TERRY PRONE: When you’re giving a reference, don’t do a job on the candidate

TV presenter and academic Mary Beard gave a job reference to a young man who had abused her online.

People will swear to the capabilities of employees for no good reason other than doing a favour, writes Terry Prone

got a call last week from a man who had unwittingly become a referee. Not a referee of football or hurling matches. He was to be a referee for a job seeker, the point of validation. He learned he was a referee when a head-hunter rang him to say he had been named as such on a job application submitted by a woman we will call Josephine Buggins. ‘Jo’ for short.

Jo had worked for this man’s medium-sized company for six months, as a slightly-paid internee in her first year out of college, during which time she had moved between three departments, and had never worked for him directly.

“I swear to God, if she pitched up in front of me right this minute, I wouldn’t know who she was,” he told me.

“Did she ask you for a reference when she was leaving?” I asked.

“No. Why would she ask me? I hardly knew her.”

“Well, you have a bit of a profile and she might be more attracted to having you on her CV, as opposed to some nameless production-line manager.”

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He acknowledged this in silence, while we both cogitated about the possibility that the head-hunter had rung him precisely because of his SME public profile. Whatever the motivation, the head-hunter wanted to know if the businessman would recommend Jo for a job, the specifications of which he outlined in detail. Hell of a job. Hell of a salary. Hell of a lot of benefits. I asked the businessman what he had said. He harrumphed, before coming out with the truth: “I told him she’d be perfect for it.”

He told a headhunter that a woman he didn’t know from a hole in the floor would be ideal for a job that required skills he couldn’t verify she had, that demanded experience he had not provided for her, and that depended on a level of judgment about which, he miserably confessed, he knew nothing. All he really knew — based on the fact that this job applicant had not asked him to be a referee, yet had put his name on her application — was that she had a certain deficit in judgment and honesty. Yet, he gave her a ringing endorsement.

Now he was suffering endorser’s regret and wondering what he should do about it.

“Your choice is clear,” I told him decisively. “Either you let it sit, in which case she gets a job she shouldn’t get and may not be able to do. Or, you ring the headhunter back, scupper her chances of this job and ensure that if her name ever passes across the headhunter’s desk again, red lights will go on all over the inside of the headhunter’s head.”

(This is one of the great advantages of a consultant’s job. You get to present clients with two inescapably vile options, but you don’t have to pick between them.)

He said he would think about it. This is business-speak for ‘I will do nothing and hope the nasty thing goes away of its own accord and I never hear another word about it’.

“Matter of interest,” I said. “Why didn’t you tell him you can’t remember her, that she never reported to you anyway and that she never told you she was putting your name down as a referee, never mind ask your permission?”

“Well, you know yourself,” he said. I did. We all would. He hadn’t wanted the head-hunter to dislike him.

This is why staff feedback sessions, 90% of the time, are a waste of air. Managers cannot bring themselves to state negatives with clear evidence, lest they be hated. The easy option is to go along.

Plus, in the case of serving as a voluntary or involuntary referee, there’s the flattery. Jo Buggins may not be a shining example of ethics in action, but she’s undoubtedly smart when making more of less. Our Jo figured her victim perfectly and he divvied up just as she figured he would.

He might even have divvied up if she’d knocked on his office door and asked his permission in advance — because he’s lousy at saying no — but, at least, in that situation, he could have talked to the managers who had actually dealt with her and, from them, have found out some data about her skills and potential.

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What’s fascinating about this business of references is how easy it is to find people who will swear to the capabilities of employees, or others, for no good reason other than doing a favour. For the most part, they do it for the same reason people buy things and vote for candidates: Because they are asked, face-to-face, by another human.

Sometimes, particularly in Ireland, there are more malignant motivations. I have encountered the odd boss who was so thrilled to get rid of an employee that they gave them a reference that would have enabled them to get a job as Pope, Tánaiste, or COO of Google. Or all three.

I have even ecountered one employer who gently nudged an employee towards a job with a competitor, which surprised and impressed the employee — after all, how selfless of the employer to be willing to lose a stellar staffer to a competitor firm? The reference-giver, in this instance, believed he had achieved a double whammy, wrecking the competitor’s future while amputating a problem from his own business.

The award for most reckless reference-giving, though, has to go to academic and TV historian Mary Beard. Because she’s on the telly and unusual, Beard attracts slightly more than her fair share of the attic-bound headbangers who abuse interesting people on the internet.

One of those headbangers, a student, called her a filthy old slut and denigrated her genitalia. Many people on the receiving end of such abuse would retreat from Twitter and hide in a corner. Not our Mary. Our Mary retweeted the whole poisonous message to her 50,000 followers, thereby naming and shaming, and delivering a lesson to those with unusual names: They’re easy to remember.

So, if your name is Oliver Rawlings (as was the moniker of Beard’s abuser) you might think twice before you make your uniqueness work against you, possibly for life, courtesy of Google.

In being nasty to Beard, Rawlings was, in Beard’s words, “a very silly, injudicious, and at that moment not very pleasant young guy.”

So she gave him a reference to help him get a job. Well, OK, first he saw the light and apologised on Twitter. Then, she gave him a reference, on the basis that she didn’t think that one tweet should ruin his job prospects for life.

“I am more concerned to be sure that people don’t use the internet in this way than to seek punishment,” Beard said.

Clearly a good and noble woman. But if you get a CV with her as referee, I’d be careful about the applicant, if I were you.

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