Bart Lorang, CEO of the digital contact management system FullContact, is hardly the first person to say references are the number one factor in his hiring decisions.
But — in a terrifying twist — Lorang wants more than raves from your three biggest professional fans. “Recently,” he tells Business Insider, “I’ve also started the practice of asking for a negative reference from candidates.“
He promises it’s not as scary as it sounds.
“I was interviewing a candidate over a beer,” he recalls, “and the candidate indicated that there were plenty of people who loved him and plenty of people who didn’t love him.”
The conversation was already going well, and the two had developed a solid connection. “We were being quite open and honest about our strengths and weaknesses, so I figured — why not ask to talk to some of those people?” Lorang says.
The idea was born. Now, it’s become part of his hiring repertoire.
“I say to the candidate, ‘I ask this from a trusting place — do you mind sending me a few people who will not be great references?'” Lorang explains, acknowledging that he’s asking candidate to make something of a leap of faith. They’re trusting that he’s “emotionally aware enough to discern the signal from the noise.”
If a candidate does mind, Lorang says, “that’s totally fine, too.” It’s optional. But so far, every candidate he’s asked has been game.
And what happens on those calls? “Normally, the reference is pretty shocked to hear from me when I mention the candidate’s name,” he says. “The first 30 seconds, I feel like a telemarketer, trying to keep the person on the phone.”
He’s open about the situation: he’s calling because the candidates listed them as a “not so awesome” reference, and he’s interested in their take on the candidate’s strengths and weaknesses.
Things generally go smoothly from there — perhaps surprisingly so. “Often, the reference admits to their own culpability in the relationship failing and takes the blame,” Lorang says. “It’s actually a really interesting type of therapy session.”
For Lorang, though, it’s more than a social experiment. He’s found the process gives him “deep insights” into the candidates’ character. And while one might assume that “deep insights” is code for “deal-breaking dirt,” Lorang says that’s not the case at all.
Instead, a negative reference call serves as a kind of amplification system, he explains, underscoring not only the candidate’s weaknesses, but also their strengths.
Which leads to the ultimate question: has a too negative reference ever cost a candidate the job?
The reassuring answer: no. Or at least, not taken alone.
“I look at the big picture and take all the references into account” Lorang says. The negative reference is a piece of a larger puzzle — and, at least in Lorang’s experience, it’s rarely as negative as you’d think.
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