By Heidi M. Allison
The word was out on Jim Walters. Someone was telling prospective employers that they shouldn't hire him. It cost him at least twelve top job offers, kept him unemployed for over a year, and more than $100,000 of his retirement fund.
Walters, not his real name, has since found work, but two years later he is still angry at his former boss for nearly ruining his life. Walters was able to stop his boss from spreading more lies, but he wonders how many other job seekers are not so fortunate.
"For months I suspected that my former boss was saying something about me. The problem was I didn't know what he was saying or how to prove it" said Walters, a former General Manager for a hotel.
Job seekers can now turn the tables on their former bosses. Many are starting to check up on former bosses, colleagues and even trusted friends, by using professional reference checking firms. Let's face it. Companies have been checking out potential employees' backgrounds for years.
"When you get right down to it, you just don't know for sure, who you can trust. There is simply too much at stake - your job, your income, your family's well being - to chance it that your references are positive and accurate" said Heidi M. Allison, Managing Director of Allison & Taylor, Inc., a professional reference checking firm.
Ms. Allison stated that about half of the references they investigate are mediocre to down right negative - often to the surprise of the client. "People they believe are giving them a good reference are not" she said, "And just as many who have assumed they are getting a bad reference are not."
Allison & Taylor, Inc. is up front with the people they call to check a reference. "When we call a reference we simply state that we are calling to do an employment verification and reference check on (name of client). Typically the reference assumes we are considering hiring that individual or we have been hired to check them out for a company that is considering hiring them. No matter what, we never disclosed who has actually hired us to perform the reference check. This allows our client complete confidentiality and the ability to use our information in court should the need arise" stated Ms. Allison.
It is not uncommon for references to pass out inaccurate information. Dates and title of employment, the reason for the separation and salary information are typically mistaken and unfortunately it is assumed by potential employers that the job seeker is lying.
Sometimes information is subtle. For instance, if a reference doesn't return two or three calls, that raises a red flag. Innuendoes such as, "Are you sure he listed me as a reference?" or "Well, according to our agreement I can only confirm that she worked here" offer additional clues that things are just not right.
Ms. Allison has also noticed that the higher the position, the more freely references divulge damaging information. "Clients often assume that company policies to only confirm limited information are strictly followed. I usually ask them if they are in a hurry and don't see a police officer if they tend to push the speed limit. References are no different. If someone really liked you and wants to help you land another job, or if they had a problem with you and don't want to see you working, they can and will break company policy."
In a slight turn of events, Ms. Allison stated that over the last few years, her clients have used positive references to assist them in their court cases. "In the case of wrongful termination, a positive reference can be used as support of litigation. In fact, our clients have been awarded settlements in excess of $1 million."
The purpose of checking your references should not be to file a lawsuit. However, a candidate does need to know the quality of their references and whether former employers are passing on personal opinions, conjecture, rumors or accurate legal facts.
How to Check Your Own References
A poor or even luke warm reference can sometimes cost you the job you want. If you are worried about what a former boss will say to a prospective employer, consider using a reference checking service as seen in the Wall Street Journal. In business for 20 years, Allison & Taylor will confidentially contact your references, inquiring about performance - managerial skills, judgment, integrity, productivity, technical skills - as well as employment dates, job description and reason for departure.