A reader writes:
I am a hiring manager. I just did a phone interview where the candidate said, “Since you are going to ask me for three references, can you give me three references of ex-employees to find out if I would like to work for you?” How should I approach this?
The request itself is actually a good one — but the timing and wording that the candidate used raise some red flags for me.
First let’s talk about the request in general, leaving aside for the time being the way this particular candidate handled it. In general, you should welcome the idea that the candidate is looking for a position where the fit is really right and that she’s being thoughtful and careful in determining if this job will work out on both sides. In fact, I’m surprised that more candidates don’t ask to talk to people who have worked with their prospective manager before taking a job. Given the major impact that a manager has on what your day to day quality of life will be, it seems almost negligent not to talk with people who can tell you first-hand what the manager is like to work with.
So, yes, after a certain stage in the interview process, you should be willing to put candidates in touch with people you currently manage, or former staff members. (And in doing so, it’s perfectly reasonable to pick who they talk with based on who you think will be most helpful. You’re not obligated to connect them with employees who you’re not impressed with or who you don’t click with, or to put them in touch with a former employee who’s disgruntled, etc. …. just like candidates generally pick and choose who they put on their own reference lists. It’s up to the candidate whether they want to go digging beyond that on their own.)
In fact, even if a candidate doesn’t ask to talk with others on your team, it’s often a good idea to arrange it for your finalists anyway — because it will help them flesh out their understanding of your culture and the work you do, which will help attract the people who are the right fit and help those who aren’t self-select out, and because you can get useful input from others who meet with the person.
Keep in mind, too, that if an employer is resistant to allowing this, it’s going to signal to good candidates that they’re either hiding something because they have a culture problem, or that they think reference-checking should be a one-way street, which can indicate an environment where employees’ input and quality of life aren’t valued. And those aren’t signals you want to send to good candidates.
Now, all that aside, while I like these requests in general, the way your particular candidate handled this is ringing alarm bells all over the place. First of all, the wording was unnecessarily aggressive and a little adversarial. There’s no reason she couldn’t have said something like, “I’m looking for a position where the fit is really right because I’d like to stay for a long time. Would it be possible for me to talk with others on the team, to help me flesh out my understanding of the culture and the work?”
Secondly, the timing is way, way off. This was a phone interview, and therefore presumably a very early stage of your hiring process. The time for this request is when things have progressed much further and the candidate is a finalist, or even after an offer has been made — i.e., once both sides have determined that there’s sufficient interest in each other that it’s reasonable to take up other people’s time in this way. Asking it early on, and on a phone interview in particular (if I’m right in thinking the phone interview indicates it’s an early stage of contact) signals that this person is overly demanding and doesn’t have a good grasp on what’s reasonable and how things work. And that doesn’t bode well.
(And yes, I know that employers ask for references at this stage all the time, but as I’ve said many times here, they shouldn’t.)
So, the request itself: reasonable. The way it was made: not reasonable. Proceed with caution.
More specifically, I’d tell the candidate, “If we progress in the process, I’d be glad to put you in touch with people who have worked for me” … and I’d be on high alert for further signs of problems in how she operates.