Bad References Equal Career Disaster

With the escalating emphasis on quality hiring, not to mention the increased thought to internal security, employers are becoming more careful in checking references of new hires or potential new hires. There is even a whole new industry that has sprung up just to service that HR function – outsourced reference checks and background investigations. Up until a few years ago, most candidates could expect a drug test as a condition of hire, but now days, candidates can expect the full platter of checks – drug test, background check, reference check, and credit check. And these are done on hourly wage earners, too, not just management. Employers have discovered it is cheaper in the long run to make sure the selected candidate is a good hire up front rather than finding out later after spending thousands of training dollars.

As a former recruiter, I have checked references. In particular, I remember one candidate who was an absolute perfect fit on paper for the job I was sourcing. He had the right skills, the right amount of experience, background in the correct project areas the employer was seeking – everything looked great. He interviewed beautifully. He had a good personality; he was relaxed; and he knew his stuff as far as skills went. I was excited about finding a good candidate that I could present to the employer. I gave the employer a heads up that I had a good candidate but I wanted to vet his references before I sent him to them for an interview. The employer was anxious to get the position filled and they insisted I send this candidate on to them. Against my better judgment, I agreed to send him on for them to meet while I got busy checking references. It was a bad call.

Checking references isn’t just calling the names of the people the candidate provides. Reference checking involves calling former employers and talking with them. It is calling people in my personal network who may have worked with the person or who could connect me with someone who has. Checking references does involve calling the people who the person lists but then asking those people for different references or people recruiters call “developed references”.

I was working on developed references of this stellar candidate when I started getting some red flags. First of all, the listed references weren’t as enthusiastic as such people usually are and they were eager to give me contact information for other people the candidate had worked with whom he had not listed on his application (it sounded like they were passing the buck). As I started to dig and talk to developed references, I started to get more candor and less hesitation in the information that was forthcoming. It seems the candidate was not only not well liked, but seemed to be something of a terrific con-man. When I talked to former supervisors of him, they would give me the standard “I can only confirm the dates he worked here and what his function was.” Like any good detective, I would try to dig out some further info from his supervisors and what they said in their tone of voice, the hesitations in specific places in their sentences, and just their overall attitude started to speak volumes to me. Something was definitely not right with this candidate.

I pulled his background check and credit check and found that he had been arrested for writing bad checks the previous year but the charges had been dropped after restitution had been made. He had failed to mention this on his application. His credit check showed he had very poor credit with lots of bad debt just written off against him that he had not attempted to settle or pay.

The credit and background checks alone would have caused me to hesitate, but I would have proceeded with caution. Everyone falls on hard times at some time in their lives. He could have lots of reasons for having bad credit. However, all that info coupled with the references immediately eliminated the candidate from my consideration. Unfortunately, the candidate was a great interviewer and he looked really good on paper. So good, in fact, that I had considered him as a strong potential placement.

The employer also thought he was a good candidate. They had liked him in the interview just as I had. As a recruiter, though, I had to keep up my reputation for placing excellent candidates and I had to eat crow with the employer, apologize for sending them an unvetted candidate against my better judgment, and reduce my fee slightly to compensate for wasting their time.

Bad references will kill your job search. If you are moving through your industry leaving a trail of destruction, it will catch up with you. If you have a fake degree or an arrest record, it will be uncovered by potential employers and recruiters. Think now about what you are doing. Good careers are built on solid foundations and if you aren’t building a sound foundation, your house will fall eventually.


  1. rparker on July 25, 2006 at 9:03 am

    I believe this to be very true however the best way a leaving employee can move the ball into their court is to have their superior write a “testemonial letter” whereby any future employer just read the document instead of having them play the risky game of calling your old employer.

  2. KL on May 30, 2009 at 12:11 am

    OK – so you discovered all the cons of this individual’s character, you discovered that their credit was crap (which is interesting as some companies think nothing of using their employees as a line of credit) and that they are a failed human being.

    So knowing that this person will possibly have difficulty finding work didn’t you think it might have been an idea to tell them how to change their behaviours?

    I have someone in my past who is making problems for me and quite frankly it is fifteen years since I worked for them and yet still recruitment agents think this person’s word is gospel.

    My fifteen years of good work is meaningless in comparison to the power of a bad or questionable reference – nobody has ever told me what perceived crime I commited.

    As far as a testimonial letter is concerned – they will ignore it.

  3. Jason Alba on June 1, 2009 at 12:12 pm

    @rparker – getting a testimonial letter is a great way to go… especially getting multiple testimonials.

    @KL – from my experience, companies who are doing background checks do not want to give any feedback to candidates… it’s just easier to not get involved for legal reasons (whether they are real legal reasons, or perceived legal reasons).

    At my last company, when we got a call to verify work references, we were instructed to send the call to Payroll, who could ONLY verify whether the person worked there or not during the times stated. That’s it – no other information.

    There is a website that allows you to figure out what people are saying about you – it is quite inexpensive and the company provides a report – that way you can find out if a company is doing something possibly illegal, precluding you from getting a job – learn more here:

    (I should note, it looks like this post is about 3 years old… I didn’t write it, but I am working on the blog now, that’s why I’m responding to it)

  4. Tom on November 8, 2009 at 10:53 am

    What your article proves here is that if you really want to find out the background of a candidate, you should just go straight and do a background check on that candidate.

    Human talks and acts can sometime ruin a good candidate and his/her live.

    Companies are afraid of bad candidates. But, candidates are even more afraid of horrible, corrupted, and unfair managers and supervisors.

    I worked for 2 companies. I was laid off recently by my 2nd company. I gone through interviews with 7 managers, supervisor, and etc with my new potential company. They checked my background, my employment, and my education. Everything is excellent. They also talked to my references in my 1st company. Everything also looks excellent. The company also extended a potential offer to me.

    Then, my 2nd company which is a disaster I can describe it as. The manager there is irresponsible, corrupted, the boss is like drunk during conference meetings. They put me through different teams under different managers in less than a year without asking my permission.

    Then, my potential company forced me to give my most recent ex-manager’s contact. I asked one of the managers from the 2nd company, who seems to be better than the other, to be my reference and he said it is ok for him to be my reference, but he will tell whoever that calls him that I didn’t work with him for very long. I didn’t want to give out his contact. But, I have no choice. Then you know what happened? Something, I am still in shock. This manager disappeared into thin air. Not picking up phones, not replying emails. I asked other ex co-worker, he is still working there and not on vacation. What he did just completely sabotage my job opportunity. My potential company is feeling completely suspicious of me.

    I have not done one thing that is wrong. But, I am in such a difficult situation just because some companies have these horrible, irresponsible managers.

    I think I need to take off this company from my resume. But, please recruiter trust those REAL electronic copies from background check and verifications, and stop believing those completely random human behaviors and talks.

    Please recruiters stop getting developed references. Candidates might not have their permissions to be a reference. It is just so disrespectful to candidates. Let me ask you something, Can you 100% sure that everyone around you like you? Can you guarantee that everyone you speak to is not lying? Is everyone you know a good person? Can you possibly talk to everyone in a candidate’s ex-company? What if you happen to be talking to a group of people who just like to gossip and spread rumors to hurt others.

    People are so contradicting themselves. They cannot trust one human being, but they are going to listen to more other human beings in order to think if they can trust the first one. Just stop these stupid acts already and open your eyes and look at all those LEGAL AND REAL background checks to determine.

Leave a Comment