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Is a Neutral Reference a Bad Sign?

You’ve narrowed your candidate pool down from a mountain of resumes to a handful of top contenders. Your remaining applicants have already been reviewed, interviewed, and vetted by your team, and they all seem talented and friendly. At this point, you’ve reached the final (or nearly final) stage of the selection process: the reference check. But reference checks won’t help much—and they won’t simplify your tough decision—if the voices on the other end of the line are neutral and cagy with the information they choose to share. How can you make the most of a bland reference?

Why Neutral References Cause Concern

Of course, the most encouraging and reassuring references are enthusiastic and voluble. It’s hard to dislike a candidate if her reference bubbles over with praise and doesn’t seem to want the call to end. On the other hand, a reference who mumbles non-committally might 1.) not know the candidate very well, or 2.) might not be personally invested in his or her success. Both of these indicate a potential problem. Instead of hanging up and letting these disinterested supporters off the hook, ask some carefully scripted questions that require thoughtful responses.

Example Questions for Neutral References

Don’t just ask easy, yes-or-no questions like “Did you enjoy working with Robert?” or “Was a Sally a competent employee?” Instead, keep your questions open ended. For example: “Can you name one task that you would rather give to someone else instead of this candidate?” or “Can you rate her teamwork skills on a scale of one to ten and explain your answer?”

Watch out for Signs of a Non-Recommendation

Contacts will rarely say anything directly negative about the person in question. They have little to gain by doing this, and taking this questionable path can expose them to backlash and legitimate resentment from the candidate. So any warnings and red flags will usually be veiled in subtle terms. Read between the lines and keep an eye out for condemning statements like these: “Robert completed every task assigned to him.” “Sally was consistent.” “I have nothing bad to say about Edward.”

The Worst Sign

The most neutral, and therefore the most damning, recommendation is no recommendation at all. If your contact doesn’t respond to your messages via phone or email, and doesn’t return your calls or make time for a conversation with you, think twice about the candidate. This kind of avoidant behavior usually means the contact doesn’t want to be placed in an awkward position and would rather remove herself from this person’s professional story. If a single candidate attracts more than one of these non-responses, consider this a strong warning.

For more on how to develop your selection process and choose the best candidate in the applicant pool, reach out to the staffing experts at Cordia.