Dear Claudia,

I hired a top performing sales representative for one of my best clients last year, and he hasn’t disappointed: he has tripled revenue in his territory since he was hired, and is on track to double that figure again in 2009. He works from a home office, and all was well until he flew in for meetings at corporate recently; apparently while he was there IT caught him surfing for porn on one of the office computers, and they’ve got a no-tolerance policy for that sort of thing. His manager is now fighting to keep him in the face of an HR department that says he has to go; the decision is currently in the hands of the CEO. I think they should just coach the guy for being stupid and move on. Am I missing something? And as the recruiter responsible for his hire, should I have uncovered this (no pun intended) in the reference checks?

Scratching My Head

Dear Scratching,

I have to say that I agree with you on the coaching for stupidity thing; I think there’s a balance between appropriate and inappropriate behavior in most situations, and the human stupid factor can never be fully discounted when people are involved.

But I really like that you brought up reference checks in this context. Could you have foreseen this with better due diligence on the candidate? Maybe, maybe not. I’ve never gone fishing for this particular behavior in a standard reference check, and I don’t think it’s possible or even feasible to cover every potential pitfall in every candidate in advance. But it is possible to structure the reference check in a way that helps you to connect the dots of consistent behavior reflecting a candidate’s competencies and values.

In a nutshell – and regardless of the laws that pertain to your geographic location - great reference checks have two clear guidelines: they should provide third-party perspective about a candidate’s competencies for the job and work environment, and the content should have been supplied in good faith. There are some good reads to be found here and here for more technical HR information on the subject, and there’s a sample reference check template attached to this post that you might find interesting as well. Use it if you find it helpful.

When checking references, a great recruiter listens for trends of behaviors, probes for inconsistencies, and reports the findings as factually as possible back to the employer. Some recruiters see this as the final chance to “sell” the hiring manager on the candidate; I think it’s your final chance to discover if others have seen the same behaviors that you have seen (or suspected) in the interview and assessment process. Use it well and wisely, and you’ll be a stronger consultant back to your clients.


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Sorry Nick - I've rechecked the post and it appears that all referenced sites are fully linked. Which site do you want a link for?

Nick Leslie-Miller said:
Have you got a link to the site?
Ahhhhhh..... I get it!!! LOL, sorry - not the sharpest crayon in the box today!
A question...

I once worked with a manager who told me that he would mentally undress female co-workers. He also confessed that he would often situate himself so that he could "undress" a couple of his "favorite" reports.

The obvious differences aside, how should a man who obsessively fantasizes about having sex in the workplace be treated?
Sandra, since state and federal laws come into play with child porn, at the most legal level it is a different story.

Ami, fantasizing versus taking action are different. Was this Neanderthal manager despised by his charges? Did they even know about his mental midget activities? If you knew about them, did you consider speaking to someone else about his proclivities?
Steve, to your observations, concerns and mine...

If you knew about them, did you consider speaking to someone else about his proclivities?

...that is the crux of it. What would you have done?
Here's another interesting aspect to this whole situation: the guy makes money for the company - and a LOT of it. It seems to me that the moral high road is pretty easy to see, as Rayanne suggests: Clear policy, "You're fired!", end of discussion. But how many businesses do you know that are run by numbers first, and morals be damned? I for one wonder what the CEO will decide in this case, and what that decision indicates about the shadow that his leadership casts in their company?
For a little more context, the attached reference check template is one that I used in Executive Search for many years; at that level it's pretty common to spend 30 minutes with each of 3-5 references and provide indepth written materials for the Hiring Manager as a result. In situations like this, the references (notice I didn't say "the employers") are generally as interested in participating as they are surprised by the depth and variety of the questions; this is a personal conversation that, if handled well, produces great sound bites of why the candidate is uniquely qualified for the job.

Clearly the constraints of volume hiring make this difficult to do for every hire in most companies, and as you suggested, background checks are the preferred alternate solution. Personally, I like the 'human' element that a thoughtful reference check gives a hiring manager; it is a venue to put some color onto the canvas and explore concerns that may have come up during interviews. It can also give insights into managing the new contributor to the team - and a seasoned recruiter can use this information with all parties to solidify the relationship that is developing.

As an aside - this was also an outstanding business development tool in executive search, a way to demonstrate the quality of service that would be provided if the reference was to give you a job order. Always be closing, right?

Heather Bussing said:
I really liked the reference check template. I would add categories for taking responsibility, showing initiative/works independently, and showing up. (You'd be surprised how many people feel that showing up for work is optional.)

I'd also be interested in knowing whether former employers are really willing to take the time and reveal reference information like this.
Claudia, which is easier to come by: scruples or lucre? I don't think many CEOs would be entertaining this decision for very long.

On the other hand, Rayanne: Zero tolerance or never say never? Weighing up the pros and cons of a thing and making unpopular decisions comes with the territory for leadership. Somewhere between dogmatism and pragmatism there is a world of gray where getting things right -- as opposed to doing the "right thing" -- is rarely recognized as being the best course over the long haul.

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