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When Your Top Candidate Has Bad References

When Your Top Candidate Has Bad References
  • Name
    William Vanderbloemen
You’ve found a great candidate for your church staff. Your team loves them, your church loves them and you can’t wait to bring them on board. You do your due diligence and perform reference checks. But what do you do when one of the reference checks has negative things to say about the candidate? It’s always surprising and never something you should sweep under the rug. You have to address it, but where do you start? A bad reference certainly warrants extra attention. Why is this? Because a bad reference is rare these days. Employment law has become so stringent that most states prohibit former employers from giving any information other than confirming the dates of employment for the individual in question. So, if you get a negative reference, that means either the person giving the reference isn't informed about labor law or the employee was bad enough to warrant giving a bad reference anyway. Follow these steps as you address a bad reference:

1. Examine it.

A bad reference needs to be examined thoroughly. Was the employer giving an emotional response? Be sure to explore the relationship between the reference and candidate. Were there interpersonal dynamics that would lead to a more dramatic response? When interviewing the reference, ask them to speak into their personal relationship with the candidate to try to reveal more background. Dig deeper. If you believe there are some personal dynamics affecting the response, you can take some of what the reference says with a grain of salt.

2. Look for a pattern.

There's power in pattern. If the "bad reference" is about a singular event that took place, that should be viewed differently than a reference that talks about a repeat problem. While some singular instances can be severe enough to warrant termination, many do not. People are imperfect and will always make mistakes. But people also live in patterns. If the reference mentions a repeated pattern of behavior or performance in a candidate, I say buyer beware. Also, did the other references for this candidate mention this same problem, or were they all positive? Is there a pattern to the negative feedback, or is it one isolated opinion?

3. Culture is a factor.

Staff culture changes from team to team. Sometimes, a great candidate can get a bad reference because they just "didn't fit" at their previous church. But a culture misfit in one place does not mean a misfit everywhere. Examine carefully the candidate's fit for your team’s culture. Again, dig deeper with the reference and the candidate. Probe into the “they just didn’t fit” statement, and see if it was a culture mismatch or an unwillingness to be part of the team.

4. Trust is important.

Listen carefully for trust issues. If the bad reference you get involves an inability to trust the candidate, ask more. While competencies and culture change from church staff to church staff, breaches in trust at one job usually travel with the candidate to their next position. If the negative feedback at hand is about dishonesty or an integrity issue, then it would probably be unwise to hire the candidate.

5. Talk with the candidate.

In the end, if this is a candidate you still feel strongly about, you need to address the bad reference with them and hear what they have to say. Allow them the chance to add some context and their "side" of the story, and listen carefully to how they receive the negative feedback. Are they defensive or open? Surprised or knew it was a possibility? Their reaction will also help color the situation and hopefully guide you moving forward. By this point in the staffing process, you may be too close to the situation to be completely objective. This might be a great time to get an objective third party to vet the candidate for you. They have the ability to step back and see things for what they are.