Here’s why hiring managers shouldn’t rely too much on reference letters

Question:

We recently hired a manager who turned out to be a total disappointment. He completely fooled all three of us when he interviewed; he said all the right things, but once hired, didn’t produce. Based on his great interview and the fact that he submitted glowing letters of reference, we made a huge mistake; we didn’t call his references. We also didn’t pull the plug on him right away. We kept hoping things would get better. They didn’t.

After we fired him, we called his references. Two hadn’t written the letters we relied on. A third said he’d written a phony positive letter to avoid future problems.

We invested a lot of money training this man. As far as we’re concerned, he’s a fraud. Are reference letters worthless? And can we do anything to recoup our investment?

Answer:

Reference letters serve as a starting, not an ending, point. Some represent the truth, others slant reality and others are complete fiction. Job seekers with access to company stationary can easily write and sign their own letters.

Supervisors or coworkers who write reference letters often feel sorry and hope the best for a departing employee, fear a wrongful-termination suit or hope they’ll prevent the former employee from bad-mouthing them in the community, by writing overly positive letters.

When I screen candidates for our client employers, I discover a major problem with one out of every four letters.

Other problems are more minor. Supervisors too swamped for time may give departing employees permission to write their own letters, saying, “Write what you want and I’ll sign it.” They then feel obligated to sign letters that overstate reality.

Unfortunately, you can’t recoup your lost investment. You can, however, learn.

© Dr. Lynne Curry is author of ”Beating the Workplace Bully” and ”Solutions” as well as owner of the management/HR consulting/training firm The Growth Company Inc. Follow her on Twitter @lynnecury10 or at www.bullywhisperer.com

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