Blind Reference Rage


Scenario- CEO candidate in final stages of interview process. He gets email from former Director of Board that client has reached out to him for a confidential reference check. It appears that said client is conducting a "blind reference" on our candidate without my or my candidate's knowledge.

I've tried to downplay the significance of this with my candidate but he feels like this is shady practice. I let him know that although I was unaware this group would conduct such references, I've seen it before and it’s just part of them doing their due diligence for such a key role. (I've worked with them on mid/upper level exec searches but never for a CEO role.)


He is very turned off by the concept of reaching out to former colleagues without at least a heads up that they would be conducting references on their own as a final step in the process.


I have reached out to established contacts myself from time to time to get an informal reference but there is no prior relationship with these parties. This is the first time in my recruiting career that I've come across this scenario first-hand so I'm looking for advice on how, or if to broach the subject with my client as well as how to keep my candidate on board.


The candidate has nothing to hide, but feels like this is an unethical practice and wonders if this is just how they run their business. He is now wondering if this is an organization he wants to be associated with. I told him that it’s quite possible they have been burned in the past by poor references and feel like this is a necessary step before committing to such an important role within their organization. He is still a bit put-off and says that this might be a deal breaker if he was not currently in between jobs (possibly feeling desperate for work?).


Should I even approach the client? Should I let them know that it might be best to inform our candidate of the process? Can I put the candidate at ease any better, and help him accept that this is not uncommon practice?

Is my client not behaving professionally?


Danny's response:

Time for you to get everybody to put their big boy pants on…


You don’t say who you are dealing with at the company. Is “client” the president? Chairman, the VP of HR? Who made the call? What is your relationship with them? For purposes of giving you a proactive answer, I am going to assume it is some C Suite person you do not know very well, and/or that your regular dealings are with someone below them. So let’s do this step by step.

STEP ONE: (This situation blows up if you don’t keep this from happening again.) Call client and without making any mention of “ethics” make it clear that the candidate was concerned and surprised that a blind reference would be checked without the courtesy of asking him. He simply asks that you let him know who you want to call about him so he isn’t surprised by the call back he gets from the reference. He emphasizes you can talk to anyone, he is an open book, but it has always been accepted protocol in his world to ask first. Firm but no big deal. Don’t make any mention he is so upset he wonders about the company’s character.

STEP TWO: Assuming they say okay, or apologize, even obliquely, you now go back to the candidate, and now the tone is a tad more strident. (A tad!) “Spoke to the company because I didn’t want to kneejerk and I wanted to respect your concerns. We are all kind of flabbergasted, Joe, I not only see this practice every day but at high levels the company said it is just standard procedure, and no slight was ever intended. But they assured me they will respect your wishes for any other entreaties. Of course I went to great lengths to not even approach the arena of ethics, because I didn’t want to insult them or terminate the deal. But I have to ask you, Joe, this seems like such a reach, either there is some emotional scar tissue based on some past experience or you were just looking for a graceful way out of the deal, which is unnecessary. I’d be happy to withdraw you if that’s what you want. But this phone call was innocent, and doesn’t cast aspersions on the client.”

I have no doubt the candidate is thinking of someone in his past who if contacted randomly could open a Pandora’s box, and he is on the offensive to save his embarrassment and his job.

Handle with care, but the “tough love” call goes to the candidate here.


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We have hundreds of great questions and answer blogs from Danny and the recruiters he has trained. Look for emails highlighting these questions.