In the November 8, 2011 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a seasoned professional takes employers and recruiters to task for demanding detailed references too soon:
I’ve noticed a disturbing trend lately: Recruiters are asking for detailed references before I even meet them or decide I’m interested in the job. They want multiple references before they’ll even present me for a face-to-face interview with their client. I don’t get it.
Mind you, my references are consistently stellar, so I’m not afraid of giving them out for a serious inquiry. But if I’m still collecting information on the job myself, haven’t met the hiring manager, and haven’t even had any serious discussions about terms and conditions, I don’t want my references to be bothered. When I direct them to LinkedIn, where I have strong references from former managers and peers, they aren’t pleased. They want to speak with someone in person.
What gives with this new fetish of checking references so early in the conversation, and how can I get seen by the hiring manager without having multiple agencies pestering my past managers “just in case” I might be a good fit on a particular job? I have always been taught that one’s references must be protected. Your thoughts?
Here’s the short version of my advice: (For the entire column, you need to subscribe to the free newsletter. Don’t miss another edition!)
In some cases, headhunters and employers are just being more cautious — they can’t afford to make mistakes. They want to check candidates out thoroughly. But I think they’re making a mistake by asking for references rather than peripherally reviewing a potential candidate before initiating contact.
Whew — what does that euphemism mean? “Peripherally reviewing” someone? For a recruiter or headhunter, it means doing your homework by talking to people who know the candidate, to make sure you’re approaching someone who might truly be right for the job. Otherwise, don’t call the person. So my point is, the headhunter should check you out before even contacting you. That’s his job.
In other cases, when they ask for your references so early they’re fishing for new contacts — potential sources of additional candidates, or actual candidates themselves. (Ever see your references get recruited to fill a position you were being considered for? It happens.) You become a source, under the guise of being a potential candidate.
You have to use your judgment. A lot depends on how credible you feel the headhunter or employer is. I agree that it’s not prudent to let just anyone contact your references. Your references will get sick of the calls. Why put your references at risk? And that’s what I’d say to those who request the references. “Once you put some skin in the game, I will, too.” (See Take Care of Your References.)
Peripheral Review: The test of a headhunter
But lets explore further my point about peripheral review. This is something that inept employers and headhunters ignore: The very fact that a recruiter has contacted you suggests they have done their homework on you. They have good reasons to recruit you. That is, they have already checked your references — that’s what led them to you. Or — maybe not. Maybe they’re just fishing and they got your name out of a database. What then?
Well, then you’re wasting your time, because those recruiters aren’t doing their jobs. They want you to do their work for them. They want you to provide references that prove you’re worth recruiting. I think you see my point.
When an employer has a strong, well-founded interest in a candidate, they’re almost always flexible and respectful. They’ll work with you, and they will be sensitive to issues like this. They won’t be so insistent, because they don’t want to turn you off. They want to meet you.
If you don’t know the headhunter, and if you have never had contact with the employer — or they contacted you first — then there’s no reason to comply with unreasonable requests. Everyone has to ante up, including the recruiter and employer.
How do you get around this obstacle so you can talk directly to the hiring manager? You might not be able to. When a job opportunity comes to you, you relinquish significant control. But you can gain control by taking a firm stand. If this sounds overly aggressive, remember that no opportunity is real unless you are free to examine and judge it first. Be polite, but be firm. Try this:
How to Say It
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Or, try this:
How to Say It
“Tell you what. You’re recruiting me. If you can provide me with the names of two people who endorsed and recommended me — That’s why you’re calling me, right? — then I’ll give you two more very good references. But if you don’t really know why you’re calling me, why would I give you more names?”
A good headhunter will defer to a candidate he’s serious about recruiting. The rest will hang up because you busted them. The best they can do is try to make you feel you must give up the goods if you want that good opportunity… it’s a classic sales ploy. Don’t let your references be abused.
(How can you distinguish a good headhunter from a lousy one? See The truth about headhunters.)
Just because a headhunter or employer asks for references doesn’t mean it’s time to hand them over. How do you use your references properly, and protect them from abuse?