Bart Lorang, founder of FullContact: “I want to explore the shadow side of somebody’s character.”
Bart Lorang, founder of FullContact: “I want to explore the shadow side of somebody’s character.” Photograph courtesy of FullContact

Want to get hired? Give this guy a bad reference

Sep 17, 2015

As Bart Lorang interviewed a potential chief financial officer for FullContact, the contact-management software company he founded in 2011, he thought he’d spoken to the right person: She had the right credentials, and her answers to his interview questions hit all the right notes. Her last hurdle was to provide a list of references, but Lorang’s network check included a catch: He asked her to name a bad reference as well.

That seemingly counter-intuitive request is nothing new for Lorang who asks all of his executive-level hires to give a negative reference or the name of someone they’ve worked with in the past that they did not get along with. Sometimes it’s a business partner, sometimes a former employee—Lorang doesn’t much care as long as the reference will dish a little dirt about the applicant.

“I want to explore the shadow side of somebody’s character,” he says. “It’s a very significant part of the [hiring] process.”

It’s an unorthodox tactic that many in the human resources and hiring worlds have never heard of, but it’s one that could help paint a clearer picture of someone’s personality before they’re hired.

“If a job candidate is worth their salt, they’ve carefully chosen and properly prepared their usual references,” says career consultant Amanda Augustine. “While these references might be able to shed some more light on the candidate’s leadership style, chances are they will provide a positive, though somewhat biased, viewpoint.”

That’s not so much the case when Lorang tasks someone with criticizing a former co-worker. In fact, it can be quite uncomfortable for the person being asked to give negative feedback. “It’s almost like I’m cold-calling somebody,” Lorang says with a laugh. “For the first 30 seconds, I’m just trying to keep them from hanging up.”

When the bad references realize that they’ve been asked to vent a little spleen, Lorang says, they’re often hurt. Sometimes they didn’t realize the extent of the vitriol or had forgotten the drama with the former workmate. Only after some leading questions, says Lorang, do they open up and spill the goods.

He first thought of the idea when he interviewed a potential vice president of sales. Over a few drinks, he and the candidate had built a rapport. And then, in the spur of the moment, Lorang asked if he could call someone the interviewee didn’t get along with. The applicant didn’t mind, and Lorang eventually hired the candidate. He has used the unusual inquiry ever since.

Sometimes the bad references will divulge stories of office parties where the applicant may have had one too many or discuss how the job seeker slighted them in some way. Then Lorang goes back to the candidate to see what he or she has to say. “If there’s a defensive answer, that’s a yellow flag for me,” he says.

If an interviewer wants to glean the emotional intelligence of the candidate, then human resources specialist Robin Schooling sees the potential benefit of Lorang’s method. Everyone has bad stories to tell, but it’s how one improves on them that indicates a better prospect. “It could be seen as a gotcha type of moment,” says Schooling, but it could also be a way to probe “for a picture of the whole person.”

This negative approach comes with caveats. There is the potential pettiness factor where a bad reference could spot a golden opportunity for revenge, and with the ever-increasing hurdles that companies have built into their screening processes, that extra wrinkle of Lorang’s could cause him to accidentally turn away a great hire, says Schooling.

Candidates who are faced with the request for a bad reference should pick one who respected them as a professional, but may not have agreed with their leadership or strategy style, says Augustine. “Better yet,” she adds, “if you worked at a company that turned out to be a cultural mismatch, choose someone from there who valued your work but understood—and let you know—this wasn’t the right place for you.”

Lorang says his hiring tactic simply tests whether the candidate has learned from his or her past mistakes, and it allows him to judge if they can take criticism. If he goes back to applicants and they begin to bicker or become offended by the reference’s remarks, then he knows they’re not the right fit.

That’s what happened when Lorang reached out to his CFO candidate’s bad references. When he told her what they’d said, she got upset and blamed employees that she should have better managed. “The individual was very defensive and got into the victim mentality,” says Lorang. It doesn’t happen often where the negative reference weeds out a bad candidate, he says, but this was one of those times he knew he had to go another way.

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