Hiring · Due Diligence

Is it OK to call up references that weren't listed?

Adrian Andrade Creative Director at emPower

March 10th, 2015

I'm interviewing early hires for our company. As part of the diligence process, I'm asking for references if I feel the candidate may be a fit. The only problem when asking for references is that the candidate will likely cherry pick from his/her work history... which is understandable.

I particularly notice it when the reference is from an older project (skipping a recent project for a more favorable reference in all likelihood). With sites like LinkedIn, you can often find companies (i.e. other startups) they have worked for that are not on the reference list, so it's fairly easy to contact someone outside of the provided reference list, so my question is centered around the ethics of the concept.

Is it kosher to do so? Has anyone done it as part of their hiring processes? What was the feeling on the part of the candidate? Did you disclose that you were doing so before you did it? Not disclose it at all? What was the feeling on the part of the non-reference that you were calling?

Also, just to note, the question isn't about contacting companies the candidate currently works for (which is a-whole-nother topic). This particularly pertains to past work history.

Jake Carlson Software Development Manager at Oracle

March 10th, 2015

I'm not really on board with this approach. For one, you don't really have a full understanding to whom the candidate wants to disclose that they are on the market. Their current employer is a no-no, but other projects might be ongoing part-time roles, etc. It might not be as simple as just skipping the most recent project.

Second, you don't know the circumstances and the person might just be a jerk or be bitter solely for the reason that they got left in the dust.

Third, IMO it reflects poorly on the candidate that they did not notify the reference before he/she is contacted. Not many people like to get caught off guard like that.

Yes, references are hand picked to be good. If the candidate has 3+ references that all give glowing reviews, does it really matter that you don't get the story from absolutely everyone? If your answer is yes, then at least do the candidate the courtesy of asking permission so they can give you any necessary background info.

Aleksandra Czajka Freelance Senior Software Engineer, Developer, Web Developer, Programmer - Full Stack

March 10th, 2015

Well, look at it this way. If you're vetting someone who is a respectable person, values high integrity, starting a partnership, friendship, work relationship and you go behind their back calling up people that might be their good friends they've worked with, that they have not warned and they get offended, you are very much putting the person you're vetting in a position where they need to apologize to their former colleagues. If the connection is strong, you might be laughed at and YOUR phone call will not be returned, not the other way around.

I am a senior software engineer and have been "vetted" in one way or another for technical positions and partnerships. If you did that to me, there is no way I would return your call. It's a slap in the face and tells me that you think your position is hire up than mine and you can do anything you're willing with the people of my network.

Whatever I do, whether it's with friends, family or business, I act with integrity. I do not ever assume I am vetting someone that is lying to me and go behind their back to find out. I treat them with respect and integrity. As far as their abilities, there is a whole lot of ways of vetting that depending on what you're hiring for.

Bill Snapper Owner Principal at SammyCO, LLC

March 10th, 2015

It's not a matter of whether it's Kosher or not.  Any company you call where you don't know someone personally can only LEGALLY tell you that "so and so worked here" and they can confirm the dates.  Now, that said, if you got a rock star and you happened to connect with someone that they worked for and they rave about them you're golden.

Of course people are going to cherry pick their references.  Don't assume that because they skipped a project that there was a problem.  It could be that they worked for a person that was a train wreck and calling that person might cause you to miss out on a solid good candidate because the train wreck might sound nice and sincere when they're just looking to frag the person.

If you have contacts where they worked you could use those but beware that legally that person isn't supposed to say anything other than confirming dates.


March 10th, 2015

Barbie did not include her last job on her LinkedIn profile but she did on her resume. Bob the manager knew a cool trick and got in contact with her last employer, they hired her after her last job gave a great review, they even traded information on companies so her old company knew where she went in case they had questions for her..

Barbie had been assaulted at her last company by her boss and now her assailant knows her new employer.

Maybe there was a reason for the privacy.

Just like the social network that connects your friends based on contacts (old boyfriend who still has old girlfriends phone number but girl friend deleted his), you don't always know who is looking for someone and what the outcome could be when you connect them together again.

These are real stories, privacy matters.

STEPHEN KOSMALSKI Leading Branded Gift & Collectables Company

March 10th, 2015

I think one needs to be careful regarding doing pre hire references on Linked In or other sources unilaterally. The candidate may not want certain people to know he/she is looking at a new job for a variety of very valid reasons. Word spreads quickly despite all caution taken. I would be hesitant to reach out to any of the candidate's connections without clearing it with the candidate first. From the Desk of Steve Kosmalski

Max Goff

March 17th, 2015

Absolutely NOT okay.  If a candidate is asked to provide references, you are ethically obliged to limit yourself to contacting only those references.  If more is needed, do a background check and/or conduct a google search. To contact people the candidate may or may not have known in the past is unfair to you and the candidate.  

Imagine you just went through a bitter divorce.  Would like like your ex-wife to provide a reference for you? 

To randomly select references from a candidates possible universe of past contacts is dicey and unfair to both of you.

Neil Warlicht Connector and Entrepreneur

March 12th, 2015

I'm quite surprised by the number of people that think this is in fact kosher. I'm an executive recruiter and have seen this gone wrong too many times.

For me it's simple: by cold-contacting someone and asking about a certain person you make it known that this person is looking for a new job and this can have potentially very negative implications for your applicant. You have no idea what kind of connection the contacted person has and since they have worked together there's a fair chance that they know the applicants current boss/colleagues. IMHO you should never want to risk putting that person in a potentially difficult situation. On top of that, if the applicant finds out, this might actually negatively reflect on you and your firm.

The counter question, as a number of people have pointed out already, is why you don't trust your interview process and your gut? It's certainly good to have someone go through a rigorous interview process but at some point you have to be ok with the fact that there will always be some unknowns and a person's performance will also change over time, depending on changing situations and other people they're working with. After 10+ years of executive recruitment my advice is still: go with your gut. 

D'anthony Tillery Sr. Director, Global Talent Acquisition, Diversity & Inclusion

March 10th, 2015

I have seen Managers utilize this approach in my various roles of leading talent acquisition functions. I advise them that if you are going to leverage references you should inform the candidate. In some instances unconscious bias can impact a reference, especially if the reference is someone who was not provided by the individual.  I would caution that a reference is and should be used in the total evaluation of an individual and not be leveraged as a stand alone determinant factor in any decision. Too often we think that a reference is the gospel. Put it in context and understand the references direct involvement with the individual. 

Again it is just one aspect of any talent evaluation and should not be relied upon as the holistic determination of a person ability to be successful. We judge all criteria that would warrant consideration and evaluate the candidate with full transparency.  

Be blessed. 

Richard Groves UG/PGT Enterprise and Research Development Officer at University of Warwick

March 17th, 2015

I would suggest that in the UK at least, divulging any information about anyone to a third party without their consent would be a breach of data protection and privacy laws, except where it is a protection/health and safety issue, which this clearly isn't.  I would suggest that your decision to work with people is based on the information presented to you and good faith.

Joe Welfeld President; The Welfeld Group, LLC

March 12th, 2015

If you're a little concerned about doing these blind calls, ask for five references and work your way from number five to number one. There's a higher probability that number five will give you more realistic feedback since the candidate probably didn't think you would get to him/her.