Reference Point

You were really disappointed when ‘Kathy’ resigned. She was the perfect employee. She’d been with the business for nearly 7 years and you’d invested a great deal of time and resources in developing her from a graduate, full of raw talent, enthusiasm and ideals into a highly competent and inspirational Marketing Manager. She had played a key role in moving your business forward in ways that you would have found unimaginable before she joined.

Now she had been tempted into joining one of the major London consulting organisations who had offered her an equally unimaginable package – and you needed to find a replacement.

You had done the right thing and considered your existing staff, but quickly concluded that none of them was capable of filling Kathy’s shoes, so you were reluctantly starting down the path of recruiting a new Marketing Manager from outside.

You knew that having the right people in a business was generally the difference between success and failure. You’d made a few mistakes in the past and had learned painful lessons about the cost of the wrong hire. The agency fees were bad enough, but there was also the cost or your time, and that of your colleagues, in selecting, integrating and training the appointed candidate. Then when, after a few months, you realised that the person wasn’t going to work out, there were the inevitable termination costs and, worst of all, the intangible price of lost opportunities, wasted emotional energy, disruption to the business and the negative effect on your loyal staff.

You knew that interviews were famously unreliable and that all the evidence pointed towards interviewers making an intuitive decision within 5 minutes and then spending the rest of the time searching for evidence to support it.

You had tried to compensate for this by using psychometric tests (for senior roles only because the worthwhile tests are expensive) but still found yourself discounting the results if they contradicted your instincts.

So, how on earth were you going to maximise your chances of hiring a successful replacement for Kathy when you already….

  1. Understood the fundamental limitations of interviewing
  2. Ensured that shortlisted candidates were interviewed by a range of people to compensate for this
  3. Used appropriate psychometric tests
  4. Wrote to the successful candidate’s former employers for a reference


Wrote to the successful candidate’s former employers for a reference.

Really? Is that all?

That was the trick you were missing.

In these litigious days of compensation and compromise agreements, the value of a written reference is very limited. If employers do confirm anything more than dates of employment and a job title, it’s likely to be in terms so vague as to be meaningless. So, if you are serious about making a good appointment, you must invest the time in speaking to (not emailing) a range of people who know your preferred candidate.  

Unless they have something to hide, your candidate should be pleased to provide a list of names and phone numbers of customers, colleagues, suppliers and previous bosses, all of whom will add to the picture that you need to build before confirming an offer of employment.  The right candidate will also be impressed that you are taking their appointment so seriously.

Prepare for these conversations by compiling a list of questions that are searching (without being inappropriately intrusive) and ensure that you get a sense of the candidate’s weaknesses as well as their strengths.   This can often be achieved by asking something like “we want to do everything we can to ensure that x is successful, so in what areas do you think will we need to provide particular support?”. Don’t be reticent – people like to have their opinions sought.

Preparing for and having these conversations is a significant investment but, in comparison with the cost of making a bad hire, it is but a drop in the ocean.

They also increase your chances of recruiting another Kathy………..