How to Tell If Your References Really “Have Your Back"

Published: Oct 15, 2015

How to Tell If Your References Really Have Your Back
October 15, 2015
By Jeff Shane for BioSpace.com

We’ve all heard that our former employers, when contacted for a reference, will only confirm (per company policy) your employment dates and title. Right?

Wrong.

There is no guarantee that all corporate employees are aware of, or will abide to such guidelines. Consider these verbatim comments documented by Allison & Taylor in checking employment references on behalf of job seekers:

• “She didn’t resign from our company—she was terminated.”

• “I am not allowed to say anything about this person as they were fired.”

• “He had issues with his co-workers and management and is not eligible for rehire.”

• “Is there a rating less than inadequate?”

• “She made a good effort but was simply not able to meet our expectations.”

• “I’d rather not comment—you can take that any way you like.”


Clearly, any prospective employer receiving such feedback on a job seeker is highly unlikely to hire them. What, then, should be your course of action if you are concerned about potential commentary from your former employer?

The first step is to confirm if you do indeed have a problem with at least one of your references. Do an honest self-assessment of your references that are most likely to be called by prospective employers. Very possibly you already have a good idea of who may be making your employment such a challenging one. And while you might be able to keep some former associates off of a prospective employer’s radar, it is unlikely that a former supervisor or HR department will be overlooked. The HR department is a traditional venue for reference checks, and HR reps of your most recent employers are almost certain to get a call from potential employers. Your former supervisors will be high on an employer’s list as well, as they know you better than HR and may also be willing to offer a more revealing profile about you.

Then, consider having a reference check(s) conducted on those business associates from your past who might be problematic. Avoid the temptation to have a friend or associate call and pose as a prospective employer—this could backfire on you, also any unfavorable input obtained in this manner would be inadmissible for legal purposes. Instead, have a reputable third party (e.g. www.allisontaylor.com) conduct these reference interviews on your behalf to best ensure that any negative input obtained can be legally addressed and neutralized.

If negative input from a reference is uncovered, what steps can you take? Your options will depend on the nature of the negative input. Where your reference’s communication was inaccurate, malicious, or wrongful, you may have the ability—through an attorney—to pursue legal recourse. When a reference’s negative input is not unlawful but is nonetheless restricting your ability to secure future employment, it can sometimes be addressed through a Cease-&-Desist letter which is typically issued by your attorney to the senior management of the company where the negative reference originated, alerting the management of the negative reference’s identity and actions. Typically the very act of offering a negative reference is against corporate guidelines, which normally state that only a former employee’s title/dates of employment can be confirmed. The negative reference is cautioned by management not to offer additional comments and—out of self-interest—will usually not offer negative commentary again.

Whether through a Cease-&-Desist letter or stronger legal measures, the prospects for neutralizing further negative input from a reference are excellent. Also, the “peace of mind” a reference verification brings to an employment candidate unsure of what their references are really saying, cannot be underestimated. If concern about your references is causing you some sleepless nights, it’s never too soon to document—and address—what they are really saying about you. The career you save, may be your own.

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