Reference Checks that Could Make or Break You

“Call me.”

The two words that say so much more when someone reaches out to you for a reference check. “Call me” means there is a deep vault of information coming that someone isn’t willing to put in writing but they trust you enough to talk about it. You know “This is going to be GOOD!”

Just Say “No” to Reference Checks

In the professional world, or at least the local media world, managers are officially trained and sometimes company-policy obligated to never give a reference check. There are too many legal implications that can follow a person or company when a bad reference check is given and the person doesn’t get the job, whether that decision involved your input or not.

I was recently up for a job in the government sector and the recruiter said “It’s hard to get people to say anything bad about you” and I explained that while I believe I am stellar employee, it’s just part of the brainwash we go through – never give a bad reference on the record and highly avoid doing it off the record unless you would trust the person to care for your child or pets.

If You Say You’ve Never Given an “Off the Record” Reference Check, You’re Lying

From a personal perspective, I’m very picky about who can put me on their reference list. I think I maybe have two dozen people from 25 years of working in local news I would give a glowing recommendation to. I have said “No” several time to people asking if they could put me on the list, or at most I’ll explain to them exactly what I’d say on a reference check so they can decide if they want me on the list or not.

Nevertheless, journalists are good diggers and dot connectors. They can look at a resume and find the three degrees of separation where they know someone who knows someone who knows that person.

That’s when you usually come across the “Call Me” conundrum.

We’re communicators trained to dig and find information that we share as soon as humanly possible. We love to tell our stories, whether it’s a legitimate news piece or venting about someone who gave us grief in our career.

In the past two weeks alone, I’ve gotten 5 reference checks on people I know would never put me on their list. Maybe I didn’t have a great experience with them, maybe I had to fire them, maybe they just never liked me and made my professional life miserable, maybe they were already miserable and needed to assign blame so it was perfect to choose their direct manager, maybe I wasn’t my best version of myself to them at one time or another.

Think Before You Speak and Certainly Don’t Put It In Writing

You always have the “I didn’t have the best experience with that person and I don’t want to comment,” but c’mon, who’s really going to be that mature all the time? We hate “NO COMMENT” in news and we don’t want to give that stupid answer.

I urge you to think before you speak. To understand the power of your words. To accept that people can grow and change from the version of them you knew. To acknowledge your role in a previous terrible professional relationship.

Here’s my advice if you choose to give a reference to someone you didn’t like:

  • Say something good for everything bad. Balance it out. Very few, if any, workers were just horrible people who came to work with the goal to make people miserable. There might have been areas of their performance you didn’t like, but there were good parts to that person and their work. Speak to both with the same conviction.
  • Your experience is not the sum of all parts. You cannot speak for generalities like “they were a terrible person” or “they were so lazy.” You can only speak for your direct experience with someone.
  • Consider what you didn’t know that influenced your perception. For example, and I’ve used this before. Someone might say about me “She refused to give me a decent raise and was just so stubborn and wouldn’t budge.” First of all, I rarely had the final say about a raise increase. It came from above and I was just the messenger. Second, managers work in percentages, not raw numbers. When I could offer someone a 5% raise it meant I felt they were a stellar employee. However, they wanted a nearly 20% increase because they looked at the raw number. So if a $30,000 employee wants a raise, and I offer them 5%/$1500, they are mad because they wanted to make $5,000 more or a 17% raise.
  • Realize the power of your words. If you say “It’s a terrible toxic workplace and the company sucks and the managers don’t care,” you’ve just hurt so many layers of the process. And is ALL of that true? No. In your mind, yes, but in reality? No. Know that the same karma could come back to you.
  • On that note, take all references with a grain of salt, or a whole bottle of salt. You are getting one small piece of a very pixelated photo. Don’t take it as the word of God, take it as a fact that you put in your fact seeking mission.

If You Aren’t 100% Sure You Can Trust a Person, Shut Up

I once gave an honest reference to someone I considered a trusted colleague I’d know for years. I was honest about faults, and discussed successes of the person in question, but it wasn’t a pretty overall picture for what this esteemed colleague needed from this new position.

Turns out, that person wasn’t esteemed at all and told the employee literally every last work I said about them. Everything. Hired them anyway.

When that situation didn’t work out, the colleague called me and said “Argh! You warned me and I didn’t listen!” I refused to give him any additional information about anything, because I knew there was no trust there. Getting burned changed the way I give references. I debated busting him on his betrayal, but what does that bring? Nothing but more drama. I walked away with a “Sorry it didn’t work out for you.” I will never acknowledge this person’s existence again. They are dead to me.

What Goes Around

I’m amazed at some of the conversations I see in the professional and social world. Workers belittling every aspect of their boss, station, and colleagues. Openly. In writing. In forums filled with thousands of people.

Yet, some of the same people call it “backstabbing” if they find out their boss gave a bad reference to them. People under contract trying to sneak out of it and get a new job are appalled when a hiring manager lets another hiring manager know that person is under a legally-binding contract. It’s not even hearsay, it’s the truth! But it’s considered an egregious act of etiquette.

As sure as the sun will rise in the east tomorrow, someone is going to – at some point – call your current boss about you. The street goes both ways. When you think of what you’d say about that person, consider what they’d say about you. Give the same grace you’d want to be given.

My sense of decency has been tried with a few of the calls I’ve gotten lately. Some people were downright nasty to me. Some people were so lazy they couldn’t find a COVID victim to talk in the middle of a pandemic. Some people ripped the morale of the team apart daily with negativity but overperformed in their direct tasks. Some people were sugar sweet to my face and talked about me terribly behind my back, making fun of my weight, height, name, or body shape. Some people, who never once offered condolences, discussed openly how me being in a state of grief didn’t give me an excuse to act any differently.

What To Do When You Are At That Point

I’m never one to torpedo an opportunity, and you shouldn’t either. We’ve become so much more cognizant of mental health struggles yet less aware of personal battles people are facing. I don’t know why some people spewed negativity or twisted words to feed their desire for drama. I am not equipped to act like I adore someone while speaking behind their back. I’m pretty transparent in every aspect and if I have a problem with someone I’ll address it (which doesn’t set well with some people).

So I always start with good, address challenges, and wrap up with good. Here’s a made up example:

WHAT I WOULD SAY: “He was always great at bringing story ideas. Always had the first pitch of the day. Had great sources. Challenges were getting the story to come through on time, and he really liked to openly complain and we addressed that several times. I’m hoping that person has improved since I worked with them. While it’s not someone I would hire again, I think in the right environment this person could thrive. We had a lot of challenges at our station with equipment and connectivity, so that could’ve fed the issues.”

WHAT I WANTED TO SAY: He pitched stories so outrageous that could never come through. We always had to have a backup plan. Along the way, it was everyone else’s fault his story was falling apart. He screamed at colleagues who interrupted him and ignored basic tasks like doing a timesheet and getting vacation requests in properly, then would passive-aggressively post on social media that he wasn’t allowed to take vacation. I know our station had challenges, but shouting at the moon about it wasn’t going to fix it. We were budgeting new gear but it was never enough for him. I would never hire this person and you shouldn’t either.”

However, what I wanted to say was a 10,000 foot view of a moment in time. It wasn’t sum of all parts and I have no idea what personal issues this person had. Maybe this person has moved up three markets since I worked with them. Maybe they’ve matured. Maybe they are still a demon from hell.

Give Your Reference Check a Reference Check

Sometimes the reference checks open up old wounds. They remind you of an experience that wasn’t good. They also remind you of the progress you’ve made since then. Some people I’ve had the biggest professional arguments of my life are now dear friends. We saw past the problem and realized the value the other brought to the team.

Before you offer a reference check, check yourself. It’s a small world and people are desperate to find jobs. Why do you want to be the reason someone doesn’t get their dream job? Is retaliation that important to you? Would you want the same courtesy in return from that person?

I think it might be more critical to mend the professional wounds so both sides are more amenable to giving positive reference checks. A simple “Hey, I’m sorry about this and that” email can go a long way. I know I’ve eaten that crow before.

Make it your goal to never be a person someone has to say “Call Me!!!” about.

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