The Five Essentials of Reference Checking

By Susan Oliver
42 Hammond Street, Newport Rhode Island 02840

Job search not going well? Interviews, but no offers? If you are a job seeker, you know all too well that finding the right job can be a tedious and frustrating experience. Advice abounds on every aspect of the job search, from perfecting resumes to picking out the right outfit for the interview. You can also learn step by step how to discuss your previous employment history so that your skills and accomplishments are highlighted and your strengths identified. There is enough information available so that the average job hunter should be able to secure any job they set their sights on.

So why does all this effort succeed for some and not for others?

If you left your last interview thinking the job you spent so much time searching and meticulously preparing for was yours, only to be disappointed by a rejection letter or worse, no response at all, the reason could surprise you.

Remember that final piece of paper you handed your interviewer as you left? It was the one that listed your references. Did you check them? You can be sure that your prospective employer did and if you don’t know what your old bosses are saying about you, you could be handing your interviewers the one piece of information that will cost you your dream job.

"Some people believe companies don't check references. The word on the street is, `We can beef up our resumes and no one will find out,'" said Joel Goldberg, president of Aurico Reports, a company in Arlington Heights that provides pre-employment background screening, drug screening and business-to-business information services.

But with one-quarter of job applicants misrepresenting their achievements and experience on resumes and applications, employers have a compelling reason to check all references.

How many of us apply for car loans or mortgages without knowing exactly what our credit report will say? Too many job seekers send out their resumes without making sure that their references are accurate and positive and this one omission in the process costs them jobs.

According to Julia Chase, owner of a reference checking company for job hunters, a full 64% of all references checked by her company are either negative or indifferent. “People think that previous employers won’t give bad references, but they are wrong and a bad reference can, just like a bad apple ruin the bunch.”

Illinois' Employment Record Disclosure Act, passed in 1996, for example, gives qualified immunity to employers who provide bad references, according to attorney Craig Boggs of Matkov, Salzman, Madoff & Gunn, a law firm specializing in labor and employment issues. Other states have similar statues. "An employee can't sue a former employer for giving a negative reference even if it was a false statement, as long as it wasn't made in bad faith," Boggs explained.

"If a bad reference is truthful, a former employee has no recourse," added Shawn Collins, a senior partner with Naperville- based The Collins Firm.

So what can you do to remove this threat to your career? Check your references in advance; get copies of any formal evaluations in your file and request copies of all letters of recommendation before you send your resume.

Five Essentials for Reference Preparation:

One: If you are planning on leaving your current position, go to the Human Resources Department and ask exactly what the company policy is for providing references. You might be surprised to hear that your company has joined others such as Sprint and MCI who force prospective employers to pay for reference information. Not only do these companies refuse to provide details about your work performance, the minimal information they do provide (usually dates and title) is only given after payment by either credit card or 1-900 number. If you know in advance that this policy applies, you may be able to obtain your work history in writing before you leave your job. Not only will you know what your reference will say, you’ll also be saving a prospective employer both time and money.

Two: Request copies of all evaluations in your file. These evaluations are an excellent resource for job seekers who have worked for companies with a “No Comment” or “Date and Title Only” policy. If you have already left your previous position and would like copies of evaluations, call the Human Resources department to find out about their information release policy. You’ll find that many companies will accommodate your request as long as you sign a release.

Three: Ask your old boss directly if he/she will be willing to provide a reference for you. If your old boss says they agree to speak on your behalf, ask them to clarify their perception of your major accomplishments, your strengths and weaknesses. If you sense any hesitation in their answers, watch out! A good rule of thumb is if they can’t speak candidly with you about your work performance, then you have reason to suspect their opinion may be negative.

Four: Check to make sure all your references’ names and numbers are current. Keep tabs on old bosses you know will give you a good reference. Let’s look at a worst-case scenario: You list Tom, your former boss as a reference. You worked for him for fifteen years and not only does he understand your contributions to the company, you and he enjoyed a great rapport. What you don’t realize is that Tom has changed jobs and the person who replaced him is a former colleague of yours who didn’t like you very much. In this instance, your sure bet reference just turned into a wildcard.

Five: If you are worried that a former boss is giving you a bad reference, ask yourself first if it is warranted. If it is, do as much damage control as you can by addressing any areas of weakness in your skill sets. Take a class to improve your skills. Work on areas that you find to be a struggle. Once you have improved your skills, you can minimize the damage a bad reference will do. What interviewer wouldn’t appreciate having an employee with both the honesty and guts to evaluate themselves and then to take the necessary steps to improve their employability?

If you believe that you are getting an undeserved bad reference, there are things you can do. First, call your old boss and attempt to resolve any issues. If this doesn’t work or you are not comfortable doing so, hire a reference checking company like References-etc to check your references for you. These companies will discreetly check your references and provide you with a report that covers both what was said about you and the tone with which it was said. Once you receive the report, ask yourself if it is honest. If not, contact a lawyer right away. Slander laws vary slightly from state to state but a former employer cannot divulge information about you that is both false and malicious.

Taking these steps will ensure that your references accurately and positively reflect your work history. You’ll be free to walk into any job interview confident that no surprises can hurt your chances of securing your dream job, unless, of course you missed that piece of broccoli in your teeth…