Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Only Reference That Really Matters

How’s your relationship with your current manager? If you were your manager, how would you rate your performance?

How about your previous managers? Did you leave on good terms? Did they cry when you left? Do you still keep in touch on a regular basis?

If your answers to these questions are: good, great, yes, yes, and yes, then congratulations, you’re managing your career very well and are more likely to land that next desired job. You’re the kind of “A player” candidate most managers would love to hire.
If not, then it’s not too late to begin getting your reference ducks in a row.

When it comes to reference checking, some companies and managers are lazy – they don’t ask for them and if they do, it’s just a formality and they never really call them. Some companies go through their due diligence, but they only contact the list of pre-screened best friends, family members, and Facebook friends that most candidates provide.

Companies using Topgrading, or similar hiring methods, ask candidates to provide the names of former managers, and actually have the candidate contact those managers to set up phone calls with the hiring manager.

The method is called “TORC”; or “threat of reference check”. It goes something like this:

1. You are told right upfront, as a part of the phone screen, that if you make it far enough into the interview process, you’ll be asked to set up phone calls to talk to your former managers. (TORC #1)

2. During the interview, for each job, you’ll be asked for the names of those managers. (TORC #2)

3. For each job, you’re asked to assess your manager’s greatest strengths and weaknesses. You’re then asked “when I talk to you manager – it’s Ed Smith, right? What would Ed say your greatest strengths and weaknesses were – back then?” (TORC #3)

4. You use Google, LinkedIn, or whatever to find your former managers, ask their permission, set up the calls, and the managers have a nice chat all about you. Their information is compared to what you said, and your potential new manager even gets tips on how to best manager you.

Here’s why “TORCing” works, in the eyes of a hiring manager using the Topgrading technique:

“A players” tend to have good relationships with their bosses, they leave on good terms for better opportunities (“pull” reasons), keep in touch, are aware and honest about their prior shortcomings, and would WELCOME the opportunity to have a hiring manager talk to their former managers. Managers are also open to talking about their former A player, because there’s no legal risk… they have nothing bad to say.

“C players” tend to butt heads with their managers, leave on bad terms (“push” reasons), don’t’ stay in touch, won’t admit their shortcomings, and somehow, can never seem to be able to track down those former managers. None of them! And of course if they do happen to find one, the manager follows corporate policy and defers to HR, so they won’t be sued for saying something bad.

I mean really, when it comes to references, why would a hiring manager care what your sister or tennis partner has to say about you? They want to know what you are like as an employee, someone they are going to have to manage.

Perhaps now’s the time to assess your relationship with your current manager and start taking action now to influence that potential future reference check. It’s not a bad way to manage your career, and you might end up being more satisfied and successful.


Wally bock said...

Great post, Dan. I love "TORC."

vivian.w.wong said...

Great post Dan! As a hiring manager from time to time, the red flag always goes off for me if a candidate has poor relationship with his/her prior managers. When in doubt, it always pays to dig a little deeper into the employee's past to get a sense of whether s/he would be successful on our team.

Dan McCarthy said...

Wally -
Thanks. It's a "Topgrading" term. I've used it and it works.

Dan McCarthy said...

Vivian -
Right, there may always be exceptions, but if it's a pattern, beware.

HR Good_Witch said...

Great post.

Good simple technique. I always struggle with getting useful references. I like the way you do this.

BomiM said...

Brilliant article, Dan. I'd just desire to add two more experiences to the nice piece you've shared above.

After a six year stint and a four year gap, the President of our Life Sciences group with the blessings of the chairman of India's largest private sector company wanted me to join back and help in building their top talent in the group. For a long time I'd held tight to the principle of going back to a former employer as a "no, no" ... it's fraught with relationship issues. What made you leave earlier is likely to come back and bite again. And, so on. I'd quote them any day as my reference knowing fully well that I may not score an "exceptional" rating on account of a few hard people related decisions that I refused to trade off on.

My second experience is that I've had the opportunity of recommending, not one but two of my former business heads / CEOs, whom I'd indirectly reported to when the fit the job position that came up and they become my champions to the world at large, constantly pushing my cause when ever they have the opportunity even though neither of the two finally made it to those job positions.

Yes, former managers are not only one of the best source for a reference, they are also your life long champions when you managing your professional life well.


Dan McCarthy said...

Bomi -
Thanks; and thanks for sharing your own examples.

untoong said...

Great Post!

steveroesler said...

Way to go, Dan.

Heck, if someone resists the process, that's probably an indicator in itself.

Love the TORC approach. There was a time when we could automatically connect with former managers. This not only accomplishes that but offers a lot more info about a candidate's self-awareness when compared with the comments.

Thanks for this one...

Dan McCarthy said...

Steve -
You are welcome!

Lynn M said...

I certainly agree that your reference(s) should always be from work and preferrably your manager! Who would ever get a negative word from a personal reference? You've got really big problems if that's the case.

Anonymous said...

Candidates really need to have ducks in a row in this circmstance- make sure your resume is updated and that you know what your references will say- if you're not sure you can find out by using a reference checking service like or