Job Hunting

Find Out What References Are Really Saying about You

Employers, recruiters, and background-screening firms are checking out job candidates more thoroughly than ever. Be upfront with potential employer...
Barbara MendeDecember 23, 2004

Keith O’Rourke of Reno, Nevada, was concerned about the references he’d get from his last employer, a small start-up in the San Francisco Bay Area, where he did sales and operations management.

“I reported to the [vice president] of finance and had a good relationship with her, but I had a
personality conflict with the owner,” he says. “So I wasn’t sure what the VP
would say when people called [to ask] her about why I left the company” To find
out, O’Rourke hired, a Philadelphia reference-checking
firm, to call the vice president and ask for a reference on him. The comments
turned out to be good. With a lighter conscience, O’Rourke found a sales
position and moved to Reno.

O’Rourke’s concern
isn’t unusual. Employers, recruiters and background-screening firms are checking
out job candidates very thoroughly these days. Three-fourths of companies
surveyed this year say they check applicants’ criminal, employment and
educational histories, while nearly two-thirds contacted references, reports
Human Resource Executive magazine. Asked how their screening programs had
changed over the past three years, 64 percent noted that requirements had been
increased or enhanced.

Greater concern about
security since September 11, 2001, and publicity about corporate executives and
professional sports coaches who faked credentials have prompted the increased
scrutiny, says Lester Rosen, president of Employment Screening Resources (ESR),
a background-checking company in Novato, California. The Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002
also requires employers to assume greater accountability for new hires.

The recent employer’s
market also has allowed companies to be more choosy, says Richard Taylor, chief
executive officer of Taylor-Rodgers & Associates, a Stamford, Connecticut,
executive-recruiting firm. And it’s a good thing, too. “We’re seeing
unbelievable scams, like people hacking into an educational institution’s system
and changing the records,” Taylor says.

Levels of Reference-Checking

Technology has made the
process easy, notes Lisa Gallagher, operations vice president of HireRight Inc.,
an Irvine, California, screening firm. “It’s so much less expensive now than it was
in the past that it’s foolish not to do a background check on everyone,” she

Employers may verify
employment, education, credit and criminal records as well as contact
references. Much of this work is outsourced. Providers range from The Work
Number, a St. Louis database company that helps employers verify employment and
income of potential hires, to the attorney-led ESR, which conducts thorough
background checks and provides advice on such issues as compliance with
government rules. For instance, employers must get a candidate’s permission
before they can conduct background checks or outsource the process to a
screening firm.

Many companies will verify
only former employees’ dates of employment, position and salary. But reference
checkers try to circumvent this policy. “I can’t simply tell a client I talked
to the head of HR and confirmed that [someone] worked there,” says Taylor,
who checks references and writes a subsequent report for his clients.

One way to get around this
barrier is to heed what references are really saying while appearing to adhere
to the policies, says Heidi Allison, managing director of Allison & Taylor Inc.,
a background and reference-checking company in Rochester, Michigan. “They’ll say,
‘Are you sure she gave you my name?’ or “Check his references very, very
carefully,” or ‘Hang on, let me get the legal file,’ ” she says. Employers who
like former employees and want to help them find other jobs will break company
policy, as will employers who dislike past employees and don’t want to see them
rehired, she says. A former manager who sticks to the bare facts “probably
doesn’t have anything good to say,” says Gallagher.

Taylor says he asks
candidates for a list of references and then asks those people for other names.
And if a candidate doesn’t give him permission to conduct a background check,
“the alarm bell goes off,” he says.

Screening Top Executives

Allison says references
are more likely to provide negative information for higher-level jobs, although
she isn’t sure why.

Employers appear to trust
what top-level candidates say about their backgrounds and don’t always check
them thoroughly, says Rosen. “The higher up people are in a corporation, the
less likely they are to be screened,” he says. “There’s a country-club attitude
that says that where a person is being hired at a VP or C-level, it’s just
impolite to do background screening.”

The country-club mentality
can hinder reference checking at that level, especially if a hiring manager does
background research personally. “If I’m a CEO and fairly well networked, I’ll
trust my own list of contacts more than anyone else,” says William Bliss,
president of Bliss & Associates, Inc., a leadership-consulting firm in Wayne, New Jersey For instance, a CEO might ignore a prepared list of contacts in favor of
cold-calling connections in the candidate’s old company.

Be Upfront with Employers

People who left a job on
poor terms sometimes avoid disclosing the name of their prior managers. This
rarely works. It’s better to manage the process by explaining what happened,
says Taylor. Recruiters understand that most executives have mismatches at
some point in their careers. “I ask candidates whom they reported to,” he says.
“If they don’t give me that name, I ask what happened.”

If you’re worried about
your references, you can dilute negative issues by preparing a diversified
reference list. Taylor says he asks for seven to 10 names — two to three
supervisors, two to three peers, two to three subordinates, and personal
references, although he may not call all of them.

If you anticipate a poor
reference, take pre-emptive steps by asking the manager, perhaps at the exit
interview, “When someone calls, what will you say?” Getting a letter of
reference, although few prospective employers are interested in them, is wise
because then your former manager has committed to a position in writing.

Conducting Your Own Check

Hiring a background firm to
check your references is a smart move, especially if you haven’t been receiving
offers, says Mr. Rosen. “If you’ve had great first interviews and can’t
understand why you’re reaching dead ends, it’s a valuable service,” he says. An
alternative is to ask a trusted friend to make some calls.

Knowing your rights also is
helpful. If a background-checking firm has screened you, you can request a copy
of your report from the firm, Rosen notes. If the report is negative, the
employer is legally required to send you a copy and a statement of your right to
contest it. “No one gets blacklisted without knowing about it,” he says. The
provision, however, doesn’t apply when employers do their screening in-house.

About half of the
references Allison’s firm investigates for job hunters are mediocre to
negative, often to the job hunter’s surprise, she says. “People they believe are
giving them a good reference are not,” she says, “and just as many who have
assumed they are getting a bad reference are not.”

Allison & Taylor charges
job hunters fees ranging from $69 for a basic reference-check to $99 for an
executive-level report, which includes what references say about the job
seeker’s strengths and weaknesses. Its approach is straightforward. “We simply
state that we are calling to do an employment verification and reference check,”
Allison explains. Typically, the reference assumes the caller is considering
hiring that person or has been retained by a prospective employer. (Allison &
Taylor also does background checks for employers.) The identity of the client is
never disclosed.

It’s unlikely you’ll learn
anything to justify a lawsuit, although former employees often suspect they’ll
find grounds, says Rosen. “A lawsuit costs a lot of money. No lawyer will
take it on contingency unless it’s really outrageous,” he says. “Then you become
the one on trial and have to prove you were a wonderful employee.”

Countering Negative Remarks

Determine what may be
causing your lack of offers. If there’s bad blood between you and an ex-boss,
tell interviewers you might not receive a good reference from this person but
can provide names of four other bosses who will.

Or, you might say, “He’s
not my best reference because we didn’t see eye to eye on some issues,” says
Ely. Be generally positive about this manager and brief and specific about your
differences. Ask the employer to also call your best references. You might say,
“If you call this person, please call XYZ as well,” he adds.

Rosen recommends being
up front with the potential employer. “If you lie or omit things, that’ll hurt
you,” he says. “Talk about why you can do the new job, and explain why it was a
mistake for you to have been in the last one. There’s no rule that says you have
the right to hide negative information.”

Reference-checking pros offer these additional tips:

  • Don’t delete negative
    experience from your resume. Most likely it will be discovered during a
    thorough background check, possibly after you are hired. In that case, you’ll
    likely be dismissed.
  • Keep references in the
    loop. Let them know the progress of your search and prepare them for possible
    calls. References who don’t know the types of jobs you’re seeking won’t be
    able to put you in the best light, he says.
  • Maintain good
    relationships with potential references. Call or email them periodically even
    when you don’t need anything. It’s awkward to ask someone you haven’t talked
    with in five years for a reference.

Barbara Mende is a freelance writer in Waltham, Massachusetts, who specializes in career issues.

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