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Background

I'm a recent graduate currently looking for work, so I've been going on several interviews lately. I have a list of about five references from previous jobs and internships that I bring to the interviews.

On a recent interview, when I handed my list of references to the hiring manager, he laughed a bit and said that he knows and is an "old friend" of one of my references. He then told me that he wouldn't contact that reference. It didn't sound like an offhand remark, either. It sounded like he had a solid reason for not wanting to discuss my work performance with his friend, but I didn't want to ask why during the interview. If the roles were switched, my friend would probably be the first person I would contact, because I know and trust the word of my friends in the industry.

Question

If a hiring manager is evaluating a candidate, and the candidate's list of references includes a friend of the hiring manager, are there any ethical or legal reasons the manager should not contact the friend to discuss the candidate?

  • Ouch. Unless there's a specific conflict of interests to cite, I think this incidental association is unfair to you. – Zibbobz Apr 2 '15 at 17:21
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    I can't seem to string together an answer. I'd say he doesn't want to use his friendship to gain any information that wouldn't be suited to the professional relationship. – Brian Apr 2 '15 at 17:25
  • Mixing business with pleasure can hurt relationships or do you think people could always keep these separated well? – JB King Apr 2 '15 at 17:32
  • It maybe that there are strict company rules about references and the Hiring manager wants to be fair to the other candidates – Pepone Apr 2 '15 at 18:29
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It's not what you know, but who you know

Many jobs are gained and lost based on who you know. I have seen this in action many times in my career. My first job out of college I got because I was recommended by a professor, who used to work for the guy that ran the company.. Where I am now, I highly recommended two people from a previous position, and in one of those cases that recommendation was the deciding factor between him and the other candidate.

While legal issues are outside the scope of this website, there is nothing ethically wrong with a manager following up on references, regardless of the relationship the hiring manager has with said references.

This is exactly why networking is such an important part of your career. As you progress, it is important to meet people and leave good impressions. You never know when someone may recognize you and say a few nice things to a potential employer.

In your case, it sounds like your reference left a bad impression. This is not necessarily bad for you, but certainly not good.

  • Your last paragraph makes an interesting point. When the guy said "old friends" I assumed it meant just that, but you could be right that it was a sarcastic way of saying they didn't get along. – skrrgwasme Apr 2 '15 at 17:37
  • It's not who you know, but how you know them. – PCARR Mar 31 '17 at 18:15
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If the roles were switched, my friend would probably be the first person I would contact, because I know and trust the word of my friends in the industry.

Are you sure all of your friends in your life, whether new or old, could be called up to give you a good review? Consider carefully how long this list may be and what kinds of memories could people have from it. For example, could there be a birthday party incident when you were a child that didn't go over well and that former classmate may not think so highly of you now?

There is something to be said for how well does someone trust the judgment of another in assessing character. Some people may be known for being overly harsh of others and some may be known for saying good things about almost everyone. Could that old friend be someone that the hiring manager knows isn't likely to be honest? There can be some people that are like Pollyanna in seeing the good in everyone on one side. The other side is rocking the potential friendship as if the hiring manager is given a good review and things don't work out, could that ruin the friendship? May that have already happened and that is why the hiring manager doesn't want to listen to his old friend?

I suspect there could be more back story here or the hiring manager may just keep professional and personal life separate.

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