ManagementSpeak: We would like you to take a short survey about the material just covered.

Translation: We weren’t paying attention to it either.

Luckily, Tom Schraeder was paying attention, both to what was said and what it really meant.

“May I use you as a reference?”

The request, a friend (call her June James) told me, came from a strong performer (call him John Jones) who had worked for her a few years ago.

Shortly after she agreed, she received an anonymous text that said, “John Jones notes you consent to a txt msg to provide reference feedback. Txt Y to continue or N to stop txts. Msg&data rates may apply.”

My friend isn’t in the habit of replying to anonymous texts on the grounds that she isn’t an idiot. She ignored it, other than letting Jones know what was going on. Jones confirmed that he had shared her email address and mobile number (for texting).

Shortly thereafter she received an email, edited here for length:

From: John Jones <[email protected]>

Sent: <Date>

To: June James <[email protected]>

Subject: John Jones Reference Request

Dear June,

I am pursuing a career opportunity and I’m asking you, as well as several other individuals, to complete this request as a professional reference. Please complete this short (less than 30 questions), confidential, web-based survey regarding my skills.

You will not be identified as having written the individual responses because the system averages the responses from all of my references to produce one summary report that is confidential in accordance with the applicable Privacy Policy.

Please note that you will be responding as an individual, not as a representative of any company or organization. Also, I have executed a legally binding agreement that releases you, as well as any organization with which you are now affiliated or have been affiliated in the past, from any potential liability for providing this information.

The process is quick and easy. Please click or paste this link into your browser:

If you have any questions, you can contact me at [email protected].

Thank you for your time,

John Jones

Worst part first: “… less than 30 questions?” Please. Anyone with a gram of grammar savvy knows it should read “… fewer than 30 questions.”

My friend is more bad-grammar-tolerant than I am. She’s no more tolerant, though, of a claim that a 30-question survey qualifies as short. She was also hesitant to encourage a request that pretended to be from one source when in fact it came from a different source; and that concealed the identity of the hiring company.

Nevertheless, to help out someone worth helping out, she completed the thirty-three question survey, at the end of which the hiring company’s name was not only revealed — it encouraged her to apply for a position, too.

Which led to the anticlimactic piece de resistance, a follow-up email from SkillSurvey (not reproduced here because really, you and I are friends) promoting SkillSurvey’s services should she have a need for them in her own recruiting.

What, my friend asked, did I think of this approach to reference checks?


First: Starting the conversation with an anonymous text in this day and age? Really?

Second: Sending an email that pretends to be from the applicant when it actually comes from a third-party agent of the hiring company suggests to me that this isn’t a company I can trust to keep my identity and responses confidential. I’d probably let the requester know, with regrets, that while I’d be happy to talk with the hiring manager directly I’m not willing to respond to the on-line survey.

But what do I think of the approach?

Hiring decisions are the most important decisions managers make. References are one of the most important tools managers have for getting a handle on what it will be like to work with an applicant over the long haul — information that’s just as importance as the applicant’s raw competence.

Not that it’s all that easy to get that information: Usually, when asked to be a reference, the requestee asks something along the lines of, “What would you like me to say?”

When speaking with a reference, hiring managers need to penetrate beyond good/bad questions (Q: “Is Fred a strong project manager?” A: “Oh, yes, one of the very best!”) to a more nuanced sense of what the applicant is like as a person and co-worker; what it’s like to interact with them day-to-day; what they’re like when the chips are down … stuff like that.

No survey will get you there. That takes a conversation between two human beings about another human being.

When you’re evaluating a job applicant would you substitute a survey for interviewing them face to face?

That’s how I look at survey-based reference checks.