Article Date: 9/1/2003

lessons learned
Came the Dawn
Here's how to get the real story on prospective employees.
By Jack Runniger, O.D.

It took me a few years and some disastrous employees before a great verity finally dawned on me, to wit: "You cannot trust the written references you receive for prospective employees!" Previous employers hesitate to say anything bad when asked for a reference, and you'll never see evaluations like these:


Getting even

The only bad recommendation I've actually ever heard was the one I gave a few years ago for a friend who was about two up on me in the dirty tricks department. To get even with him, here's how I answered some of the questions on his reference form:

Q. Age?

A. He claims he's 45.

Q. Sex?

A. Possibly. However if he is fooling around, his wife doesn't know about it.

Q. How long have you known applicant?

A. Too long.

Q. Is he civic minded?

A. Yes. He gave a dollar to the United Fund last year.

Q. Is he industrious?

A. He's not afraid of work. He can lie down and go to sleep right next to it.

Q. Do you think he's well suited for this job?

A. Yes.

Q. Why?

A. He's tried just about every other type of job and failed. By process of elimination, this has to be what he's best suited for.

(Incidentally, he was hired.)

My mistakes

Before I realized that I wasn't getting true reference evaluations, I hired some real lulus:

"You should have been here at 8:15," I remonstrated to a new employee who had a distressing tendency to show up late for work.

"Why?" she replied. "What happened?"

Another asked, "Would you like me to double space the carbon copies too?"

"When you post receipts to the ledger, mark them with a red check mark," we told another. After numerous complaints from patients who were billed for an account they had already paid, we discovered that this gal was red checking all the receipts without bothering to post them.

All of these employees had received a complimentary recommendation from previous employers and other references.

Finding a better way

Then I accidentally stumbled onto a method that has since resulted in a truer appraisal. A key employee died unexpectedly and we badly needed a quick replacement. One applicant's experience and references sounded great. However, before I had a chance to tell her she was hired, I ran into the M.D. for whom she had previously worked before quitting to raise a family. He had given her a good written reference.

During the course of the conversation, I asked him, "If you had an opening at this time, would you rehire this lady?"

"No," he replied hesitantly. "She was unreliable." I then realized that you're more likely to get an honest assessment verbally with this question than you will in writing. Previous employers hesitate to put in writing evaluations like:

"Not so much a has been, but more of a never will be." 

Jack Runniger, our consulting editor, lives in Rome, GA.  He's also a past editor of OM.

Optometric Management, Issue: September 2003