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Discerning a Reference By Ed Fry

Christian Leadership allianceDiscerning a reference can be a two-edged sword.

By Ed Fry ~

Reference checking is a common component of most search processes. It is often one of the final steps taken before a candidate is selected for a position and as such, there is a tendency to treat this function as a formality. Through years of experience and quite a bit of practice, I have learned that this is a mistake.

As Christians, we are called to be discerning as we navigate through all areas of life. As such, a high level of discernment should be exercised throughout the entire search process. Be prudent as you review written references—all too often ambiguous phrases that are meant to be favorable are perceived otherwise. Conversely, there are occasions when ambiguity is used to feign praise without being directly critical. Consider these examples:

  • “I’ve never worked with a person as good as John.”
  • “Mary is a very interesting leader.”
  • “I can’t say enough good things about Mark.”
  • “If I had the right role, I’d definitely hire Lisa again.”
  • “I can’t think of anything critical to say about Howard.”
  • “Doris was one of the better managers with whom I worked at Memorial Hospital.”

These types of phrases should be yellow flags for astute reference takers, who should then probe further to determine whether the reference is praising or has concerns about the candidate.

“But examine everything carefully, hold fast to that which is good; abstain from every form of evil” (1 Thessalonians 5:21-22).

Do not be afraid to dig a little deeper, ask questions and speak candidly with references. Failure to clearly interpret references may result in an unfavorable appointment.

Responsible leaders understand that the ability to differentiate between a positive and negative reference is key to selecting the right candidate just as the ability to differentiate between good and evil is essential to living an uncompromising life.


Ed Fry is the CEO of Faithsearch Partners where he assists faith-based organization boards and executive teams in securing mission-minded leaders.

2016.OutcomesAOSharpen your Biblical perspective and skills in the area people management by enrolling in the Fall Session of the Outcomes Academy – Online. This Fall, Carolyn B. Thompson, the president of Training Systems, Inc. will facilitate  Biblical Foundations for People Care & Management . Check out this module and all the others offered this session.

Last day to register is September 26, 2016.



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Christian Leadership Alliance equips and unites leaders to transform the world for Christ. We are the leaders of Christ-centered organizations who are dedicated to faithful stewardship for greater kingdom impact.

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