What do you do when Reference Checks throw up two diametrically opposed assessments?

Project ManagementThis happened to a global resource company client of mine a couple of years ago. They had advertised for a senior engineer to fulfil the role of Project Manager for all of their major feasibility studies that were in the pipeline. The person they had shortlisted had all of the right experience and qualifications, and had recently been employed in a role at another company that involved major project oversight. Prior to that, this candidate had a succession of business development type roles which relied on his engineering experience and training. According to my client he seemed like the right person for the job. Certainly he seemed to ‘tick all the right boxes,’ but there was something that didn’t quite seem to gel in their due diligence and so they asked me for my assessment. It concerned the fact that the two reference checks they had undertaken were throwing up anomalies that they could not reconcile and they wanted to know why. Here is what I discovered…

To give you further background, my client was wondering why the reference checks had produced such diametrically opposed feedback from two previous managers of the candidate at successive appointments during his career. One reference check threw up comments like… “We are still cleaning up after him, and undoing some of the mess he left behind,” while the other made comments like… “We would have him back tomorrow if he was available.”  My client wanted to know whether one of the previous employers was lying and if so which one. In my client’s opinion, one of the previous employers was either a personal friend of the candidate and therefore gave him a glowing reference or there had been a personality clash with the other and the reference received was unfairly negative as a result, because all of the CV material showed a level of training and experience that underscored his capability for the role in terms of competency and experience.

After profiling the candidate which included both quantitative on-line testing as well as a two hour discussion and qualitative assessment of his language patterns, I was able to confidently report to my client that neither of the previous employers were lying, and that both were correct in their personal assessment of the candidate’s performance. It depended less on whether he had the competency to undertake the role and more on his motivational preferences as to how he was motivated to use the skills he had and process his model of the world. His ‘motivational fingerprint’ if you will. Here is what I said…

    … “For the Project Oversight role where project leadership involves conceptual analysis and strategy, detailed risk assessment, systemic thinking followed by a properly structured plan of action taking into account all of the competing factors, the candidate has the experience and training but his ‘motivational fingerprint’ does not support him working in this way.”

Across the board he had rated motivational patterns like Concept and Structure; Reflection and Patience (i.e. Thinking before Acting); Focus on Information and Systems; Problem Solving (Risk Mitigation); Evolution (i.e. Gradual Change and Development); and Depth Orientation as quite low in his preferences. His language patterns in the discussion we had, reinforced this assessment of mine. Note: This is not to say that he was not trained nor competent in these disciplines. It is just that it was not his preferred way of working or using his skills.

    … “For the Business Development role where leadership involves the ability to seek out new development opportunities; make quick decisions; initiate action; and drive a team towards a long term goal, the candidate exhibits all of the action-oriented patterns one would expect to see as part of his motivational make-up, both in his quantitative assessment and in my qualitative assessment of our discussion.”

Time For ActionAcross the board he had rated highly the following motivational patterns which indicated a strong preference for speed and action:- Focus on Activity; Initiation; Use (i.e. Jumping into Action); Convinced Automatically; Convinced by Doing (as opposed to Reading; Seeing or Listening); Difference (i.e. a preference for Rapid and Discontinuous change) and Goal Orientation.

Once I had shared my assessment with my client, it quickly became obvious to them why the manager who had employed the candidate in a Project Oversight role rated his performance so poorly and why the manager who had employed him in a Business Development role would hire him again tomorrow if the opportunity presented itself.

Both were telling the truth in the context of the role the candidate had performed for them previously, just as much as two people looking at a car accident from different perspectives and vantage points will describe the same scene differently, even though the reality of the crash was identical.

So the decision that was presented to my client quickly became a no-brainer as a result. The only question that needed to be addressed was whether the role for which they were hiring him was more of a Project Oversight role or a Business Development role, even though the candidate was equally skilled for both.

Given that the role at the resource company was a closer motivational fit to the one the candidate had reportedly underperformed in, the observation was made that this candidate might not be the right person for that role. Another more suitable candidate was subsequently chosen. This was not only the right decision for the employer but also in the best interests of the candidate regardless of his personal wishes.


Placing a ‘square peg in a round hole’ is not only a potential risk for the employer but also potentially highly stressful for the employee involved. As employees we should always aim to work towards our preferences and strengths that we develop as a result of those preferences, otherwise we will only invite feelings of boredom or inadequacy within ourselves.

Here is the challenge for employers however:–

All too often I observe that organisations only select or promote based on very limited criteria….

1. Competency – can they do the job?
2. Previous Experience – has someone else said they can do the job?
3. Gut Feeling – do we think they can do the job?
4. Rapport – do we like them enough to want them to do the job?
5. Performance over Time – after 3-6 months of trial and error, will we discover if they can do the job?

The missing ingredients in all of this which are crucial to the final decision are the Attitudes and Motivations of the Individual. i.e. Are they the right fit/best fit for the role? These measures are the most important and effective predictors of job performance, and employers ignore this fact at their peril.

As a result of ground-breaking research and development in psychometric testing over the past ten years, it is now possible to predict with a certain degree of confidence, how an executive will be most likely motivated to perform, behave and communicate in his/her specific work environment. This means that you can now unlock the motivational code for improving engagement, effectiveness and performance in the workforce from the highest to the most basic levels of employment. Not only can we now measure what motivates someone at work, but also to what degree and by how much these drivers motivate them, compared to the rest of the standard population.

The knowledge that a company gleans from these insights is a proven recipe for more incisive and effective candidate selection or promotion, and for more targeted information into successful ‘on-boarding’ or personal career development. This assists immeasurably in ensuring that an organisation’s external candidate/ internal succession selection processes are conducted at world’s best practice levels.

What are your thoughts on this? I’d love to read them.

Drop me an email to brian@precisionprofiling.com.au if you would like to discuss further how to select the right people for your roles and how to leverage that knowledge for the benefit of them and your organisation.

Until then… Let’s seek to understand more and judge less. Have a great week – Brian

Precision ProfilingWhat Makes You Tick? Through ‘Motivational Fingerprinting’ we uncover what you do, how you do it and why you do it, and most importantly, the hidden patterns that lead to your success, and that of your team.

About Brian Clark

Brian Clark is the principal director of Precision Profiling®.

He is a renowned practitioner, writer and speaker on building total customer cultures; values driven leadership and world best practice strategy and implementation.

He has been a guest lecturer on world best practice for the executive management programme at Monash University’s business college (Mt Eliza campus); an adviser to and key note speaker for the Singapore Productivity Association and a consultant to many major Australian and overseas corporations and government departments.

Read more about Brian Clark Here


  1. Another really well written article thank-you Brian and so true, proving the point that iWAM allows an organisation to be far more certain about whether they are recruiting the right person for the right role.

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