Share:

References by Mail - The LIAR Letter  

 

Dave Jensen
Prominent Maven Moderator
Joined: 3 years ago
Posts: 945
April 23, 2019 11:54 am  

I wonder why in the academic world there is such an emphasis on written reference information from prospective job candidates. We've even seen this cross over to industrial job ads, which read "for consideration, send resume and three letters of reference."

There is only one way to check references, and that is by phone or (rarely) face-to-face. The reason for this? It is much easier to read between the lines when you are actually hearing the way that someone phrases a response to a probing question. In a written letter, it is possible to make anyone look good, and that is sometimes what a supervisor is forced to do when he or she is asked to write a letter of reference for an employee whom they were not particularly excited about. These letters, which in the recruiting industry we call L.I.A.R. letters (Letters of Inconspicuously Ambiguous Reference), can cast a rosy tint on the worst kind of employees. After reading these letters for years, I can guarantee you that anyone, regardless of ability, can provide you with letters of reference.

For any hiring manager here, please think twice the next time you consider hiring someone whose past supervisor writes that "he was a continual influence on all those around him".

 

Dave

Dave Jensen, Founder and Moderator
Bio Careers Forum


Quote
DX
Honorable Maven Registered
Joined: 2 years ago
Posts: 643
April 24, 2019 8:38 am  

HI Dave,

Agreed, but remember, even them phone calls can be a bit of a glorification.  Something folks don't like, but i"m ok with, using your network (if possible and easy) to learning more beyond the provided references.  Can be hard at times to get to a persons true behaviors and performance. 

DX

 

 


ReplyQuote
Dave Jensen
Prominent Maven Moderator
Joined: 3 years ago
Posts: 945
April 24, 2019 11:27 am  

I agree that you have to take a rather slanted view at references. One individual bad reference may not be a deal killer, but when you have several of them -- or several good ones -- that's a trend that should indeed be recognized.

 

Dave

Dave Jensen, Founder and Moderator
Bio Careers Forum


ReplyQuote
Dick Woodward
Reputable Colleague Moderator
Joined: 3 years ago
Posts: 282
April 24, 2019 1:19 pm  

I agree with DX about using your network. I had one potential hire who looked very good. Then I checked my network and found that when there was work to be done (at a trade show) she was usually at the pool. Found someone else.

Dick


ReplyQuote
Dave Jensen
Prominent Maven Moderator
Joined: 3 years ago
Posts: 945
April 24, 2019 1:33 pm  

Good comment Dick, and that's what a lot of hiring managers do . . . they utilize their network and rope in a few extra check points to the reference process. Unfortunately, HR and recruiting firms are usually stuck doing references only on legitimate names provided by the candidate. That's OK, and legal. But they are generally always positive. Still, if you ask the right questions (and listen very well for clues) you can actually find out the weak points as well from a listed reference.

 

Dave

Dave Jensen, Founder and Moderator
Bio Careers Forum


ReplyQuote
Avatar
Sir Tim Hunt
Eminent Colleague Registered
Joined: 3 years ago
Posts: 47
April 29, 2021 10:07 pm  

I wanted to add anodd twist on this post. Had a PI once knowingly write inaccurate letters of references to keep me in his laboratory which could be contradicted by his own performance evaluations. Finally, I hired a reference checking company and attorney to investigate. Once we had documentation of his distortion and misrepresentations, I had an attorney draft a letter to the president of the university. It ended quickly afterwards. The key question is how do you avoid such individuals before accepting a position?  


ReplyQuote
Dave Jensen
Prominent Maven Moderator
Joined: 3 years ago
Posts: 945
April 29, 2021 11:51 pm  

It's a story that I've heard repeated a number of times. I don't think there is a way to ferret this out in advance. Of course, you can "check references" closely on any new boss, by asking others who have worked for her/him a little about their style and so on. But for the most part, you just need to be somewhat wary of any situation where you present that person as a reference and the prospective employer does NOT reach out to you for a job offer. You took the "nuclear route" but it may have been the only thing you could have done to identify and fix the problem.

 

Dave

Dave Jensen, Founder and Moderator
Bio Careers Forum


ReplyQuote
Avatar
Sir Tim Hunt
Eminent Colleague Registered
Joined: 3 years ago
Posts: 47
April 30, 2021 3:00 am  

Is it being too blunt to ask a prospective boss:

1) What are your expectations for a good reference?

2) Have you ever provided a negative reference for a productive employee? If so, why?

In hindsight, I think a good supervisor would address these questions without hesitation. My former supervisor would have balked at these questions. Dave, I can afford to pick to and choose right now. It is more important to find the right situation and person. I am tried of working for selfish and controlling bosses.  

 


ReplyQuote
Avatar
Sir Tim Hunt
Eminent Colleague Registered
Joined: 3 years ago
Posts: 47
April 30, 2021 3:07 am  

In regards to the former supervisor, legal counsel and the office of President placed a muzzle on any references he might provide. Furthermore, he infringed my copyright for my dissertation. They also asked him to resign as Dean. Last I heard, the University was talking about asking him to leave the University. The RIO officer apologized and said if you need an explanation in regards to this matter please call me, glad to help. This was 3-4 years ago.  


ReplyQuote
DX
Honorable Maven Registered
Joined: 2 years ago
Posts: 643
May 3, 2021 10:42 am  

I guess the big question is .. for non-academic track careers, do you really need your PI at the interface of academia and a non-academic job path?  The answer in my opinion is a resounding no.   Can they help? Sure!  Do you need it? No.   Use post-docs and other people who are familiar with your work - it well accepted that in the industry that no one expects a reference from your current boss.    Later on yes, a reference from one of your past bosses can be an asset, provided you had a good relationship.  And the more frequently used and accepted are those of your peers/team members which people use and is accepted. Acknowledging the original post..Liar letter. Liar reference.  They're all my "buddies". 

There is also the notion of expiration date of those who serve as references.  Would I use a reference from 10 years ago?   no. Why?   The hiring manager will get the same message.."ah yes, 10 years ago Mr. DX was a great employee and look at his trajectory!".   Yup.. that's useful. (sarcastic). 

That said, I don't know the state of requests for references these days.   

For my more recent moves, references were never asked for.  Are the dying off?  Is 3 or 4 year at ABC company with achievement and a network enough to show credibility? 

I attribute it to where I am in my career and level of my job, age, stage, and my network in my field.  

boh...go figure. 

DX 


ReplyQuote
Dave Jensen
Prominent Maven Moderator
Joined: 3 years ago
Posts: 945
May 3, 2021 4:43 pm  

There's an odd disparity in the way that companies approach references. In some companies, it's a complete afterthought. I could get away with doing no references at all, although that would be a deal-killer for a recruitment firm. They couldn't care less about the six or eight pages of detail that we pass on to them from our calls. In other companies, they use the academic approach of "reference letters," but those are going by the wayside, as most companies realize that's a waste of time. At the other end of the spectrum, there are companies that are completely involved in the references, and those calls can last upwards of an hour. What an intense reference check it is to be on the phone with a company talking about someone you know for an HOUR!

 

Dave

Dave Jensen, Founder and Moderator
Bio Careers Forum


ReplyQuote
DX
Honorable Maven Registered
Joined: 2 years ago
Posts: 643
May 4, 2021 7:52 am  

My my 1 hour. What is there to be gathered other than getting so deep that there is no benefit. 

Having served and continue to serve a referee, I find the questions fall into 2 major catagories:

1. Same uncreative questions yield same cliche answers of how great the person is, with my same old cliche, pretty much BS turning of the candidate's weakness into a strength. Because, that interviewer (reference checker) is generally amateur.  They clearly don't have enough experience to understand its a close professional colleague (the candidate) we're talking about and I have an interest in supporting them to secure position (I have bias).  

2. They don't know what questions to ask me.  Usually they're following a process that I can detect they don't subscribe to, but they're doing it, and they have already figured out that my relationship to that candidate both professional and personal.  They probably get that in the first minute where they ask the same boring question of "tell me your relationship to so and so".   These go fast, its basically a 3 minute conversation with odd silences - takes'em that amount of time to figure it out, I'd say in light if the situation, these are the "smarter" or "more experienced"  of reference checkers.   I think in those cases its more of a validation the person worked in the company call but then again, not really as that information has been already secured from other channels but ok what ever.  In these cases, I find there is a good amount of humor in those calls, they're very friendly and they know they're doing a process that's just checking the box. 

Anyways - my two cents from the referee side.  I find reference checks a waste of my time when I have to give'em. 

DX


ReplyQuote
Dave Jensen
Prominent Maven Moderator
Joined: 3 years ago
Posts: 945
May 4, 2021 4:21 pm  

I can get what I need, and I have a great pair of "BS detector" antennae, in about 15 minutes. Never failed me. 

But you have to ask the right questions. No one, positive or negative about the candidate, will just jump in there with interesting information without being directed to that kind of response by the interviewer. It's the questions you ask, and your ability to pick up traces of comments in voice tone or odd snippets, that gets you what you need. Those odd snippets or those pieces of commentary need to be chased down of course.

Dave

This post was modified 2 months ago by Dave Jensen

Dave Jensen, Founder and Moderator
Bio Careers Forum


ReplyQuote