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Reference Checks Can Go Wrong (holloway.com)
45 points by SparksZilla 7 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 29 comments

If you can't give a 100% positive reference, tell the person before they include you as a reference. Then when giving a reference, make sure it is 100% positive.

Google (and in fact, most companies) only want to hire candidates who appear flawless. To me, "appears flawless" is a red flag itself, but I think hiring committees see any potential negative as possibly the tip of a terrible iceberg. So even though we all want to be honest and provide nuanced feedback about what it was like to work with a person for years, when giving a reference you just need to censor all of that and pretend like they are the best person you ever worked with and the only downside is that you're not working together anymore (but you'd hire them back in a heartbeat).

It's like talking with a reporter or the police. Stop trying to be helpful to anyone but the people you already know. Strangers are not to be trusted with your inside information, about anything.

What about when they ask "what is this person's biggest weakness"?

They’re too nice and they work too hard.

Wow, a single offhand comment could doom a candidate from ever being hired?

I wish the same high standard applied to companies interacting with candidates. I've had a Google engineer literally scream at me in an interview. I've also had their recruiters reach out to me for a role, schedule an interview that seemed to go well, then completely ghost me.

I do not judge a company that doesn't hire me, even if they don't give feedback - that is understandable given the legal climate in the states. But it is unacceptable to simply disappear, and actions have consequences.

(In my case, I do not take Google recruiter comms, along with any other company that engages in abusive behavior during the interview process)

It does apply to companies. Its called people just won't apply there. However, those people don't make blog posts about it.

For example, if I look for a new job, there is no way I will apply to Google (I say if because I see no reason to look for a new job).

This is an extremely fucked up process. Can it possibly still work this way at Google, where a reference collected years ago remains on file and a live part of qualification today?

To everyone else: talk to your references about what you want them to say! Don't just ask for a reference and leave it at that. Treat explicit reference checks like the formality that they are; you have no special obligation to present a super true, clear picture of your experience with your reference. Just make sure the reference gets you to "yes".

Serious reference checks usually aren't explicit (like, "give us a list of 3 people for references"), precisely because everyone with career skills knows to coach their references. In fact, because so many references are coached, negative feedback looks especially bad in them.

My favorite part of this story is that a major lesson this hiring manager learned from the process was to groom reference feedback for the offer committee, just further exposing what a farce explicit reference checks are in reality.

Hiring managers: the other big lesson here is, don't do things the way Google does them. It works for Google because there's so much cachet and stability associated with Google that they can afford to randomly turn down qualified applicants. You're unlikely to be in the same situation.

Many years ago, I was approached by a Google recruiter for a position. After a couple of phone screens and a brief onsite, I returned for a ~4 hour set of interviews. After the last interview, with someone who would have been my peer if hired, she starts asking me about my background: where I'm from, what I studied in college, and if I was Jewish (!?).

I believe she was Jewish and she said this in a fairly congenial way, but nonetheless I was somewhat shocked. I then thought "well gee, guess I'm going to get an offer". Nope -- more recruiter BS about headcount, whether they had the budget, etc. and the finally a "not a good fit at this time" call with no other feedback.

Their interview process is terrible for candidates and seems nearly designed to make the 90% of people they jerk around before saying no to believe all the stereotypes that Googlers are all self-entitled, aloof, 1%-ers. (I have a number of close friends @ Google, but geez the organization seems to practically revel in opportunities to make itself look bad and the hiring process makes it look sooo bad).

Just so you know, something like that would possibly lead to a settlement or something (not a lawyer).

It's my understanding you take findings of fact to juries - which costs companies money to send lawyers to.

The woman would be put under oath (deposed), and probably admit it (I'd hope). But regardless it might still go to trial, and thus they might deem it logical to give a fraction of that as a settlement.

> Google was his number one choice, but he had to decide whether it was safe to reject the other offers he had. He started to press me more, “Jose, I need certainty. I need to know that I’m going to get this offer.” So I said, “Look, I’m sure you’re going to get the offer. My recommendation is that you wait.”

The candidate learned a very valuable lesson: Never believe any assurances that the recruiter gives you about how likely you are to get the job.

The candidate likely lost hundreds of thousands of dollars due to their believing the recruiter (going from being hired by large Silicon Valley companies, to finding a startup at the last minute).

Just so folks know you can sign an offer and later retract if another position comes up. It’s relatively common.

Only assholes do it though.

Because when my preferred candidate signs, I tell other candidates no.

If you have any respect for people, you don't do this stuff.

Jose... wow.

Reading between the lines, he committed to this candidate that the candidate was getting an offer; the candidate declined other offers on that basis, and did not actually get that offer.

The candidate should have retained a lawyer.

For anyone reading this and starting their careers, just know everything a recruiter says is bullshit until the docusign lands in your inbox.

I feel like a truly ethical recruiter would never say say "I'm sure you're going to get the offer"; either the offer is ready to be given, in which case the recruiter should just give it, or it hasn't been decided yet, and there's no guarantee that an offer will end up being given.

Of course, there may not be a lot of demand for recruiters who would not be willing to tell a candidate that they're sure they'll get the offer beforehand...

My experience (as an applicant) was similar. Google, of course, has so many qualified applicants that oddities like this don't really matter much in terms of their final pool.

I do wonder, though, if they will eventually accumulate a reputation for this sort of thing that might harm them. For myself, I no longer respond to their emails either.

My understanding of Google is that they're ok with false negatives because they consider false positives to be far far worse.

False negatives are a burden on your candidates, false positives are a burden on your organization.

You'd be surprised how often the answer to 'Should we hire' has more to do with 'He felt like he would be a dick' rather than 'He doesn't know X and Y technology'.

That's the way it should be. A good candidate can learn X and Y, but it's hard to unlearn being a dick.

I am not a Google employee, but from working with ex and subsequent Googlers and from interviewing Googlers, Google has some blind spots (perhaps intentional). It places more weight on algorithms (which can be gamed with study) and less weight on architecture, design, and coding.

This sometimes results in candidates who can’t code well or engineers who badly overengineer.

That said, some of the best candidates have been from Google. Perhaps getting those best people was worth a certain percentage of what I consider borderline false positives.

Also, their ahole filter is imperfect. Just as with algorithms, you have people gaming the not an ahole filter.

Their reputation would have to tank to the point where they couldn't get a single qualified applicant for each position they have open. Unless there's another event which makes people reluctant to apply to Google, I don't see it happening in my lifetime.

I haven't had a reference check in a long time. The last company that asked for them didn't even check them. Any hiring people out there feel that reference checks provide any meaningful insight?

I call references consistently. Its good to get a sense of what some of the negative and positive perceptions of the person interviewing. I don't necessarily consider a negative point from a reference a deal breaker, a negative for one manager, is not the same for another. I do feel its better to go into the relationship with your eyes open.

On the other hand, I agreed when a friend asked if I could be a reference for him.

I got called, sang his praises only to be asked, "Are you looking for any opportunities ..."

Recruiting off the reference list is a shitty thing to do.

Seems only shitty if they are recruiting you to place your friend. Otherwise it could be read as, "hey these two developers seem to like each other and have worked together and we need more people". It could feel like a safer bet to hire people you know will get along.

Sure, but this discourages people who would otherwise be willing to provide references; if someone is willing to freely give you their time to talk to you about one of your candidates, it seems courteous not to potentially waste more of it by giving them an unsolicited offer.

> it seems courteous not to potentially waste more of it


or possibly not even be considering my friend

We definitely do, and get huge value from them.

Particularly referencing down for when you hire managers.

Over here in Europe, your references generally don't say very much about you beyond confirming you did indeed work for that company and how long you actually worked there for.

This is to avoid issues like in the article, which can apparently leave the referee open to legal action if the candidate can say the bad reference cost them a job offer or something similar.

Is that different in the US? Do references usually mention the negatives about an applicant as well?

If the reference still works at that company, typically the HR will restrict information to confirming period of employment and the title. They don't want to deal with the legal risks. However if the reference is no longer at that company I guess they could be very open.

I don't necessarily think there's that much value in references, but this is more of a Google problem than a reference problem.

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