columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues -- everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.

A reader asks:

We recently interviewed someone who seemed OK but I had reservations. We didn't have many good options, so we asked for her references. She has 10+ years of work history, and we could not get in touch with anybody. When we went back to her asking for help, she provided references who, no joke, worked with her for three months 15+ years ago. We had been clear that even providing co-workers from her more recent jobs would have worked. We were desperate and hired her anyway.

It's been three weeks, and we're letting her go tomorrow. It's nothing egregious, but she lacks certain skills/personality traits (like resourcefulness, flexibility, etc.) that are necessary for the job.

I don't know whether to consider this a "lesson learned," because I've always known how important references are. But I have learned that I can't compromise on hiring decisions when I will ultimately be cleaning the mess.

Green responds:

It's definitely a lesson learned.

It's not that there's no conceivable situation where someone could have legitimate reasons for difficulty in coming up with references. Stuff happens -- managers die, go off the grid, whatever. And for people who are in their first job, it can sometimes be hard to figure who to use (since they usually won't want to use a current boss who doesn't know they're looking). But that's not what happened here. In this case, your candidate didn't give an explanation that made sense, and she didn't take you up on it when you offered to let her use co-workers rather than bosses. There's a reason for that.

Likewise, someone who's a good employee with good judgment isn't going to suggest references they worked with 15 years ago for three months.

So, the lessons to draw out for the future:

  1. When someone can't give you suitable references, have a conversation with them about why. You'll get more insight by talking with them about it.
  2. When you have reservations about a candidate, take those seriously. "Not great, but could work" is not enough to hire someone in most situations.
  3. When you have reservations about a candidate but are considering hiring the person anyway, then you really, really need to speak with references to learn more. If you have reservations and the person can't produce any references, that's pretty much always got to end up with not hiring them.

But also...experiences like this tend to be how people learn these lessons. I think everyone who's been managing and hiring for a while has at least one story like this -- so don't beat yourself up over it too much.

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