As headhunters scramble to match candidates with their shapeshifting clients, process and painstaking due diligence rule the day. To some candidates such rigor may feel intrusive or simply unnecessary. It shouldn't. In fact, rigor should be embraced and used to all candidates advantage. Consider the use of references as an illustration.
Last week I interviewed a senior executive for a specific role. The candidate presented an intriguing combination of capabilities, accomplishments, values, motivation and style that appeared well aligned to my client. But there were a few cautionary flags. The candidate brushed over several questions and was vague on the circumstances around his departure from two organizations. Though my concerns may well have proven to be minor, they needed to be explored and clarified. Thus, on completing the interview I indicated that it would be helpful if I could speak to several of the candidate's references around these specific time periods before putting him forward to my client.
It is important to point out that this candidate was unemployed and as such asking for such references posed no risks of 'outing' his candidacy to his employer. However, the following day, the candidate sent me an email indicating that he was wary of 'over-using' his references as they were busy, important people. He suggested that I instead set up an interview with my client and if that meeting went well references would be made available.
I do not blame the candidate for guarding his references from what he may have viewed as a premature intrusion by an intermediary. However, candidates must understand that I am paid to guard my clients' precious time by properly vetting the candidates presented to them. I am not paid to put the onus on my clients to dive into those murky or unexplained candidate waters. I thus need assurances that there is a basis for a good match and no nasty surprises lurking below the surface. An interview alone usually cannot provide such comfort.
I did not move this candidate forward to my client and an awkward situation ensued. And while I will accept blame for handling the situation less than optimally, the candidate in question could have avoided the situation altogether by simply maintaining several sets of references that could be deployed according to the situation at hand. Some of those references may be able to speak only to specific periods of the individual's career while others will have insights cutting across the individual's career. Certain references may be best able to speak to 'what' the person has accomplished while others may be more adept at describing 'how' these were accomplished. This last point is important as a great many references lack the communications skills or insights to offer more than surface observations about the person with whom they are supposedly familiar. They cannot speak to personality, behavioral style, values or motivation that helps in understanding the likelihood of fit with other organizations. This may be due to a lack of verbal ability, language, forethought or preparation. Whatever the reason, this is why so many references often need to be contacted before a reasonably comprehensive picture emerges on a given individual.
Candidates can also help their cause by counseling their references in advance that uttering 'he's a good guy' is hardly the stuff of a great reference. They can advise their references to be prepared for questions about the candidate's soft skills, approach to work, values and personality. This will require that the references spend some time reflecting in advance on their answers. Shrewd candidates can also ask those looking for references about the nature of information to be probed so that the most appropriate references can be directed their way. The response to that question provides a clue to the candidate as to where the potential employer's or headhunter's concerns may lie. Finally, it is altogether reasonable that a few 'special' references be reserved or guarded for those occasions deemed most important by the candidate.
Maintaining a wide selection of references should not be restricted to the unemployed. Even candidates who are employed and yet open to other opportunities need to keep references in their pockets that can validate certain information and shed light on them without fear of their current jobs being jeopardized.
Good headhunters are more than gatekeepers to be tolerated, played, circumvented or ignored. We are counsel to our clients and manage a complex process for which the only acceptable outcome is a good decision by both clients and candidates. The only way this can be done is through careful due diligence including multiple data points on multiple fronts. We need to work together with the various stakeholders to make that happen.