Reference check code words

I remember reading Freakonomics and learning about how in the real estate business “charming” just means small. It’s code used in real estate advertisements so that realtors know that other realtors mean “small.” There are dozens of such codes, and it pays to know them when reading the listing your realtor creates for your house when selling it.

There is a similar code for people doing reference checks. I’ve never really seen it documented anywhere, but if you’re doing reference checks it probably pays to know the basic code.

If you ask me about someone that I’ve worked with or done business with, you can expect one of three general types of responses. The first will look something like this:

So and so is just awesome. She did fantastic work and I’d hire her again in a second if i had the chance. I recommend her strongly.

This is what I would call a good/strong reference.

The second type is one of general indifference. It looks something like this.

So and so did a good job and delivered consistent work.

What I’m telling you here is that they did “fine.” I wasn’t blown away by them. I haven’t used words like “fantastic” and “awesome” and “strongly” like I did before. I’m not ever going to give a bad reference to you, and that’s the code. You should view a flat reference like this as code for “There’s nothing horrible about this person, but they’re no superstar either.” Note that I’m not telling you to run for the hills.

The third and final type of reference is one where I want to warn you off of this person and that my review is going to be mixed at best. It will generally take this form:

Give me a call when you have a second, and we’ll discuss.

This is bad news. It means I have something pretty major to tell you but I’m not willing to put it in writing. This is smart. It’s rarely a great idea to put something in writing that is very negative or highly critical of a person. Generally when I get this response from someone that I trust, I don’t even need to call them. If it’s someone I don’t know, I’ll usually call just to be sure what I’m hearing is fair and balanced, as well as verifiable.

Does this check with how you operate when responding to reference checks?

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  • My dad used to use "Would rather not provide a reference check for you." Meaning, that person sucked.