The realities within reference checks

Editor’s note: Jeff Shane is president at employment verification firm Allison & Taylor, Rochester, Mich.

One has only to listen to the media for a reminder of the current strong job market. Employer starting salaries and work/balance accommodations have arguably never been better, and many organizations are practically begging for qualified new employees. And yet, countless job seekers with strong qualifications are falling short in efforts to gain new employment.

For many, there is an unknown, insidious disconnect – namely, their references.

Too many job seekers make erroneous assumptions about what their former employers can (and will) say when contacted by prospective new employers. Some of these assumptions include:

Job application reference section

Assumption: Companies don’t say anything negative about a former employee.

Reality: While many companies have policies dictating that only title, dates of employment and eligibility for rehire can be discussed, their employees at both the supervisory and HR level frequently violate such policies. Due to human nature, providing a reference may be an emotional call for some. How about the boss with whom you had philosophical differences or the supervisor who sexually harassed you? Maybe a boss was just jealous of you? Approximately 57% of Allison & Taylor’s clients receive a bad reference, despite the strict policies in place.

Assumption: Negative comments can’t be made about former employees because corporations direct reference check requests to their HR departments  

Reality: Most human resources professionals will follow proper protocol. However, in many states it is perfectly legal for an HR representative to state that “No, they are not eligible for rehire.” Or, “They were fired/terminated under adverse circumstances.” Any prospective employer hearing this is unlikely to call you back. Fortunately, there are recourses available if this is happening to you.

Assumption: No one would know I left off a former boss from my reference list.

Reality: Many companies check references without informing you. They utilize social media forums such as LinkedIn to review your background. Also, you will eventually be asked, “May we contact your former supervisor?” If you decline, it will be a red flag to potential employers who are unlikely to move forward with your application.

Assumption: References are not important once hired. 

Reality: Many employment agreements/contracts include a stipulation that says the employer can terminate you without cause within a 90-day probation period. Not only are they evaluating your job performance but, in some instances, are also checking your background and references. During this time, your new employer may call your former places of employment and, should the feedback be less than desired, they have the legal right to fire you.

Assumption: Former employers are not allowed to comment if legal action was taken.

Reality: They may not be able to comment anything definitive, but do not put it past them to carefully take a shot at you. There have been plenty of instances where a former boss or an HR employee has said, “Hold on a minute while I get the legal file to see what I am allowed to say about this former employee.” Also, it is not at all uncommon for employers to violate severance agreements that may be in place. Ultimately, many employers are uncomfortable hiring someone who has a legal history, perhaps dashing your job prospects.