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Reference checking: I thought they weren’t allowed to say that

What’s your understanding of the reference checking process? If you’re like most managers and job seekers, you probably think former employers are only allowed to confirm previous employment dates and title. Certainly they cannot, and will not, offer negative commentary about workers as it would be a violation of corporate policy—and perhaps it is illegal as well.

If this is your assumption, you would do well to think again. 

While it’s true that many companies have reference policies in place that prohibit them from giving out anything but limited, prescribed information, many do not, says Allison & Taylor Reference Checking, a firm that has been checking references for corporations and individuals since 1984. Additionally, even companies with reference policies in place cannot ensure that their employees will necessarily abide by such rules. 

As a consequence, while countless job seekers feel secure in the idea that a former employer will only provide their position title and dates of employment, there’s a very good chance that former employers may offer considerably more than this—including unfavorable commentary that may ensure a person is not hired again anytime soon.

Here are some actual examples of reference responses documented by Allison & Taylor:

We would like to verify that (the candidate) held the position (title) from (dates), is this correct?

  • “He was an account executive, not a Senior V.P.”
  • “His name doesn’t ring a bell.”
  •  “I am not allowed to say anything about this person as they were fired.”

Some references will refuse to rank a past employee due to an unfavorable impression:

  • “No comment. They could not do anything correctly in the position they held with us.”
  • “Let’s save time. Basically, you could rank them inadequate in all areas.”

When questioned about strengths and weaknesses:

  • “I cannot think of any strengths, only weaknesses.”
  •  “Weaknesses seem to stick in my mind. I’d have to really think about any strengths.”
  • “I’d rather not comment. You can take that however you want.”

Regarding eligibility for rehire: Is this person eligible for rehire?

  • “He is not. I’m really not supposed to say much but he was unreliable and sick a lot.”
  •  “No, but I can’t say why.”
  • “No, it was the departure – kind of burned his bridges when he left.”
  • “No, she stole from the company. We have an investigation pending.”

When asked about the reason for employment separation: Could you fully describe the circumstances and reason for the separation?

  • “She was fired.”
  • “She was let go. She didn’t do her part as expected.”
  •  “I fired him! He and his buddy had some illegal things going.”
  •  “It was a rather delicate and awkward situation. You should call her other past employers. I made the mistake of not doing that.”

Responses to questions about performance: References are asked to rank skills on a scale from 1 (inadequate) to 5 (outstanding):

  • Oral Communications: “Can I give a negative number … -1”?
  • Financial Skills: “Well, that’s why our company had a major layoff – left her in charge of finances!”
  • Written Communications: “You mean when she finally turned in the reports due a week earlier??”
  • Technical Skills: “Is zero in your rating scale?”
  • Interpersonal Relations: “He had a problem with a few of the people. I should have ended the relationship just after he started.”
  • Productivity: “Is there a rating less than inadequate?”
  • Employee Relations: “There was a lot of he said/ she said happening with other employees. And other than her leaving, nothing else has changed. We haven’t had any problems since then, so we know she was the source of the problem.”
  • Decision Making: “He couldn’t make a decision if his life depended on it!”
  • Leadership: “He had no leadership skills.”
  • Crisis Management: “He [fireman] totally ignored the emergency call when it came in. He said he didn’t hear it!”
  • Short Term Planning: “Lousy – I can’t remember something that was completed on time!”
  • Personal Integrity: “I don’t think she had any integrity.”
  • Long Term Planning: “He wasn’t here long enough to rate him.”
  • Overall Performance: “Inadequate would be a positive word for him!”
  • Managerial Skills: “He couldn’t manage a group of children!”

It is not uncommon to contact a reference and find them hesitant, evasive or annoyed by the call. Sometimes tone of voice and inflection speak volumes – many express anger, shock, unhappiness or disbelief that they have been called regarding the employee.

We are calling you as a reference regarding (the candidate).

  • “I do not care to comment at all. I let him go and that’s all I care to say!”
  • “Are you certain he gave you my name?”
  •  “Hold on, let me get the legal file to see what I am allowed to say.”
  •  “I’m surprised she even listed us on her work history.”

Allison & Taylor estimates that 50 percent of their references come back as lukewarm or negative, which is something to keep in mind when you check the references of potential hires—or conduct your own job search.

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