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References: Conspiracy of Silence

Newsletter • volume 5 • number 1

Corporate America has a "conspiracy of silence" when it comes to high-level executives who leave their firms under less than favorable circumstances. The conspiracy goes something like this: if problem employees exit quietly, firms agree to keep quiet too, especially when it comes to prospective employers. As one executive put it, "We find it's easiest just to let them go, put the matter behind us, and, if the employee agrees not to say anything negative about our organization, we agree not to say anything to future employers. We prefer to keep it quiet, curbed, quick."

And no wonder. By keeping unprofessional behavior under wraps, organizations avoid the threat of costly and well-publicized litigation. Meanwhile, undesirable employees continue to get top jobs, often collecting a fortune in signing bonuses, perks, and severance packages, as they leapfrog from one company to the next. Ironically, hiring managers and executive recruiters often unwittingly contribute to the problem. Faced with a dearth of talented workers and a growing number of key slots to fill, they may fail to do thorough reference checks or conduct solid interviews.

Unfortunately this is a situation in which everyone ultimately loses. Although firms may avoid court battles and ousted workers continue to earn a living, the entire selection and hiring process is seriously undermined by nondisclosure agreements.

Dick Cronin, of the executive search firm Hodge-Cronin & Associates in Des Plaines, Illinois, always asks for and investigates ten references. His feeling is that almost anyone can come up with five positive references, but that ten is a real stretch for all but the most untarnished candidates.

Ed Sockwell, of Sockwell Associates in Charlotte, North Carolina always insists on references from people who reported to the candidate. He wants to hear from those who knew what the candidate was like "on a bad day."

Whatever the strategy, the idea is to break the "chain of names" candidates provide. In addition to calling listed references, try asking each reference for the name of someone else who knew the candidate. That way you talk to people other than those handpicked by the candidates themselves.