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Keep Your References from Giving “Yellow Flag” Responses

You have successfully passed the early stages in your candidacy for a new job.   Whew!  Just the references remain.  You’re pretty certain that your former associates will say good things about you.  So, there’s nothing to worry about.   Right?  Well, maybe or maybe not.

Ed Fry, President of FaithSearch Partners

Ed Fry, President of FaithSearch Partners

Reference checking is a common component of most search processes conducted by businesses themselves or through an executive search firm retained to recruit leaders for key positions.  It also is often one of the final steps taken before a candidate is selected for a position and as such, there is a tendency to treat this function as a formality – both on the part of the candidate and the executive recruiter.  Through years of experience and quite a bit of practice, I have learned that this can be a mistake for both parties.

All too often ambiguous phrases provided by a reference may be meant to come across in a favorable way, but can be perceived otherwise.  Conversely, there are occasions when ambiguity is purposely used by a reference to feign praise about a candidate without being directly critical.  Consider these examples:

“I’ve never worked with a person as good as John.”

“Mary is a very interesting leader.”

“I can’t say enough good things about Mark.”

“If I had the right role, I’d definitely hire Lisa again.”

“I can’t think of anything critical to say about Howard.”

“Doris was one of the better managers with whom I worked at Memorial Hospital.”

These types of phrases should be yellow flags for reference takers, who need to probe further to determine whether the reference is actually praising the candidate or in fact may be masking some real concerns.  The astute reference taker will dig a little deeper, asking probing questions to solicit candid feedback from references.  Failure to clearly understand and interpret references may result in an unfavorable appointment, with repercussions both for the executive search firm and the candidate.

Responsible reference takers understand that the ability to differentiate between a positive and negative reference is key to selecting the right candidate just as the ability to differentiate between good and evil is essential to living an uncompromising life.

“But examine everything carefully, hold fast to that which is good; abstain from every form of evil.”  (1 Thessalonians 5:21-22  NASB).

For reference takers this means prudently checking provided references and following up as necessary to get a complete and unvarnished assessment of a candidate.

For candidates, being discerning means choosing your references carefully (there will always be someone you have worked with who won’t provide a good reference).  Also, give your submitted references a heads-up if you know they will be contacted as part of a reference process for a specific position.  Finally, if possible, provide them with specific examples of your accomplishments that could be used during a reference call.

As Christians, we are called to be discerning as we navigate through all areas of life.  As such, a high level of discernment should be exercised throughout the entire search process including the reference check step.


Guest blog by Ed Fry, President of FaithSearch Partners

“Building great faith-based organizations. One inspired leader at a time.”

Since 1990, Ed has successfully assisted faith-based organization boards and executive teams in securing mission-minded leaders.  FaithSearch Partners was founded in early 2007 to serve faith-based healthcare organizations and large, complex churches and ministries.  In addition, the firm also responds to clients that are not formally “faith-based,” but still place a high value on leaders with strong spiritual values.

To learn more, click here: FaithSearch Partners

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