Job References Often Lie. Ask These Questions to Make Them Tell the Truth

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It’s easy to wonder whether checking references is a total waste of time.

In the dance of hiring, few steps are more scripted than checking job references. Hiring managers usually call references to confirm their instincts or because HR requires they do so. More often than not, candidates list references who will sing their praises. What’s more, research suggests that candidates rarely select (and interviewers rarely request) references who will depict a multi-dimensional picture of their personal and professional skills.

For hiring managers, it’s easy to wonder whether checking references is a total waste of time. But according to organizational psychologist Adam Grant, there’s a simple way to make job references tell the truth about a candidate, without making anyone uncomfortable. This is invaluable, as job references are one of the only ways to see beyond the veneer of dazzling credentials and well-rehearsed interviews.

“Leaders often tell me they struggle to get references to be honest about a candidate’s weaknesses,” writes Grant in the June edition of Wondering, his monthly newsletter. While this dishonesty is usually well-intentioned advocacy, it can sometimes be “a dreaded case of foisting,” he says, “where references are so desperate to get rid of a bad candidate that manufacture the perfect plan to convince you to hire them.” What’s more, if you want the candidate to get the job, it can feel like a risk to say anything that’s not glowing, Grant tells Quartz At Work.

His favorite way to get references to tell the truth is to give them forced choices between two undesirable qualities. “I tell them that there are two kinds of weaknesses: areas where we lack strengths and areas where we overuse strengths,” he writes. He then asks references whether the candidate is more likely to be…

  • Too assertive or not assertive enough?
  • Too self-sacrificing or not self-sacrificing enough?
  • Overly anxious or not concerned enough?
  • Overly proactive or not proactive enough?
  • Overly detail-oriented or not detail-oriented enough?

With these options, it isn’t clear what the “right” answer is, so references tend to tell it like they see it. While it’s easier to identify weaknesses like laziness or aggressiveness, it’s far more difficult to explain the ways in which one’s strengths, when overdone, become damaging.

“For example, while it’s good to be somewhat self-sacrificing, there’s a risk that you put other people’s priorities ahead of your own responsibilities, which makes you vulnerable to underperforming, burning out, and getting burned,” Grant tells Quartz At Work. However, when you ask whether someone is too self-sacrificing, or not self-sacrificing enough, you help the reference honestly reflect, without cornering them into saying the candidate is selfish, or a martyr.

Since childhood, we’re taught that traits like optimism, helping others, and having big ideas make us strong leaders, instead of “accidental diminshers,” or people who unintentionally shut down their teammates, as organizational psychologist Liz Weisman previously explained in Quartz.

The comforting reality, Weisman says, is that “there lurks an accidental diminsher in all of us, even the most amazing leaders.” That’s a point worth internalizing, whether you’re the hiring manager, reference, or candidate: We’re all flawed, which makes perfect recommendations inherently disingenuous. Yet our flaws, when viewed holistically, are only the flip-sides of untapped strengths.