Deciphering a Neutral Reference Check
After enduring several rounds of interviews and passing a background check, you think you’ve found your next great hire. However, you want to cover all the bases before making an offer.
A reference check is typically one of the last steps of the hiring process, but also one of the most important. Therefore, it can be seriously frustrating to receive a neutral response — i.e., nothing more than employment verification or a few other completely unhelpful details.
Here’s how to read between the lines, to help you decide whether or not you should continue pursuing this candidate.
Inquire About Company Policy
Many companies have official policies guiding what employees can and cannot say when it comes to giving references. If you receive a neutral response, get to the bottom of the situation by asking about it. Find out if the company policy is to give a neutral response across the board or if they simply don’t provide any negative information. In the case of the latter, this can be telling.
Look at the Big Picture
Candidates compile their own reference list, so you might find it a bit suspect if they offer up someone who can only provide limited information. However, it’s very possible they don’t know their current or previous employer’s reference policy. Younger candidates and others who haven’t had many different jobs might also simply not have many choices to list.
Sure, it isn’t very reassuring to receive neutral references, but don’t automatically disqualify candidates because of it.
Try to Push Back
In most cases, employers who can only provide basic employment information — or who aren’t allowed to offer up negative information — probably won’t budge. However, it’s possible you can gain a least a few more details by asking follow-up questions.
For example, you might acknowledge the employer’s neutral response and ask if you can rephrase the question. You could ask a vague question like, “Did the candidate get along with everyone?” It’s possible they’d be willing to answer something less specific with at least a few details that will provide telling insights.
Request More References
If you really can’t gather enough information from a candidate’s neutral references, go back to them and explain the situation. Let them know you won’t be able to move forward unless they’re able to provide more references who will be willing to speak up. Those who want the job badly enough — and having nothing to hide — will be happy to compile a second list of people who can vouch for them. Do note; you might need to loosen your reference criteria, i.e., allow a former colleague instead of limiting supervisors’ references.
Be wary of candidates who have trouble offering up anyone besides neutral references. While it’s possible this is coincidental, it’s more likely a red flag you don’t want to ignore.
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