When are References too Old?

I recently spoke with a hiring manager who was unhappy about a candidate's references, “All the references are for jobs 10 years ago. And he's had 4 jobs in the last 5 years. Why aren't there references from those jobs?”

If you're a hiring manager, you'll notice many candidates were either unemployed or had multiple jobs in the last 5 years. As they've moved around, their managers and peers have moved around too. It's entirely possible that people are no longer in the field or that your candidate can't find new references anymore.

If you're faced with references that can't provide useful information about a candidate because their experience with the candidate is not recent, consider these options:

  • Ask for more recent references. The candidate may not have remember to send you the most recent references. Or your job may be similar to something the candidate did a while ago and thought you'd prefer these references.
  • Ask the candidate to perform an audition if you haven't already.
  • Ask the candidate why he or she has no recent references. The answer may surprise you. I've heard “I've been working at a (particular) retail store. Since that job is nothing like this one, I didn't think you'd want a reference from there.” I've also heard “I have no respect for these people and I thought you wouldn't either. Why would I ask an ex-manager for a reference when he was stupid?”

Normally, when a candidate tells me a previous manager was stupid, red flags go up. I asked this candidate why he thought the manager was stupid. His answer, “He ignored what people wanted to do and assigned us to work we didn't have expertise to perform. He thought nothing of assigning us to 6 projects at a time and then berating us in public for not finishing the work. …” This manager was, at the least, misguided. I can see why the candidate didn't want him for a reference. Throw in a couple of years of looking for work along with some temporary work, and you can see why candidates might not have recent references.

Before you give up on this candidate, decide if it's worth your time to hire the candidate on probation, or as a temp-to-perm employee. Experienced technical people can provide your organization a maturity and perseverance some of the less seasoned people may not have. Take the old references as part of the picture of the candidate. Assess the total risk to hiring the candidate. Don't just flip off candidates because they have old references.Candidates, if you have old references, find newer ones. Nip this objection in the bud.

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