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What Can Your Employment References Say About You?

Employee Background Check (joebeone, CC3.0)

The employee background reference check is largely out of your control. (joebeone, CC3.0)

Can your references hurt your chances for a job?

You can hand pick the personal references you want to offer glowing reviews of your service. If you have a mar on your career history, you just omit that boss from your reference list. Simple enough. The Human Resources personnel at your past employers aren’t allowed to say anything negative about you, right? They can only confirm your position and the dates of your employment … right? They can’t hurt your chances for a job… RIGHT?

Technically, yes, but that’s not the whole story, said Jeffrey Shane, vice president of  Allison & Taylor, a professional reference check and employment verification company, in a column for CIO magazine.

“Job seekers make many erroneous assumptions about their professional references: They think they can simply leave bad references off their résumés and that their references don’t matter once they land a job. In fact, prospective employers can and will track down the references you don’t want them to find-and they’ll continue to do so even after you’ve accepted a job offer.”

Shane’s column debunks seven myths about reference checks. I will share two here and offer two of my own invention:

1. Companies are not allowed to say anything negative about a former employee.

True, but there are ways around the rules, Shane said. “The professionals conducting reference checks evaluate how something is said, not just what is said. They listen to tone of voice and note the HR staffer’s willingness to respond to their questions.”

They will also offer veiled hints by saying things like “Check this person’s references very carefully” or “Hold on a minute while I get the legal file to see what I am allowed to say about Mr. Smith.”

2. You can hand pick your references, leaving off the pieces of your past, you would prefer to leave a mystery.

Many companies actually conducting a social-security check to determine where you have worked in the past and send inquiries to the respective HR departments, Shane said.

3. HR can’t follow your Web trail.

Perhaps the first place anyone goes when considering someone’s background is Google. It’s not exhaustive or 100 percent accurate, but it’s free and easy. Many HR departments have policies in place not to Google candidates. They instead rely on proven (and liability-resistant) professional background checks like Allison & Taylor and Lexis-Nexis. But it’s not uncommon for a prospective manager to Google a candidate’s name to see what she’s getting into. If she doesn’t like what she sees, she quietly asks HR to keep looking. Know what your Web trail says about you; clean it up, if you can; and be prepared to rebut it, when necessary.

4. Gossip won’t influence HR.

Regardless of whom you choose to include among your official reference and what the HR department can say about your time at an employer, your reputation travels far and wide, especially in the small circles of colleagues in an industry.

Your resume shouldn’t advertise your scars, and the HR department of past employers likely won’t even know much about your work habits and styles. Nevertheless, your former colleagues do, and they will talk about it. It’s easy for a prospective manager to connect the degrees of separation and learn first- or second-hand that you were insubordinate, failed to meet deadlines or displayed a temper under stress. It’s just a reminder to always do your best work and always be on your best behavior.

Shane recommends you stay in touch with at least one reference or manager at every job you’ve held. “You want your references stay abreast of your success because as you progress, a reference is more inclined to see you in a positive light.”

(Image of Magnifying Glass by joebeone, CC3.0)

For more information on Reference Checks and Resumes:

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Marc Cenedella: 10 Stories You Must Read for Your Job Search

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One comment for “What Can Your Employment References Say About You?”

  1. [...] What Can Your References Say About You? [...]

    Posted by Reference Check Questions | All About Business | June 5, 2009, 5:14 am

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