What is a blind reference?

Some people naively think that the only reference checking that is done is with the references given by a candidate or to a head hunter.   Executives recruiting for talent will peruse your CV looking for places where you and they might have common acquaintances.  They will also look for places that some of their friends and professional contacts might have insights.  When these links are found which is most of the time for an experienced recruiter or hiring executive, you are about to become the victim of a blind reference.

A ‘blind reference’ is an investigation into your past by a hiring executive that you know nothing about.

I do not put a lot of faith in  references provided by a candidate although I have had candidates give me references that were not very complimentary of them.  If you are going to give a reference, at least have an idea about what they are likely to say about you.  No one that has any sense is going to intentionally give a bad reference on a candidate to a stranger.  I also disregard reference letters.  No one is going to write a letter that states the candidate is bad.  On occasion, I will write a reference letter for someone as a personal favor but I aways counsel them that reference letters in my opinion are a total waste of time.  The only time I pay any attention to a reference letter is if I know the author.

Because of political correctness and the cold legal realities associated with references these days, the best you are going to get from formal references in most cases is that the candidate was hired on one date and departed on another date.  The most you are likely to learn is that the candidate actually did work for the firm you are contacting for the stated period of time.  They will rarely tell you anything more because references are subjective by nature in most cases.  Subjective references that cause a candidate to be ruled out of a search can become a liability for the person that gave the reference.  This is one of the reasons that blind reference checking has grown in my opinion.

If I get a reference call on a candidate being evaluated by someone I do not know, I refer the call to HR where I know what they are going to be told.  Even if the reference call comes from a friend,  I know the candidate and I know them to be bad, usually instead of giving a bad reference, I will usually refer my friend to HR where they will get the standard, canned response.  The hiring manager gets the message.  If a friend encounters me refusing to give a reference, they get the message.

The more frequent call that I get is from a decision maker that is checking references that are not on the candidate’s list.  These are the calls that are dangerous for candidates because they are blind to the candidate; hence a blind reference call.  The candidate will never know in most cases they were vetted through a blind source.  This is one of the many reasons why it is so important to keep up your networking and to not burn bridges unnecessarily.  If you left a place under questionable circumstances, you need to have a good explanatory story and you need to be forthcoming and transparent.  Of course a blind reference is not necessarily a bad thing.  Under the right conditions, it can propel you to the front of the line.  I received a blind reference call on a candidate I happened to be considering at the same time.  I told the blind reference caller that they could dispense with their questions because my reference will be very simple, “If you do not hire her, I will.”  I had worked with this candidate before and she is outstanding.  She was going to end up with a gig regardless of how the reference checking worked out in this case.

When I get a blind call from someone I know and trust, they are going to learn the whole story.  The reason is that I know I can call them to have the favor returned at some point in the future.  If the candidate departed under less than ideal circumstances or told a story that I know to not be true, I will give the reference to HR as stated above.  This usually surprises the decision maker that hoped to get something from me.  The fact that I refuse to provide a reference for someone that the decision maker knows I know well usually tells them enough, especially when I put off multiple requests for help.   About the third time I refuse to provide any information, the recruiting executive gets the message.  If you are going to engage in this activity, you have to be absolutely certain that your confidence will be protected.  This is the main reason that I resist giving references to head hunters unless I know them personally because it is hard to be certain your confidentiality will be protected.

When you are looking for a job, who will the hiring decision maker call?  What will they be told by people you used to work around?  Time after time, I have received blind reference calls.  Often, these calls are about someone that has done little if anything to endear themselves to me or to even keep in touch.  People like this generally do not return calls, ask of an acquaintance while offering nothing of value i.e., they do not engage in networking, they do not accept meetings or referrals, they do not attend or participate in industry related networking or continuing education activities such as ACHE or HFMA.  I wonder what these people expect I am going to say about them?  And of course, all of this is above and beyond anything I might know about their acumen, experience or capabilities.   I would rather not receive these calls in the first place but I do not control who calls me.

I do not know what it is about some people.  In one case, I reached out to an executive that I thought might benefit from my insight about handling executive turnover in his organization.  He humored me then never called me back in spite of the fact that I specifically requested a call regarding a wealth of information that I volunteered.  I never heard from him and I do not expect to hear from him because his failure to take my advice was at least partially responsible for his own firing a couple of months later.  A few weeks ago, I got a blind reference call.  The guy was seeking employment with a consulting firm and I knew the hiring executive very well.  What do you think happened?

This kind of thing does not have to happen to you.  If you are smart, you will get serious about networking and building as many positive relationships as you can.  Many of these relationships come from active participation in associations, alliances and industry peer groups.  You should volunteer your time to give yourself exposure to people that you might need for a job some day and in the process help them develop a positive impression of  you.

There is a saying that there are three kinds of people;  Those that make things happen, those that watch things happen and those that wonder what happened.  You never know when someone is going to make a call to someone that you might not even know; about you – a blind reference.  When that occurs, what will the results of that call be?  If you or someone you know is having difficulty getting a job and their qualifications appear competitive, they may be the victim of blind reference checking which puts them in the category of wondering what happened.

Please feel free to contact me to discuss any questions or observations you might have about these blogs or interim executive services in general.  As the only practicing Interim Executive that has done a dissertation on Interim Executive Services in healthcare in the US, I might have an idea or two that might be valuable to you.  I can also help with career transitions or career planning.

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This is original work.  This material is copyrighted by me with reproduction prohibited without prior permission.  I note and  provide links to supporting documentation for non-original material.

If you would like to discuss any of this content or ask questions, I may be reached at ras2@me.com. I look forward to engaging in productive discussion with anyone that is a practicing interim executive or a decision maker with experience engaging interim executives in healthcare.


  1. I hate to say it but the gov't could come out and say that the Coontitutisn is null and void and many people wouldn't even care or do anything about it.


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