Asking For Negative References In An Interview

Posted by Andy Dunscombe on Oct 26, 2015 9:51:00 AM


It is almost automatic for a candidate to include a list of references when applying for a job. These references will most certainly give a stellar review of said candidate, insisting that they will be a valued member of your team and that you cannot pass on the opportunity to put them on your payroll. Some references might be more honest than others, listing some faults of said candidate but they will usually follow that up with how the candidate worked and overcame any faults. These people were picked as a candidate's reference for a reason.

Knowing how important it is for candidates to have great references, and the time spent picking the best possible people to serve as those references, I was a bit shocked when I read this article on about why hiring managers should be asking for negative references. My first thought was wondering why a candidate would voluntarily give a hiring manager the name and number of someone who might speak negatively about them. Sure, this would be valuable information for the hiring manager, but what benefits could this possibly have for the candidate?

Learning From The Past

Most importantly, a negative reference can serve as a discussion point on how a candidate has grown in their career and learned from certain situations. A hiring manager can discuss with the candidate what they learned from talking to a negative reference, and the candidate can give their version of the situation and what they learned from it. This is very similar to asking the "what is your greatest weakness?" question. None of us are perfect, and we aren't expected to be, but candidates who have shown that they learn from mistakes are very valuable.

...Is Another Man's Treasure

You know the full saying, but in this instance it's more like one employer's not-so-great employee can be another employer's superstar. The candidate might have certain characteristics that may not fit great within one office, but are exactly the characteristics this new hiring manager is looking for. Or, these negative references can be from former employees that had this candidate as a boss. The article gives an example of the negative references coming from salespeople who performed well, but were prima donnas that brought down the performance of the rest of the team and had to be let go. These negative references actually make the candidate look good, by showing how they were looking out for the good of the team.

The Disadvantages

There are many benefits to asking a candidate for negative references, but this is quite the bold interview technique and I can see it not working for some hiring managers. For one, a lot of candidates will be hesitant to provide these references, and even if they do provide them, there is still a chance that they have been "coached up" by the candidate. You'll know when you start getting answers like you get to the greatest weakness question. "Yeah, Jeff, he's just such a workaholic. We had to literally drag him out of the office on Friday night, and he'd just sneak back in through the air duct an hour later to work on something else." 

It can also be hard to get a negative reference to talk. Most of us err on the side of "if you don't have nothing nice to say, don't say anything at all" and are hesitant to speak negatively on anybody.

If you are looking for a way to shake up your interview process, asking for negative references is definitely something you may want to look at. Probably not for all candidates, but once you've narrowed down your choice to one or two.

What do you think? Would you ever ask a candidate to provide a negative reference? How would you feel if a hiring manager asked you to provide one? Let us know in the comments below.

Related Content:

4 Essential Questions To Ask A Candidate Reference

Top 5 Ways To Speed-Up Your Hiring Process

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