References are a lot like your mother – they aren’t going to say anything bad about you. As a result, it’s my contention that there is far too much weight that is put on reference checks. In my dozen-plus years as a recruiter, I’ve only heard a few references actually say something questionable about a candidate and only twice heard something downright awful.
THE GOOD REFERENCE
Nearly every time I’ve checked references for a candidate they come back glowing. And why shouldn’t they? There is simply no excuse for a candidate not to call the reference ahead of time to let them know that I’m calling and find out EXACTLY what they are going to say to me. I assume that an attorney has already done this, and if I was going to hear anything negative, then they would have given me another reference to call instead.
Even when someone wants to give a sub-par reference, they don’t do it out of fear of not knowing what to say and what repercussions it may have. Also, people generally want to help others get a job, so if the person is not well-liked, they may get a good reference from a former coworker (“hey, they’re gone, maybe they weren’t so bad”) or a current coworker (“hey, this will get him/her out of here”). This leads to a false positive – a satisfactory reference that isn’t warranted. As a recruiter, we try to read between the lines and glean the reference’s true feelings on the candidate, but this is sometimes hard to do.
THE BAD REFERENCE
As I said, if you are sending the name of the reference and you don’t know what they are going to say, you deserve a bad reference. You owe the reference the courtesy of a call before your references are checked and you should know with certainty what they are going to say about you. In the few times I’ve checked references and it is mediocre, I assume the worst. There have been only two times in 12 years of checking references that I’ve received an outright awful reference. To be fair, I suspected that it was coming, too. The poor reference confirmed what I suspected.
The non-reference is the worst kind of reference. It’s the “I’m only allowed to confirm employment dates” reference. It’s hard to ascertain if that’s truly the case with companies/firms that purport to only confirm dates of employment. If you suspect that your firm/company will only confirm the dates of your employment, you need to find a partner/co-worker who will speak about you on the record. You can assume that an employer will take “no comment” exactly the same way as newspaper reporters take it – that there is a story behind the statement.
In short, it’s assumed that references will come back glowing. If employers really wanted to know about a candidate, they would ask to speak to someone of THEIR choosing, not someone that the attorney candidate proffers. Until this practice changes, however, it behooves you to make sure that your potential references know that they may be called and know exactly what they will say if their called!