The Reference Check


March 2, 2016 | in News


I am writing this post because I was so inspired by a reference check I performed yesterday with a UK-based media executive. The metaphors, phrases and expressions he used do not exist in my vocabulary: "slag," "trod," and "dick wagging," among the most notable.

One of his very concise and detailed examples - in reply to one of my 23 questions - was from a movie scene; another involved the fuselage of an airplane. I had to stop him numerous times to make sure I was hearing him correctly.  He raved about his American counterparts - with their "movie-star smiles" and "boundless energy."  And let's face it, a British accent - it's easy on the ears. It was an unexpected, pleasant, and highly entertaining way to begin a very long day.

Truth be told, the reference checking process is one of my favorite parts of being a Recruiter. It is something that all of the seasoned Recruiters at my search firm do themselves. It is not something delegated to a more junior-level employee. Why? Because most of the Recruiters at my search firm have worked directly in the industries they recruit in. We have worked with our candidates and clients - and followed the companies they work for - for decades.  Witnessing our clients' and candidates’ career progressions and on the company level, numerous mergers, acquisitions and sometimes, extinction.  Some of us have an encyclopedic knowledge of media.  Mine can best be classified as obsession. My favorite class at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, was J560 - History of Mass Communications.

References come along at that point in the search process when the Recruiter and client mutually agree that we have found "the one." It is a glorious moment as we inevitably "head towards an offer." That point where one to six months of hard work and due diligence to find the perfect person for one very specific position are possibly destined towards a successful outcome. We ask the candidate to present us with the names and contact information of people they have worked for and alongside of - throughout their careers. We create a detailed reference tailored for a specific job function and company, comprised of 20 plus questions.

Those of us that have been doing this long enough understand that agreeing on the person we all wish to hire is just the beginning of making that hire become a reality.  There are plenty of curve balls to follow. We anticipate every one.  It may sound cliché but "it ain't over until it's over" (never).  My years of recruiting have made me an acolyte of "the third bagel rule" - as my investment banker friend described his philosophy towards the job search process three decades ago.  You don't really have the job UNTIL you are sitting at your desk and eating your "third bagel." It may sound ridiculous, but after doing this long enough, I would write that that's a pretty good analysis.

So why is reference checking one of my favorite parts of the recruitment process?  Sure, I used to create, produce and publicize, really exciting events and press conferences with a "Who's Who" of VIPs and celebrities. But who needs Warren Moon or LeRoy Neiman when you can be live on the phone - privately - for 30 minutes with a White House press secretary or CMO of your favorite discounted travel website?!  Even Matt Lauer doesn't get that air time.

Every time I get off the phone from a reference check, I feel like I have received a mini MBA.  Or put down a really good book (not that I have time to read). Or walked out of a blockbuster that lived up to the hype.

Yesterday, on the phone with the Brit, I learned something about a major media company that I have recruited out of for 15 years - that I never knew before. It was the "Missing Piece” - the dot that never made sense when it connected.  He gave me professional closure. 

Our clients rely on us to know the industry. To have all the answers. It's a lot of pressure.

As our search firm becomes more involved in businesses outside of the media industry - as content is really our stock & trade and a necessary part of every company in the digital economy - I have high hopes that Mr. Welch or Mr. Bezos will be on the receiving end of my 20 questions one day soon...



Photo "Note Taking” by Flikr user Chung Ho Leung used under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license


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