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Dodgy Recruitment Referees

By June 26, 20143 Comments

The issue of dodgy refereeing has been prevalent at the World Cup over the last couple of weeks.  Even our very own kiwi ref Peter O’Leary has become enemy number one in Bosnia by upholding an incorrect offside decision, effectively denying Bosnia-Herzegovina a route through to the last round of 16.

So it seems to be appropriately good timing that the issue of dodgy referee calls in our own recruitment industry have also hit the news wires this week.  Last week Myer, Australia’s largest department store chain, trumpeted the recruitment of Andrew Flanagan, their shiny new “group general manager of strategy and business development” (try squeezing that title onto a business card).  The thing is, they probably never got around to printing his business cards anyway, because by Tuesday this week he’d been sacked.  Why?  Turns out his CV claims to have been a former managing director and vice-president of Inditex Group, the Spanish owner of global fast fashion juggernaut Zara, were entirely false.

As often happens in these instances, a scapegoat is sought, and the finger of blame rarely strays too far from the third party recruitment agencies if they are in any way involved.  So it is this time too.  Melbourne’s Quest Personnel referred the candidate in to Myer and in terms of their background reference checks:

It is believed that as part of the executive search process Myer was provided with a transcript, running to four or five pages, of an interview conducted by the recruitment company with a person purporting to be a senior executive at Inditex.

Ross Clennett wrote a great piece on this incident earlier in the week, where he rightly refuses to lay all the blame at the door of the recruiter (and also raises an interesting point about whether the agency were actually significantly out of their depth with this assignment).  The whole thing brings back memories of the Stephen Wilce saga back in 2010, where Momentum were dragged through the ringer for referring an unsuitable candidate where the NZ Defence Force had undertaken to conduct their own background checks.

Pointing the finger of blame at the recruiter is too easy.  It’s also cowardly and enables Boards, Execs, or hiring managers to escape the actual truth of the matter which is that they are the ultimate decision makers when it comes to making the hiring decision.  We currently have a system where recruiters are only allowed to conduct formal reference checks with referees as nominated by the candidate.  The system is flawed and if it’s us who are to be blamed when things like this happen then surely the only solution is that we contact whoever we like from the candidate’s past history.

Good recruiters already do that anyway.  But we can’t “officially” admit to that in the way recruitment currently works.

So really, how much stock should be placed on what employment referees have to say?  In this instance, the candidate obviously provided a false referee who pretended to give a reference on behalf of Zara.  Perhaps it was the candidate himself!  But the whole system of relying too much on verbal referees is hugely flawed.  Referees often have their own agenda too, whether it be that they feel bad about letting someone go, or want a competitor to hire a dud.

This fact was highlighted to me in a shocking way yesterday, when I got hold of an email that a referee (the owner of a recruitment agency, no less) sent to one of his previous contractors who was applying for a Permanent position elsewhere.  He had been asked by his previous contractor to act as a referee and fill in a reference form for the prospective new employer.  This was the referee’s take on it (a recruitment company owner, remember):

“I’ve been ask to complete a reference, which is at least 1 – 2 hours for me. I can do it, but I’d need to cut a deal with you…

If you get the job, make sure that [your new company] use [our agency] for all contractors in the future. Not [a competing agency] and all those dicks…

If you can agree to this in writing, i’ll do the reference for you. Time is money, so i need to know it’s worth my time.

Really – who is the “dick” here?  So you see what I mean?  With crap like this going on out there I really don’t think too much stock should ever be placed in what referees have to say, especially when there’s clear potential for conflicts of interest.  And if you do decide to make a hiring decision based purely on what someone else has to say, then don’t blame the recruiter for your lack of moral fibre.

Recruiters – all I can advise is that for the time being you take the “official” references, but if unsure try to back it up with an “off-the-record” chat with someone else, just to be sure.  Get your hands dirty to keep your nose clean.

Thanks to everyone who attended last night’s #RicePowWow event too, we had a blast.  I got an Uber taxi ride home which is all run through a very clever smartphone app, where you can rate your taxi driver which gives them an accumulated score, and they can do the same for you as the “rider”.  After dropping me off (for a pleasingly low fare it has to be said) he said to me “you give me 5 stars and I’ll give you 5 stars…”  So you see, how much faith can really be placed in these referencing and rating systems?  It seems like everyone has their own agenda they want to push in these instances.

Even taxi drivers are at it…

Jonathan Rice

Director of New Zealand rec-to-rec firm Rice & Co, co-founder of freelance recruiter platform JOYN, and people-centric technology firm superHUMAN Software. Recruitment innovator, agitator and frustrated idealist, father of two, husband of one, and lover of all things Arsenal and crafty beer.


  • Wow. Just…wow.

  • Emma Reid says:

    fantastic Whiteboard Jonathan! Sometimes doing the right thing by Privacy Law means we are doing the wrong thing by common sense recruitment – it is terribly frustrating for us as recruiters and maddening for our hiring managers

  • Very civil of you, Jonathan, to only label that recruitment agency owner a ‘dick’ for his attitude to giving a reference. There are many other descriptions I would regard as more fitting. ‘Complete tool’ is the most polite one that springs to mind.