Some answers to questions on reference checking


Lately, I've been receiving a number of questions about job-hunting and reference checking, in particular. Here is a sample:

Dear Joan:
What can a company say in a reference? Will they badmouth you if you've been fired?

Skilled reference checkers will ask legal questions that probe at certain issues, such as, "Is this person eligible for rehire?" They know what they can ask to determine things such as whether the person was fired, what their job duties were, authority levels, work habits, and relationships.

Most employers are quite careful about what they say during a reference check. In fact, some are so cautious, they insist on completing a written reference, rather than engage in a phone conversation with a stranger (who might misinterpret what is said). Or, they'll take their phone number and call them back to make certain they are who they say they are. It is becoming quite common for an employer to only give out the basic facts such as employment dates and job title. Unfortunately, companies are so worried about getting sued that they often have policies that prohibit anyone except the human resources department from taking reference requests. It's too bad employers now fear the sharing of information about potential employees.

Dear Joan:
If I was fired, can I keep another employer from checking my references at my former employer?

Most employers will want to speak with your former employer. Here are some ways to do some damage control: Call your former employer's human resources department (or the manager, if there is no HR department) and ask them if they will work with you on drafting a statement that they will use when providing a reference on you. When you call, be ready to say something such as, " I know this didn't work out but I'm sure you wouldn't want to ruin my chances of getting another job. As you know, I was a good individual performer but it wasn't a good match when we switched to a team situation. Would you be willing to share the good parts of my performance and draft a factual statement together?"

Another approach is to provide references from other places you've worked. However, they will still probably attempt to contact your last employer. If they do, you run the risk of looking worse if you haven't mentioned what happened. In fact, I know of a situation where a job offer was taken back because the new employer found out the person was fired, but hadn't mentioned it.

A better approach is to be straightforward about what happened. However, this requires careful rehearsal. For instance, it might sound appropriate to say, "My last job was not a fit because I was ill -suited for that kind of technical work. My boss and I tried very hard to force a fit but it just didn't work. I now know what I'm best at and what I want to do. I learned an important lesson I can apply to my future."

Dear Joan:
I was fired, so how do I rebuild my reputation?

In a case like this, it may be best to work with a staffing company who can find you employment.
Kristin Graham, Staffing Supervisor of Accountants Preferred, a division of ProStaff, agrees, "We can act as a liaison for the person and speak on behalf of that employee. For instance, we can convince the employer to take a chance on a person because we've had an opportunity to get to know the person, see them in a new situation and can speak for that person's character."

Dear Joan:
Who should I use as a reference?

Your best bet is to match your references to the job for which you are applying. Ideally, there are a number of people who have seen your work. They may be former managers, peers and even colleagues outside the organization. Typically, three references are enough. You should type out their names, companies, titles, and phone numbers on a piece of stationary, which also has your name on it (in case the references are separated from your file). Character references such as neighbors, serve little purpose and are less desirable than former employers.

Dear Joan:
How should I use my references?

Always ask permission to use someone as a reference. If the employer calls and the person on your list is surprised, it won't look very professional to the employer (and it sure won't make your reference very happy either).

I have found that references like it when you call them before they are likely to be contacted, just to give them a "heads up" about the potential call. They want to hear about the job, the company and how the interview went. At this point in my own job hunts, I always briefed them on the kinds of questions they were likely to get. I also told them about any perceived weakness my interviewers might want to probe. By collaborating with my references, they were fully prepared when the call came through. 

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616,, or 
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