Deciphering a Neutral Reference Check

You think you’ve found the perfect candidate. Now, you just have to go through the motions of checking references. One problem: you aren’t getting the ecstatic praise you had expected. The commentary from former bosses and coworkers isn’t bad. It just isn’t good either. 

What can you learn from this? How do you decipher a neutral reference check? 

It’s a complicated process of decoding. It’s like reading a blank expression or trying to figure out if someone liked the dinner you cooked when they called it “fine.” 

However, there are steps you can take to get more out of what seems like an indifferent response. Here’s how to decipher a neutral reference check: 

Why Did Your Candidate Receive a Neutral Reference? 

There are neutral references and then there are neutral references. Even if the discussion itself only included names, dates, and job descriptions, you can still get additional information out of the exchange. You just have to identify the reason why the person you’re talking to is refusing to provide more insight. 

It Could Be Company Policy 

If you’re contacting the HR representative at your candidates former employer, they might be restricted in what they can say. This policy might even extend to former supervisors and coworkers still employed at the firm. If you aren’t getting a more personal account of your applicants tenure, It might be the result of a corporate rule. In this case, the neutral reference shouldn’t reflect on the candidate. 

The Reference Didn’t Know the Candidate Well 

It’s possible the reference can’t provide detailed insight about your candidate because they don’t have any insight to give. Your applicant might only exist as a name and a few stats on a computer screen. In that case, you can confirm timelines and other hard data, but there’s no deeper truth to unearth 

The Reference Is Reluctant to Say Something Negative 

You know the old advice, “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.“ That adage might be stonewalling your reference check. It’s possible that the person you’re talking to doesn’t have many positive things to say about your candidate. However, out of politeness, they are refusing to divulge their negative opinions.

How to Get the Most Out of a Neutral Reference Check 

You can still learn a lot about an employee from a neutral reference. You just need to know how to approach the situation. Here are some steps you can take: 

Explicitly Ask about the Neutral Reference 

Don’t let the neutrality of your discussion hang in the air. Address it directly. Ask the reference something like, “it seems like you are only providing basic information. Is there a reason for that? From their answer, you can learn whether a corporate policy inhibits them or if they don’t know the candidate well. You might even catch hints of other, juicier motives in the way they frame their response. 

Consider Context 

Your candidate likely gave you a list of references. If you get five glowing recommendations and one neutral response, you can probably discount that one persons difference. Red flags only pop up when all the references tend towards the middle of the road.  

Even then, consider the people listed. It’s possible the candidate did a poor job constructing their list, overvaluing people who could confirm things like work dates. Feel free to go back to your applicant and ask for additional references if you aren’t getting the information you need from the ones provided. 

Drill Down on Specifics 

You can still gather information from a neutral reference. You just have to craft the right questions. Ask for quantitative measures of performance. Even reluctant references might be able to share this kind of information. You can also try framing a series of yes/no queries along the lines of “would you hire this person again? 

Hiring the right team member requires you to gather as much information as possible. Teaming with a top staffing agency, like SmartTalent, simplifies this process. They can conduct the vetting process for you, making sure you have the best possible candidate for your open positions. 

Contact SmartTalent today to learn more. 


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