. And to be fair: neither do I want to be the guy to destroy someone’s chance at a better career. So I might try to evade any painful questions, and be somewhat positive in a vague and uncomfortable way. Even when the employee in question sabotaged my pet project, and I'm glad to be rid of him. After all, he might perform much better elsewhere.
  3. And that brings me to the more fundamental issue, called the Broken Windows Theory. It says that behavior is a function of social context, which means that people's behavior depends on the quality of the environment that they live in. If I am to interpret a former employer's opinion on someone, I will need to know all about that employer's organization. Because bad organizations breed bad employees, and vice versa. And people starting new lives in new environments have often displayed stunning behavioral transformations. To cut it short: how someone performed in your organization says very little about how she will perform in mine.

I experienced the final shove into my current thinking after seeing the movie Boy A. The film is about an 18-year old boy who desperately wanted to start a new life, after having spent 10 years in jail for a crime committed when he was only 8 years old. But society didn’t let him, because people were always actively seeking out his past references. And his past never forgave him. It was heartbreaking.

So here is my pledge to you…

When you apply for a job with me I will not contact the employers from your past. I don’t care how they feel about you, because I am not them, and my organization is not theirs. And I want to trust you, not them. I don’t want to know that you are believed to have blown up an office building, or that you messed around with your boss’s secretary, in his office chair. I also don't care about heroic stories of the great products you made, or how you saved that company’s mascot from choking on an iPod. I will check your diplomas, certificates and other objective data, because I obviously don’t want to be lied to. But I will not assume that your supposed performance in the past has any bearings on your actual performance for me.

You will have my trust until you’ve proven that you are worthy of it. And only then will I be ready for a long-term commitment. That can take some time though. I had my partner on trial for seven years.

(picture by makelessnoise)

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  • http://blog.brodzinski.com Pawel Brodzinski

    I don’t agree with you in two points here.
    First is the main one. Personally if someone calls me to check references of my former employee I’ll always tell the truth. There’s no other option. My friend used to give references of that type: “a great performer, very good technical knowledge, but he’s been stealing form our company,” which was actually true. If ex-employee points you as his reference and he expects you’d lie, well, that’s his problem, not yours. And the last argument: at least once I hired a toxic guy who was a technical guru but his character was far, far away from whatever I could have accepted. Checking his former employers would at least give me a hint about the guy.
    Second, I don’t believe much in diplomas. This may be controversial but I’ve seen enough people showing a number of exms they’d passed and being really crappy candidates. Most of the time you can pass the exam just the have the exam passed with no knowledge gained. The paper itself doesn’t show what was person’s approach to studies.

  • Sonja

    “It seems that the strong people are better able to sell themselves.”
    So what do you do if you’re actually really good, but because of nerves during a job interview you can’t sell yourself that well? There are a substantial amount of people that can’t sell themselves, but do perform incredibly well. Checking their references might just help. Just don’t use it as a magic trick that shows you all you need to know.
    So I would say, check references, only if you feel that a person might be selling themselves short.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/jurgenappelo Jurgen Appelo

    @Sonja: I don’t agree. My neighbors were very enthusiastic about a cleaning lady I once hired. So I hired her as well. And yes, this lady was a bit shy, and not able to sell herself that well. But I gave it a try.
    However, 3 months later, I still didn’t understand why my neighbors were so enthusiastic. Yes, she’s was doing ok, but nothing to be ecstatic about.
    So you see, talking to former employers doesn’t tell me anything about how *I* will think about someone. It’s better to ignore other people’s comments and evaluate myself.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/jurgenappelo Jurgen Appelo

    @Pawel: True, checking former employers gives you a hint. But how do you know what the hint is about? Is it a hint about the performance of the person, or a hint about the environment in the organization itself?
    Why do you assume a “toxic” guy was also toxic in his previous organization? And if someone was “toxic” in a previous organization, why do you assume he will be toxic in yours?
    If I take complexity theory in account, which says that agents will behave very differently in a different environment,
    this simply doesn’t make sense to me at all.

  • Sonja

    As I haven’t hired any people myself I’ll use project work at the university as an example. During my studies I’ve done several projects with different people. And during those projects everyone was gossiping about who was not doing their part of the work. In new projects (admittedly in the same uni) for new courses those people in general performed as predicted by past behaviour.
    Working on a new project, with different people, on a different subject gave approximately the same results. So past behaviour can be used as a basis for future results.
    On the same note, if the cleaning lady had been horrible at cleaning your neighbours house or would’ve stolen from them, this could very well mean she’d do the same to you. Your standards of great might’ve differed but there almost always are some commonalities to be found of what constitutes good and what is bad.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/jurgenappelo Jurgen Appelo

    @Sonja: I don’t think your example of the university is a fair comparison. Because in that case the environment remained the same. Different projects, same environment. Of course I would agree that past experiences count. They also count for my own employees over the course of different projects (but within the same environment).
    I can agree that *some* information from my neighbors about the cleaning lady might be interesting. But even if she was said to have stolen from them, I think this says only little about her expected behavior when she’s working for me. I know of people who’ve been treated so badly by employers, that they can easily justify stealing, as this compensates the hurt they had to endure (in their eyes).

  • Arturo Pina

    I would say that information doesn’t hurt, and I wouldn’t be black or white on an issue like this, just use the option as you see fit. For example, you might be interested on exploring some points which were discussed during the meeting. If you find the referee non-committant then you can always ignore the information. People doesn’t usually resist to honest, smart, relevant, open questions and I can’t see why it won’t help. In the worst case, if you’re able to recognise the kind of answers you mention it’s even better you will be able to tell the wheat apart from the chaff…
    Also about not being willing to provide references for a former employee I think you should consider that in other corporate cultures you might be damaging your ex-employee’s prospects and that’s something you won’t (always) want to do right?

  • http://profile.typepad.com/6p01053652a106970c Roman

    I think you’re making a good point in reconsidering references! However I also think some nuances could be made.
    First the window-breaking and complexity theory. This very much reminds me of the nature-nurture debate. Yes, the behavior of employees is very much dependent on the context in which they work, but I also think that certain behavioral patterns repeat themselves in different contexts, because they are personal qualities of the person.
    Secondly, perhaps there could be a nuance in not throwing away, but redefining the process of referencing? I’m thinking about discussing the outcome of the reference talk with the candidate for example. Of course this means actually having two job interviews per person (one of which probably by phone), but as I understood from Johanna, she loses 30 minutes on referencing anyway ;).

  • http://blog.brodzinski.com Pawel Brodzinski

    @Jurgen: Talking about my toxic guy, well, I can hardly believe he can avoid being toxic unless closed in a basement. Believe me, I’ve worked with all sorts and I don’t mind but he’s been special. Really special. Commitment, accountability and team-playing don’t appear in his dictionary. Being a weirdo is barely an addition. And of course his technical skills are great.
    Now, if I called his former employer I wouldn’t ask if he’s able to produce high-quality code because I alerade knew that. Things you can’t really check during interview are work ethics, level of commitement, reaction to emergency situation, team-playing etc. Maybe I’m narrow-minded but I can’t imagine the guy getting good-to-great opinion in those areas from anyone but complete liar.
    But that’s a drastic example. Generally I see people don’t change their attitude and approach much when they’re changing their jobs. If someone is commited she won’t become a cubicle-dweller just because she changed a job. If someone is a primaballerina character he won’t become a team-worker in a minute. You can check it, but no one force you to take reference check as it was pure truth.
    If you listen carefully and ask right questions you’ll get more out of checking references.

  • Abhijeet

    There is one more aspect to background references – basic security precaution. Some organizations even outsource the reference checking business. Service provider simply calls up the references or visits them in person and asks if they know the employee and how the employee is as a person.
    Even if the answer to the second question is obvious, it does prove that the employee is known to some real people who can be contacted if need be.
    Of course this is very basic and can be faked as well but that is a topic for another discussion.

  • http://blog.mendeltsiebenga.com Mendelt Siebenga

    Checking references is in theory a good thing. But in practice it doesn’t work everywhere.
    When I want to buy a book I check amazon.com for references. The feedback other buyers leave there is very helpful. When I want to buy a new TV I check online for feedback. Even when hiring a contractor I’d like to be able to speak to former clients.
    I guess when hiring full time employees things are a bit different. People who bought something have no loyalty to the company they bought the product from. If they write a rave review about it it’s probably because they are really happy with the product. The feedback you’d get from ex-employers is different. You’re more likely to get feedback on the personal relationship with their former employee than on the quality of their work. I think your analogy with asking references for lovers is spot on (although a bit disturbing. I’m not going to let my gf read this post)
    In her post Johanna seems to be talking more about checking references for contractors than for employees though.

  • Bogdan

    I agree with you up to a point, the uselessness of references from former employers. On another hand, relying too much on how people “sell” themselves during the interview can lead to very bad decisions. In this business (IT, that is) good professionals often have very limited social skills, thus “strong people” may lose its meaning in the nerds world. Some say ( http://www.amazon.com/Outliers-Story-Success-Malcolm-Gladwell/dp/0316017922 ) it takes 10k hours to achieve greatness, that doesn’t leave one much time to become a people’s person, does it? 🙂 You say that you check diplomas, and other objective data (e.g?) but don’t assume that the past performance has any meaning in actual performance, and this is the part where I disagree most. Computer science is not literature, past projects one has worked on should be the first thing to put in balance, because they are easy to quantify, unlike, let’s say, the work of a philosopher. And referencing past projects is the way you can “show off” your performance from the past, isn’t it? History can teach a lot if handled with caution. I also don’t agree with the analogy with the “Boy A” movie. Humans are incapable of being objective and so the society (btw, what’s the “society” anyway?)creates stereotypes – that people with a criminal record are to be avoided for example. This is the cause of the boy’s rejection, not the inability of people to “see” through him, that would cause the need to check his past, or his references. So to sum up, I think someones need to check a candidate’s references just tells how bad he/she is at evaluating people objectively and without prejudice. And it may also be a sign of lazyness, it’s much easier to listen to what “people” are saying then to make you own opinion. I know, it’s kind of offtopic what I said here, but just my 0.02 €. I would also take some time to comment on some comments here, but hey, I’m work right now 🙂

  • http://monstrousestrus.wordpress.com/ aprilx

    I’m glad you think so. I agree!
    Two of the times I’ve asked for reference letters, my bosses told me to write something up so they could OK and sign it. It’s insulting. And, either way, it could all be lies–whether I or they had written them. You never know what the truth is until you work with the person.
    I’ve never been asked for references, so I’ve never given them. I just want to have a couple in case somebody requests them. But, honestly, it’s bogus. I quit one job because our bosses treated us with extremely little respect, and I let them know what I thought. If somebody called them up, they would probably ignore the great things I did and focus on my quitting (which, I admit, was a rather silly way of handling the situation, but I was young).
    In any case, I find references irrelevant for the same reasons you do. Bravo.

  • Riccardo

    I could care less about references, but I spend time on the interview to understand if the candidate knows what he claims he did in his previous assignments, that is the one and only criteria.
    References might be of help if I know also the candidate manager, group and company, but truly enough I can’t care less about all that background, prove me you can do the job and you will get it.

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