“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 <donotreply@skillsurvey.com>

Sent: <Date>

To: June James <June.James@emailprovider.com>

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 John.Jones@emailprovider.com.

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.

How do global corporations make decisions?

Small businesses have it easy. One person can make most decisions, and for the rest everyone goes into a conference room to hash things out.

Then they grow and add offices around the country — small branch offices at first, but eventually large installations that in some cases exceed the size of corporate headquarters itself. Making big decisions isn’t as simple as calling everyone into a conference room. At the executive level they can make do with quarterly ELT (executive leadership team) summits combined with lots of email and teleconferences or, better, web conferences in between.

Managers lower down on the org chart also have to deal with geographically dispersed management teams, but lack the executive travel budget. With enlightened spending priorities the company might pop for annual management summits. But mostly, managers minimize the need for consensus decisions while encouraging managers to collaborate as best they can with minimal face-to-face interaction and the trust-building that rarely happens without it.

A few more rounds of growth later and you’re dealing with multiple countries, languages, and time zones. Even an annual ELT summit is something of a production. The collaboration that builds on a shared sense of mission and interpersonal trust?

This is not an easily solved problem. It isn’t, in fact, a solvable problem in any way, shape or form. You can mitigate it, and even that is hard. You can’t solve it.

With that, here are a few random thoughts on how to mitigate the challenges of global decision-making and other leadership responsibilities:

> Culture: Engineering business culture is challenging with a face-to-face leadership team (for guidance, pick up a copy of Leading IT: <Still> the Toughest Job in the World by yours truly).

Beyond that, different countries and ethnicities don’t just have different societal cultures of their own. They have different management cultures.

Global leaders have to choose carefully which aspects of management culture they need to unify and where they should embrace the diversity of assumptions and attitudes that come from a multinational footprint.

> Staff vs Line: In the military, line officers lead troops; staff officers handle supporting administrative responsibilities. A frequent challenge military decision-makers have to deal with is that while line managers know What’s Going On Out There because it’s right in front of them, staff officers have more access because they’re in the same room. As a result, if decision-makers aren’t careful, staff officers have more influence as well.

Business leaders have to resolve exactly the same conundrum.

> The soft bigotry of time zones: I live in Minnesota — Central Time. To collaborate with an Indian colleague we have to find an acceptable schedule when, with a 10.5 hour time difference, there is no slot that’s in normal business hours for both of us.

Working with a colleague in Plano instead means not signing up for exceptionally early or late hours and not asking the colleague to make up the difference, either. Overcoming this calls for self-consciousness and, not to be overly dramatic, self-sacrifice as well.

> The softer bigotry of accents: I’d pay good money for a version of Rosetta that teaches no language but instead makes me more proficient in understanding heavily inflected English.

Given a choice between interacting with a colleague who speaks English as their first language and another who is at least as competent, but with whom I have to ask, “Could you repeat that?” more often than I understand the point the first time round … well, as with time zones, self-consciousness about the decision is mandatory.

> The even softer bigotry of bad circuits combined with accents: Take heavily inflected English. Now, speak it through a bad telephone network. The result: heavily inflected and badly muffled diction that’s so difficult to understand that it’s easier to interact exclusively through e-mail and chat. Or not at all.

> IT has to take the lead: There’s TEAMS/SharePoint/Skype if you like Microsoft solutions. There’s Slack, Webex, and various other alternatives if you don’t. It’s up to IT to establish a rich set of collaboration tools and provide them, not just those who “need” them but to everyone who might take advantage of them.

Then, make sure you first, then your team, then their teams become so proficient that using the tools is as much second nature as grabbing a marker and drawing on a whiteboard in a conference room.

Encourage the CEO to do likewise.

Then make sure Organizational Development establishes training in the tools as well. Beyond that, encourage making proficiency in these tools part of every employee’s performance appraisal.

A carpenter who can only handle a hammer, not a nail gun, doesn’t know his trade.

Isn’t this the same thing?