Ignore social proof at your peril when hiring staff or suppliers

Sue Parker

DARE Group Australia founder Sue Parker. Source: supplied.

Hiring new staff or suppliers can be risky business at the best of times. There are never any guarantees, but without discernment and due diligence the risks increase exponentially. 

Small and medium sized businesses are particularly vulnerable if a new hire or supplier is a dud and doesn’t deliver as anticipated or promised; the impact on reputation, time, revenue, morale and productivity can be immense. Yet many duds can be avoided by diving below the surface of the iceberg of social proof and testimonials.  

What we see on the water surface is only 10% of an iceberg; the remaining 90% is below holding the structural foundation.   

In metaphorical terms, let’s say the top 10% is the visible part of a person’s character and personality. While both are subjective, for the most part I think we can agree on the distinction between the two. For example, some people display a strong business ethic, never being deceitful in any way, but they have a dullish personality. Conversely there are others who ooze vibrancy and confidence, but they have the commercial ethics of an alley cat.

Of course neither combination exists in a vacuum, so I am not suggesting good morals coincide with dull personalities, or vice versa. Nor am I suggesting everything we see on the surface is going to be replicated below.

What I am suggesting is the shinier personalities and digital social proof footprints are a big factor in how we judge that surface 10% of the iceberg. And therein is part of the reason so many poor decisions are made: no time is devoted to the 90%.

‘Know, like and trust’ is flawed 

At the front end of decision making rhetoric is the cliché of buying and hiring people we ‘know, like and trust’. The idiom is overused and rarely thought through.

For a start, we cannot like someone unless we know them. But you can know someone without liking them. So let’s just ditch the ‘know’ shall we. And it is human nature to want to trust people we like as a protection default for our ability to judge. But trust is quite elusive and we see time and time again, in business and in relationships, how trust has been totally unfounded. And there are without doubt particular industry sectors that take duplicitous advantage of market demand and needs (the financial and digital sectors, to name a few).    

Dr Simon Longstaff of The Ethics Centre was interviewed this week on the ABCs Q&A. He described how transparency is about showing clearly everything you are doing without hiding. Trust, on the other hand, is based on a belief that you will do what you say you will, and actions will match your words, even when unseen.  

So when we are reviewing social proof and testimonials, the intersection of transparency and trust, coupled with due diligence, is vital to consider.

This is the key to minimising risk. There are silver platters of data and information on Google and LinkedIn, but you need to carefully and judicially navigate these spaces with a vigilant and open mind.

Many ‘ostensible’ influencers and questionable characters continue to ramp up their social proof illusion, and with time in short supply for many SMEs, most don’t dig below the surface. And it goes without saying that if you cannot find anyone these days on LinkedIn or Google then it’s a big worry.

Here are a few pointers and tips to getting this right. 

Hiring staff

Never be seduced by just the confident personality of a candidate. Remember the big bungle by Myer in 2014 when it was discovered the business hired a senior executive who was not who he seemed?

He was no doubt a big talker, good interviewer and on the surface, had great references. But there was no LinkedIn or other digital footprint, which is a tell-tale sign. But more so, his references were a total sham. No one spent time checking who these international references were. No one questioned or researched or double checked.  

Keep these tips front of mind next time you are hiring:

  1. Reference check the referees if you don’t know of them. Are they credible, do you know people who know them? After owning a recruitment agency for 11 years I guarantee these tips saved my clients grief. Never just call someone and accept they are trustworthy. 
  2. If you engage a recruiter, use one that is either an industry or vocation specialist. They will know who is who in the zoo and how to flesh out proof quickly.
  3. Listen for and encourage the ‘word on the ground’ informal chat. (And no it’s not illegal; it gives golden information, and nuance. 
  4. Humour and permission are great ways to put the referee at ease and share without fear. No one is 100% perfect so giving the referee permission that they don’t need to give you an Oscar-winning speech of the candidate can moves mountains. A bit like Andrew Denton’s interview style on his television show Enough Rope! 
  5. Think of the prism of testimonials from employers, colleagues and clients as a mosiac. Get a mosaic and observe and reflect patterns. 
  6. Reflect on bad feedback. Often someone’s valid opinion/experience is given through their own prism of bias and personal relationships. So you may get a bad rap from a legitimate referee but that just means you need to do at least another two reference checks to verify and put a full mosaic together to ensure there is no overall bias. Again, take a view over on LinkedIn of who knows whom.
  7. Tone and persuasion is important. It’s not just what is said that matters, but how, and if and when the referee makes those gulps and pregnant pauses. It also goes for both sides; the way you ask “would you ever employ xyz again” in a relevant cadence can lead to a whole different outcome. 


New suppliers

Many of the tips above also apply when checking out the validity of testimonials for suppliers. 

  1. On LinkedIn, all that glitters may not be gold. Do not be swayed by large metrics of followers and engagement. It may or may not be true indicator of trust or depth of industry expertise. Unfortunately there are a sizeable number of LinkedIn members in enforced engagement pods and who are buying followers, likes and even testimonials. Yes you read right — hundreds of testimonials of fluff and nonsense to give the impression the person is an expert. 
  2. Consider their body of work. Really read blogs and consider how their knowledge is evidenced. Saying you are an expert is different to demonstrating that. Depth of content is a window. 
  3. How transparent are they? How easy is it to contact them and do they fully disclosure who they are? Photographs, mobile numbers, email addresses. Watch for signs that things don’t always add up.  
  4. Finally, check the circles of common networks. Look like friends giving friends hiring references. Valid testimonials come from people who have engaged or used the services of the supplier directly and can vouch for expertise; anything else is either fake or a network or character reference. When the wire comes down to it, you are not sourcing a business to be mates with, you are looking for them to deliver outcomes for your business.


There are so many brilliant suppliers, partners and staff to bring into your business in 2020. But discernment is key; these are important decisions and ones worth spending time diving below the icy surface to get right.

NOW READ: “My early decisions were rooted in fear”: How good hires can set small business owners free

NOW READ: How to write the perfect job advertisement


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