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I Was Looking for a Salesperson and I’ve Been Catfished!

Dear Stephen,

Like everyone today, we have many sales openings at our company. I asked my friends, colleagues, dealers, and designers who they might know who is good, or sometimes just who is looking for a job.

Recently, someone I know and trust referred me to an individual who used to work with them, who is currently unemployed and looking for a sales job. The friend who referred this person is someone I respect. When I reviewed the candidate's resume, I noticed they had been unemployed for at least six months in this hot job market, which seemed odd for a quality person. But since my friend and this candidate had worked together at a previous employer in different departments, it seemed like a great referral. Her strong endorsement heavily influenced my decision to invite the candidate for an interview.

I work for a large company with a thorough standard interview and hiring process. This candidate checked all our boxes, and we made the hire. Now, almost a year since we hired him, this person has turned out to be a total bust.

We hired him for an outside sales position, and it’s clear that his long job search was due to having too few existing relationships in the market and a poor understanding of what’s involved in outside sales. Frankly, I’m not even sure he likes or understands the product we sell or our dealers.

At the risk of looking a gift horse in the mouth, I circled back to my friend who recommended him, only to discover that she really liked him personally and that he needed a job. Now I feel #catfished! Not only did she completely change the narrative of the original reference—she was trying to do her former colleague a favor and ended up filling our position with an unqualified person.

How do you tell the difference between a good referral, a candidate who is truly qualified, and someone referred because a friend is trying to do them a favor or has their own agenda?


Catfished in Contract

Dear Catfish,

I completely understand your situation; it’s a story I’ve often heard. Sometimes regional managers or clients are thrilled to tell me about a fantastic candidate they found on their own, referred by someone they know. They love to boast to a recruiter about discovering this new “gem.” Then, six months later, they tell me it was the worst hire they ever made, leading them to terminate the person and hire a search firm (most do not even wait a year like you did!).

Interestingly, much like you, they blame the friend trying to do someone a favor by giving the lead and the referral. I’ve never heard someone call this a "catfish," but I understand why you think the term applies, and I kept it in because it is good clickbait!

Remember, the person who gives you the referral is not responsible for the hire you make. You are. This is not isolated to salespeople; I've seen executives in leadership positions who were way over their heads but were referred to company owners by influential people. Eventually, these individuals cost the company a fortune by being ineffective.

Never let a candidate's personal reference, or the referral of the person who gave it to you, no matter how much you respect that person, cloud your judgment about a candidate. Some of the best people in the industry refer the worst candidates because they can, and they like to do favors. It makes them feel important.

There's another aspect worth mentioning. Your friend who stuck you with a bad hire has damaged your relationship with her. I doubt you’ll ever trust her or think of her the same way again. Bad hires have a real cost to you and your company in time and money. And just wait until she needs a job sometime in the future and wants your help. As we say in New York: “fuhgeddaboudit.”

When it comes to hiring candidates, you need to make the judgment calls yourself and own them. Your interview process should also involve checking additional references beyond the person who made the referral, as well as internal evaluations, testing, and multiple interviews. We’ve all been in a situation where we know someone nice who we like and trust who has lost their job. It’s only human nature to want to help them, and you need to account for this in your evaluation of all referrals. So, for instance, you might have a great candidate applying for an outside sales job but in fact need to decide if they're better suited for an inside sales role.

I hope this explanation helps. You weren't catfished, you made your own mistake. You let a bigshot give you a referral and took their word for it rather than making your own judgment based on your interview process. Better luck next time.