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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