Inc.com 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 offered a new employee a job, with a job offer email that included the following line: "The position is permanent and will be subject to a three-month probationary period and reference check."

We made the offer contingent on references because one of his references was his current employer and he didn't want us to approach them until he'd handed in his notice.

We have now had references back and the one from his current employer was really worrying, which has made us think that he is definitely not the person for the job. Can we retract the offer? Help!

Green responds:

This is a really tough situation, and it's one of the reasons that offers contingent on a reference-check can be sticky. You're asking someone to resign from their job, while keeping open the possibility that you might yank the offer they're accepting.

That means you have a high responsibility to not immediately rescind the offer but to try to get more information first.

So, first, weigh the reference against what you know of this candidate from the other references. Were the rest glowing and this the only bad one? If so, consider why that might be: Was this a very different type of work than his other jobs? Since it's from his current employer, is it possible that they're upset that he's leaving? Or that they're unreasonable people, which is why he's leaving?

Or, of course, the reference could be completely objective and accurate, and even prohibitive to hiring him.

But you don't know that yet, and you have to get more information.

Go back to him and say this: "As you know, our offer was contingent on a positive reference check. When we talked to your current manager, she raised some concerns for us about X and Y. Can you tell me anything about that?"

You might hear something that puts your mind at ease, at least when you balance it against the other references you talked to. For example, you might hear that it's true that he didn't excel at X and Y but he was told not to work on those projects this year and instead to focus on A and B. Or you might hear that everyone else was pleased with his work and he has written performance evaluations to back that up, but that the manager you spoke with came in a couple of months ago and had a very different vision for his work. Or, who knows. Regardless, the idea here is to give him a chance to tell you his side of the story and not take the word of one person (who you don't know) as absolute gospel.

If you end up in a he-said/she-said situation and don't know who to believe, ask if he's able to put you in touch with anyone else from his current job who can speak about his performance; he might be able to put you in touch with people who will back up what he's saying. Or you can ask if he has copies of performance reviews for that job or anything else that might help you get a better understanding of the areas that are concerning you.

This is extra work, certainly, but because you made him a contingent job offer and he's already accepted it and resigned from his old position, you owe it to him to give him the chance to respond and to weigh what you're hearing as fairly as possible.

Want to submit a question of your own? Send it to alison@askamanager.org.

Published on: Feb 3, 2020
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.