How to Handle a Good Candidate With Bad References

It’s always exciting to interview a candidate who seems flawless. As a savvy manager, you know you still have to check their references, but you can’t imagine you’ll receive any negative feedback on the person. Therefore, you’re shocked if the process doesn’t go as planned.

When a former boss, colleague or other associate speaks poorly of a candidate who made such a great impression on you, it’s terribly confusing. Despite your gut feeling, you might be inclined to immediately dismiss the person, but don’t be too quick to judge. Here’s some advice to help you handle the situation.

Consider the Source

All sources should not be given equal merit. If the person seems jealous of the candidate or appears to generally dislike them, there’s a good chance their commentary comes from a place of spite. Since candidates choose their own references, this might seem a bit odd, but it’s possible the person is unaware of the grudge.

Weigh the Severity of the Incident(s)

Negative feedback isn’t necessarily a reason to remove the candidate from consideration. No one is perfect, so it’s not always fair to judge someone by a mistake they made in the past. Instead of allowing the reference to influence your decision, really think about the instance(s) and come to your own conclusion. You might decide it’s irrelevant because it happened so long ago or because the nature of the incident doesn’t relate to your business.

Look for a Pattern

There’s a difference between an isolated incident and a pattern that seems to repeat itself from company to company. If the candidate repeatedly makes the same mistake or displays the same negative behavior, you can expect it at your company. However, if it only happened once, they likely learned their lesson and grew from it.

Determine if Cultural Fit Was an Issue

Everyone isn’t a fit for every company. It’s possible the negative comments stem from a lack of cultural fit. If you suspect this, dig deep to learn as much as you can about what really happened. Gather as many details as you can on the company culture, to see how it compares to your business. What might’ve been considered a problem at one company could be viewed as an asset at yours.

Talk to the Candidate

Gain additional clarification on the negative comment(s) by going straight to the source. The person’s reaction to the less-than-flattering feedback can be very telling. If they’re forthcoming with details and thoroughly answer all your questions, take this as a sign they can be trusted. On the other hand, if they deny the accusations or become defensive, this might be an indication their references were right.

References speak with you on the basis of confidentiality, so it should go without saying that you cannot tell the candidate who said what about them. These people did you the courtesy of speaking up, so don’t put them in a potentially awkward situation by calling their comments out.

Choosing the right person for the job isn’t always easy, but you don’t have to manage the process on your own. To learn more about how we can help you find top behavioral health talent, contact us today at (513) 651-9500 or by email at

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