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Part 5:

Protecting Your Reputation: The Importance of Reference Selection


ou have been contacted about a prestigious role. You have expressed an interest in the opportunity and have been interviewed by the recruiter along with several

members of the hiring company’s management team. You have taken an assessment. You have been classified as a finalist candidate. By all indications, it is a great fit. To validate this, though, another layer of evaluation remains: the crucial process of official reference checking. On the surface, this might seem to be the easiest part of a job search, especially if you have been successful in your career and are a senior executive with a high degree of confidence in your skills and reputation. In fact, references need to be used sparingly, selected carefully and prepared thoroughly. Negative references can put the brakes on the process even after you have come this far, especially in today’s competitive, cautious environment where the focus is on hiring leaders with impeccable integrity and people skills.

“The comments referees make about an executive will tend to be positive. But the structured interview will encourage the referee to give Christian insight into their Fritzsche Korn/Ferry Vienna relationship with the executive as well as the experiences and achievements they share. In this way, the reputation of the referee is a little at stake – and one can assume they do not want to tarnish their good name.”

According to Wendy Wick, U.S. service delivery leader for Futurestep, a Korn/Ferry company, while “bad” references are given in fewer than five percent of cases, it is ironically sometimes the candidates who appear the strongest based on all other criteria who receive the most negative references. In the end, these otherwise highly qualified professionals are sometimes pulled out of the race and do not receive an offer. And while those cases may indeed be rare, managing your references in today’s socially networked and often litigious culture is more important than most people might assume. Understanding how recruiters use references can help you choose and prepare the most appropriate people to speak about you as a person and as a professional. In this article, the experts at Korn/Ferry describe how they find and work with the most solid referrals possible. This awareness can help you to effectively protect your reputation at this critical stage of your job hunt.

Choose Your Friends Wisely

The first thing to consider is who amongst your former colleagues, business and social contacts is the most relevant in terms of the specific job for which you are vying. Ideally, referencing will give a 360-degree perspective of your leadership style and managerial acumen and a minimum of three people will be questioned about your history. However, Korn/Ferry’s consultants agree that it is whom not how many that matters most. Kevin McBurney, a senior client partner in Korn/Ferry’s Vancouver office, notes that four times out of five he will push back on executives about their list of references, saying, “Give me three more names that look like this…” CRITERIA FOR REFEREES n






When creating your list of references, select people with whom you have worked intensely over a period of at least two to three years, as well as those who have experienced your business acumen in a non-corporate environment (e.g., volunteer or charitable work). If you are gainfully employed, as many top candidates still are today, your references should also be people the recruiter can speak to in confidence without jeopardizing your current circumstance. In terms of past employers, be prepared to give the name of your boss and even your boss’ boss. Possibilities include: Board members who are familiar with your history and operating style; people who have reported to you in the past; former peers who can comment on your teamwork and


collaboration; customers or clients, if they are appropriate based on your function and industry; and third-party service providers or suppliers. In addition, while recruiters recognize that business references can often blur with friendships, resulting in a bias towards a person’s positive qualities, they concede that it is important to get a full picture of a potential leader’s life outside of the office. Thus, it has become common to seek references from people who can speak to an executive’s character and social presence. Finally, in instances where you have been let go from a previous position, the person involved in terminating your relationship with the organization can sometimes be used as a reference. A recruiter will want to know your side of the story and then make sure there is no disconnect.

“Make sure you have a blend of people who can tell stories about you.”

Fran Pomerantz Korn/Ferry New York

BACK-CHANNEL REFERENCING Recruiters pre-qualify executives when they are initially sourcing candidates for a role by speaking to their peers within the same sector. This enables them to approach a candidate and say, “I have spent a fair amount of time talking to people who think highly of you and believe you need to take this opportunity seriously.” It also lets them go to the client with an overview of what they are hearing when they first present you as a possible candidate. As you progress in the search process, prepare yourself for the fact that recruiters will probably not limit themselves to the list of references you supply, a process sometimes referred to as “back-channel” referencing. They may look in the public domain as well, doing a check of blogs, news media sites, social networking sites and Yahoo! Finance, and examining thought leadership you have published to familiarize themselves with you. This is somewhat more common in the U.S. than it is in smaller markets in Latin America, for example, where search consultants rely almost exclusively on the insights that people within the tight executive community can provide that no Google search ever could. In Europe, meanwhile, Christian Fritzsche, a senior client partner in Korn/Ferry’s Vienna office, says, “While we do not see legal limitations in using information found in the public domain, since we have a wide range of sources at our disposal, we normally would not put much weight on the information that is in the public domain.” In any case, recruiters agree that it is a good idea to be aware of – and if possible, manage – what information is available about you on the Internet.


Wendy Wick Futurestep Houston

“Really understand your relationship with your references. Do not be afraid to ask, ‘Are you comfortable speaking to my character and business results?’”

As you consider your options, remember two things: 1. Each reference will be asked whom else the recruiter should speak to; and 2. The recruiter will ask the referee for hard, factual information and specifics about how you demonstrated certain skills in order to probe areas where they or the hiring organization may have misgivings or concerns. Maria Elena Valdes, a senior client partner for Korn/Ferry in Mexico City, says she tells the executive at the onset that she will be asking their references for other names, and then asks the first two people she talks to whom else she should call. According to her, 50 percent will provide a new name that is not otherwise on her or the executive’s list. Take the time to brief your reference about the role in question and do not let them be cold-called for this serious conversation. An experienced recruiter will ask them up front whether they have a clear understanding of the position and will outline what they are looking for in terms of their views about your ability to perform. The referee should be willing to spend a fair amount of time with the recruiter – some will want to spend at least 45 minutes to thoroughly work through a set of questions that will have been prepared and tailored for the specific circumstances relating to the job.

Contextualizing Your References

The questions asked of referees are quite similar to those that are posed to candidates themselves and span both strengths and areas for development. Some examples:



What was [NAME’s] biggest accomplishment while working for your company?


What really stands out about [NAME]?


Tell me about a specific challenge [NAME] was faced with. How did he/she handle it? What was the result?


Comment on [NAME’s] strengths in the areas of people development, strategy and functional/technical skills.


Is there any type of individual he/she does not get along with?


How would you characterize [NAME’s] leadership style?


How does he/she react in situations of high stress?


What would [NAME] need to develop in order to take the position?


What motivates [NAME] to succeed?


In what environment is he/she most effective?

In cases where a referee does not have enough time to speak in depth to these questions, a questionnaire might be sent by e-mail for completion at their convenience. This is not ideal, however, since it is less personal and people tend not to be as candid about an executive’s weaknesses in writing as they would be over the phone because they do not want a record of their views in black and white. Many times, a person’s resistance to spending more than five minutes on a phone call also reflects their unwillingness to say very much that is positive. Valdes says that the more rigid legal landscape in the U.S. can make people reticent about providing references when they are not 100 percent in support of an executive. “When a reference is positive, people rave about you. When it is negative, it is really there – it comes up in several conversations and is as clear as water. If I hear ‘No comment,’ I know the person is hiding something.” Korn/Ferry consultants stress that the goal of reference checking is not to elicit negative or defamatory comments about you; in fact, most references are positive. When a negative comment does come up, the recruiter will look into it, no matter how long it takes. It is also the recruiter’s job to recognize the difference between information about show-stopping concerns such as embezzlement or sexual harassment and reports of personality or style conflicts. Valdes described a scenario where one executive’s reference check showed an even split between people who admired him and those who did not. Those who gave positive reviews had been trained and developed by him, while the others had not been successful working for him and described him as “demanding.” The executive was a self-described perfectionist and was aware that he struggled to work with people who did not share his standards or work ethic. In cases like these, recruiters will ask the client what they are willing to do. Some might be open to taking on a somewhat controversial personality who gets the job done, while others will emphasize a caring and patient approach to people management above all else.

“While any poor reference will be tracked, it will also be put in context. An executive will not recover from the most serious allegations or any proof that they have presented forged or falsified claims.”

Maria Elena Valdes Korn/Ferry Mexico City

NEGATIVE REFERENCES Negative and especially defamatory comments proffered by references will be subject to scrutiny by search consultants, who will look carefully at: How objective the information was n

How certain the reference was about the information n

How many references mentioned the item n

Whether there is any way to confirm the information n

Feedback also will be framed according to where the referees come from and the period in which they worked with the candidate. 5

“The final detailed reference check has to be fairly rich in data as it relates to the specific job.”

Kevin McBurney

Korn/Ferry Vancouver

For example, in an emerging industry such as digital media where companies evolve rapidly and tenures can be short, it takes a recruiter with an in-depth knowledge of the landscape to recognize the nuances between the relevant value of the insights provided by one referee over another. Fran Pomerantz, a Korn/Ferry client partner specializing in media and entertainment in New York City, says this is what clients pay for. “Two people might have the same title, and on the surface one might assume the title reflects the essence of what they have done. In fact, there might not be much at all about the two people that is the same and it takes an expert to know the impact they really made in their particular organization at a particular time. This will also affect how well they are able to speak to another person’s contributions and should be kept in mind during the reference checks.” GLOBAL STANDARDS The search for talent remains global in scope and while legislative requirements might vary from market to market, the baseline for U.S.-based executive recruitment firms is to shy away from any discussion of the following topics with referees as they relate either to the candidate or to their relatives including their spouse:



Age, date or place of birth




Marital status


Number of children


Race, ethnic origin or citizenship


Native language


Religious preference


Health or physical handicap, unless specifically job related


Sexual orientation

Report the Findings

Once the conversations with your referees have been completed, a summary of the third-party observations about your appropriateness for the position will be presented to the hiring company. The 1998 Data Protection Act in the U.S. and European Data Protection Directive 95/46/EC stipulate that the content of these reports can be shared with you should the situation warrant it. If you are not selected for a role due specifically to what was uncovered during the reference check, you will generally be informed of this. As is the case throughout the job hunt, possessing a high sense of self-awareness will help prevent any surprises. Anticipating and discussing any negative perceptions that might exist about you with a recruiter beforehand and demonstrating lessons learned will help them keep unfavourable comments in context. Trusting your references to be fair and honest while helping them to understand the reasons why you are pursuing a particular opportunity will go a long way towards letting your reputation speak for itself, enabling the recruiter and the prospective employer to confirm that you are the best person for the job.


About The Korn/Ferry Institute

The Korn/Ferry Institute was founded to serve as a premier global voice on a range of talent management and leadership issues. The Institute commissions and publishes groundbreaking research utilizing Korn/Ferry’s unparalleled expertise and preeminent behavioral research library. It also serves as an exclusive destination for executives to convene and hone their leadership skills. The Institute is dedicated to improving the state of global human capital for organizations of all sizes around the world. For more information on the Institute, visit

About Korn/Ferry International

Korn/Ferry International, with a presence throughout the Americas, Asia Pacific, Europe, the Middle East and Africa, is a premier global provider of talent management solutions. Based in Los Angeles, the firm delivers an array of solutions that help clients to attract, develop, retain and sustain their talent. Visit for more information on the Korn/Ferry International family of companies, and www.kornferryinstitute. com for thought leadership, intellectual property and research.


Š Copyright 2009 The Korn/Ferry Institute

Protecting Your Reputation: The Importance of Reference Selection  

Protecting Your Reputation: The Importance of Reference Selection