Reference Checking & Your Job Search

You might be concerned about your references for a variety of reasons–uncertainty about what former employers will say, how they’ll say it, whether anyone might respond to inquiries with a negative reference, and so on. Especially if you left your last position under less than ideal circumstances–either voluntarily or involuntarily for reasons you weren’t happy about, you might have genuine reasons for concern.

References–What You Can Control & What You Can’t

To start with, you can provide potential employers with a list of references that includes people who know your work and respect what you’ve accomplished–and, of course, have indicated their willingness to act as a reference for you. That much you can control.

What you can’t control is factors such as the prospective employer’s reference checker going beyond the list you’ve provided to contact other people at your former employer whom you haven’t asked as references and who might have undesirable comments to make about you or your work. Because employers know you’re only going to provide references that will speak favorably about you, they can tend to view your list with a dose of skepticism and want to dig deeper and wider.

In today’s litigious society, companies have gotten more cautious about giving references that could open them up to a lawsuit. That doesn’t mean, unfortunately, that you’re home-free if you had an unsatisfactory departure for some reason. It’s possible, for instance, for someone to respond like this: “Oh, yes, he/she worked here as a [position title] from 2012 to 2015.” It looks innocuous enough in print, but if said in a tone of voice that indicates lack of enthusiasm about you or maybe even hints at actual dissatisfaction with your work, the damage could be done without your ever knowing it.

Can you control that? Not really, at least not much. One obvious course is to line up a few references who can provide information that’s solidly grounded in fact and that clearly demonstrates the stellar record you’ve achieved while working with or for them. Nice-sounding but basically general reference responses won’t cut it in this case.

Reference Checking that “Blows It”

My old “friend,” Nick Corcodillos of Ask The Headhunter (he actually doesn’t know who I am; I just like his style and refer to him frequently), made some typically blunt comments about reference checking in a recent blog post, titled “Incompetent reference checking.” Among other things, he states:
“Asking for references seems dumb because it has been made trivial; so trivial that companies routinely outsource reference checks rather than do it themselves. (See Automated Reference Checks: You should be very worried.) They’re going to judge you based on a routine set of questions that someone else asks a bunch of people on a list. How ludicrous is that?”

If you want a hair-curling read, check out the entire article!

Although I think what he says makes sense in many ways, I’m going to diverge from it to say that I still recommend your having a reputable reference checking service do a test run for you if you have any reason to think people at your former employer might bad-mouth you in some way. The service I’m familiar with (used by many of my colleagues or their clients) is Alison & Taylor. However, there might be others that are worth checking out.

Is there any easy answer to this dilemma? Unfortunately, I don’t know of one. If you find a solution to the reference checking aspect that’s fool-proof for you and your job search, I’d love to hear it and maybe pass it along to my clients!

Background Check Tip

A client recently brought this subject up because of an experience she has had that made her wonder whether something that was actually pretty innocent might boomerang on her in her job search. If you are in a job search now or considering one, this is something you should seriously put some thought into. Otherwise, an item in your past that you never even thought of being concerned about might smack you in the face when you least expect it. In a job search, that’s especially not a good thing.

Why Background Checks Should Concern You

My client had a short sale of her home a few years ago. That’s something that has happened to a LOT of people over the past several years, since the housing market and the economy started skidding south in a huge way. Figures I’ve seen suggest that a large proportion of homeowners today have mortgages that are “under water” (the home is worth less–sometimes substantially less–than they still owe). If the homeowner loses his or her job and can’t keep up the mortgage payments until the situation might have a chance to improve, a short sale could become the only viable option.

Caution: If you’re in that boat, make sure you talk with a highly reputable and respected real estate broker about it; sharks and vultures can spot an easy mark from miles away. I’m no lawyer, so I don’t know all the ins and outs of a short sale, but I looked the subject up online, and it seems that a short sale can impact your credit record but not as much as a foreclosure. (If you’re interested, here’s an informative article about short sales versus foreclosures.)

How does this relate to background checks when you’re in a job search? If a prospective employer runs a background check on you–or, more likely, hires an outside service to do it–a foreclosure could cost you the job opportunity. I’m not sure a short sale would have that same effect, but you might want to check to make sure.

What Would A Background Check Show about You?

If you are concerned about your situation and can afford it, the wisest course of action could be to pay a reputable service to run the check on you, just as an employer would do. That will tell you what employers are going to see and could give you an opportunity to take steps to offset the impact. Try to find out at what point a prospective employer is likely to initiate a background check on you. Maybe you can find a way to take the initiative and let the employer know you have had an issue in the past but have worked past that and are back on track.

For example, if you or your spouse lost a job–or both of you did, which is not unheard of–that could have compounded the economic problems our whole country has been experiencing. It doesn’t necessarily suggest that you are a poor risk as an employee! You want to impress upon prospective employers that you have great value to offer and are enthusiastic about the possibility of doing that at their company, in the job you are applying for. If your record of contributions at previous employers is strong, that’s what you want to emphasize, because that’s much more relevant to the prospective employer than an innocent glitch in your background check.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m only familiar with one company that runs background checks: Allison & Taylor. They also do a lot of reference checking, and you can hire them to do that for you as well. According to their website, their fee for background checking is $99; for reference checking it’s $79. However, you might want to research online and see who else provides similar services, then do a comparison of what they offer and what kind of reputation they have, before you decide.

Automated Reference Checking–It’s Not Your Friend

Whoa! This is not good news for job seekers! The whole situation of references and reference checking has recently started getting a lot more troublesome for you as a job seeker while it’s making life much easier for corporate recruiters and their employers. As you know, I’m inclined to be an optimist, but this development is challenging my inclination because it’s weighted so heavily in favor of employers and against job seekers.

Automated Reference Checking–Too Early

A recent article on talks about Pre-Hire 360, software that enables employers to check your references before they even decide whether to schedule you for a face-to-face interview. The article indicates that more than 50% of companies who use this software do it after the initial phone screen so they can winnow down the number of candidates they need to bring in. That means if your references aren’t stellar from start to finish, you could be forced out of the running early on–much sooner than you might have been before automated reference checking software existed. What’s even worse is that you might never know it had happened.

Bad References Too Easy to Give Now

Companies used to be very careful, as a rule, about how they responded to requests for references, mainly because they were scared about possible lawsuits. Many companies have a policy that basically only allows people to give “name, rank and serial number” on former employees. However, that apparently no longer applies when they’re using automated reference checking software, which allows anonymous responses. Jeffrey Wade, with Anchor Planning Group, an executive recruiting firm, noted that “without the threat of being identified…references tend to be brutally frank about their colleagues, yielding much more useful information.” Useful to whom? The prospective employer, of course–certainly not to you as the would-be employee!

How Many References Do You Need and When?

As if that weren’t enough, you might now be asked/expected to supply more references than in the past. We used to say 3 to 5 (with 5 being preferable if you have them). Now some companies are requiring a minimum of 5 references, which they expect you to provide immediately following the phone screen, and at least 2 of those have to be past or present managers.

Also, we used to recommend not providing your references until after you had a chance to see that the employer was seriously interested (i.e., after you had an in-person interview). That way your references wouldn’t get pestered by a bunch of companies that might have no real intention of hiring you. However, the way the automated reference checking system is described in the article, it enables employers to check all the references you provide and to do it early.

Automated Reference Checking–What are Your Options?

Right now, the only one I see that’s potentially viable is to:

  1. Make an effort to acquire enough references so you can provide 5 to each employer who asks for them, without necessarily giving your entire list to any employer.
  2. Warn your references they might be contacted by employers you’re targeting and directed to respond via an automated reference checking system.
  3. Double-check with your references as to what they’re likely to say about you anonymously. Then try to weed out any that don’t sound as enthusiastic about you as you would like!

[Note: The article mentioned in this post can be found on; however, you have to register (which is free) in order to get access to it.]