Reference checks and reputation lessons from a CEO and yarns of referee skullduggery

Lessons on reference checks from creative agency CEO, Sue Parker, from her time owning a media and advertising recruitment agency.

Every Mumbrella reader will have either been a referee, asked for referees and/or conducted reference checks.

I would also wager that some would have also delivered Academy Award winning references which were not fully deserved or totally authentic.

Having previously owned a media and advertising recruitment agency for over a decade, I can say that with certainty.

Helping mates, fear of repercussion, returning favors and hesitancy to sabotage others can all factor in the pot of unreliable references.

And in the public sector and large private organisations, glowing references can be a strategy to transfer out a problem staff member.

But none of that was the case many years ago when I was recruiting a key advertising management role. A respected CEO of one of Australia’s top awarded agencies shared:

“Sue, I’m telling you this in total confidence and if it ever gets out with my name on it, I will never give a reference to you or anyone again. I like XYZ very much. We are friends and play sport occasionally and our wives lunch together.

But he is very lazy and stuffed up the whole division when we hired him. As a CEO and in charge of a multi-million dollar bottom line, I know the damage that giving a slack friend a good reference can have and I just will not do that to anyone else and their bottom line.”

Whoa, it still gives me goosebumps at that CEO’s willingness to put integrity foremost. A hard call for many, but an ethical lesson for all.

Impact and responsibility

Reference checks have great influence on hiring decisions. Personal brand trust and reputations will rise or fall from the integrity and diligence of being a referee or conducting checks.

Recruiters, leaders, HR and hiring managers have great responsibility to ensure the veracity of information collated. Likewise, reputations and trust of referees are at stake.

Having confidence in referees and the feedback provided is hiring risk management 101. Establishing that a referee is genuine and trustworthy should be embedded in the hiring process DNA.

The Myer fiasco

I would rigorously verify every referee and if a person was unknown, I would wear my investigation hat to ensure authenticity.

In 2014, Myer and their appointed recruitment agency would have been wise to take that approach when recruiting for a Group General Manager, Strategy & Business Development.

The successful candidate Andrew Flanagan was not only total fraud with a fake CV, he had been in jail in the US on various charges.

The proverbial hit the fan when Myer put out a press release touting their new ‘high flying ex Zara senior executive’ hire.

The CEO of Zara contacted Bernie Brookes, Myer’s then CEO, horrified at the news as Flanagan had never worked for them.

Heat fairly landed on the recruitment agency who said they provided Myer with extensive reports of reference transcripts from numerous referees.

But they were all fake, masquerading as senior leaders of global organisations.

There are many moving parts and culpabilities to this embarrassing fiasco. But the lesson is tacit, never take referees legitimacy only at face value.

Desperation and disregard

There are instances where organisations are desperate to fill a critical role and are willing to overlook disturbing references and market feedback.

Many years ago I was working on a difficult senior placement that required a high level of specific knowledge. Suitable candidates were light on the ground and the client was unwilling to compromise on skills to train up.

A person matching the skills criteria was chosen. But several reference and market checks came back with disturbing interpersonal feedback including dangerous conduct.

I communicated all feedback with my strong advice not to hire. The candidate was hired and eventually significant workplace issues resulted.

Finishing with Dick Smith

There are many other yarns from my recruiter vault including a candidate whose CV listed a senior marketing role reporting to Dick Smith himself directly.

The referee given was not able to help and after several follow-ups I received a call from Dick’s 2IC.

The 2IC had checked with HR and reported that yes the person had been employed. But it was only for a few weeks as a telemarketer.

Many people due to urgency or time constraints would have given up on the extra loops. But taking the time to dig below the surface minimises risk.

So there you have it. True yarns and the importance of rigorous reference checks and personal reputations of referees for agencies, brands and clients.

In a time of talent shortages, these lessons and attention to digital footprints hold even greater weight in the industry.

Sue Parker is the owner of Dare Group Australia.


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