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What to Do When a Candidate Has a Bad Reference

by | May 18, 2021 | reference check

As an employer, you must get rid of bad candidates to save yourself from unsuccessful hires. By checking employment references, you can more easily detect which candidates are good and which are bad.

Sometimes when you check references, you will get negative feedback about a candidate. So, what do you do when you hear a bad reference?

How to deal with a bad job reference

References serve as a check and balance. They help you make a logical decision about a candidate, instead of an emotional decision based on the interview. And, reference checks help you weed out bad candidates who are disguised as good interviewers.

When you receive a bad work reference or bad character reference, you have some questions to consider. First, will you tell the candidate about the bad reference? Next, will you consider the candidate for the position and send them on to your client? Your options are discussed below.

Should you tell the candidate?

A reference gives a negative review of a candidate. Do you tell the candidate?

You probably should not tell the candidate who gave a bad reference or what they said. The references talked to you in confidence, and they expect you to keep their information private.

If you end up rejecting applicants because of bad references, you can explain that to them. You might say something as simple as, “I’m sorry, but we are no longer considering you for this position because one of your references gave negative feedback.”

It might be OK to follow up with a candidate about something that was said during a bad reference conversation. This gives the candidate a chance to share their perspective. Again, don’t identify who gave the negative comments. Use general details to try keeping your source confidential. For example, you might say, “I talked to your references and was told you had problems with tardiness in the past. Do you want to say anything about that?”

It is not your place to warn a candidate about their references. A candidate should ideally ask references for permission to use them. And if references have something bad to say about the candidate, the reference would hopefully speak up to the candidate.

Should you consider a candidate with a bad reference?

So, does a bad reference equal a bad candidate? Remember, the references and candidates are both essentially strangers to you. Who can you trust?

Before you determine if a candidate is bad based on a reference, consider the following questions.

Who gave the reference?

Consider who gave you the bad reference. Is the referer a reputable source?

If the referer seems to be angry, disgruntled, or jealous of the candidate, the referer might not be reputable. They might have a skewed view of the candidate. Or, they might be trying to sabotage the candidate. Also, if one referer gives responses that are extremely different from those of other referers, they might not be honest.

If the referer seems to have a genuine grievance, they might be a reputable source.

Try to ask follow-up questions to determine why the referer is giving the bad review. Listen for responses that slant one way or another.

Was it a one-time incident?

If the referer mentions a specific incident, find out if it was an isolated incident or if it happened many times.

For example, a previous employer mentions that the candidate swore at a client. If this happened once, you and employers might be able to overlook the incident. But if this happened many times, you might want to take caution with the candidate.

When did the incident happen?

You should also find out how long ago the negative incidents happened. The candidate may have learned from their past mistakes.

Let’s say a candidate decided to stop going to work one day when they were 19. They didn’t give any notice, but simply stopped showing up. That certainly isn’t a good record to have. But since then, the candidate has had a solid attendance schedule over the past 15 years. Because the incident happened 15 years ago, you can look past it.

Remember, candidates are people who are capable of making mistakes. But they are also able to change their actions.

Did the candidate fit in the previous workplace?

If you can, find out if the candidate fit in at the business they got the bad reference from. They might have gotten the bad reference because they were a bad personality or cultural fit.

You might have to talk to both the referer and candidate to find out if the candidate fit in.

If the candidate didn’t fit in, they might have become antisocial, or a low performer, or clashed with team members. The candidate and personal references might be able to tell you if those are normal behaviors, or if they were caused by the work environment.

Did you receive multiple bad references?

If one person gave a bad reference, you still might be able to consider the candidate. One bad reference doesn’t equal a bad candidate, especially if the incident was isolated or old, or if the referer isn’t reputable.

If a candidate had multiple bad references, you probably want to pass on the candidate.

What does your gut say?

In the end, you might need to listen to your gut. You likely have experience seeing both good and bad candidates.

Take all the evidence you have and evaluate it. Consider the references and other candidate information stored in your applicant tracking software. If the candidate’s pros outweigh the cons of the reference, you might still want to consider them.