Many job seekers these days mistakenly believe that former employers are working under a gag order; that company policies prevent them from giving any employment information other than the standard “dates and title.” Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Even if your former employer’s policies dictate what information can be given (not all do), there’s no guarantee that an unhappy former co-worker or manager will adhere to them. And if they offer negative input, theirs may be the reference that ruins your chance for a great new MR job.
When former employers comment on you, what will they say? Here are some actual examples of questions and responses in references checked by reference-checking firm 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.”
• “We do not have this person anywhere in our records.”
• “I am not allowed to say anything about this person, as she was fired.”
Some references will refuse to rank a past employee due to an unfavorable impression:
• “No comment, he could not do anything correctly in the position he held with us.”
• “Let’s save time. Basically, you could rank her inadequate in all areas.”
When questioned about strengths and weaknesses:
• “I cannot think of any strengths, only weaknesses.”
• “I’m sure there must be some strengths but nothing jumps out at me.”
• “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 re-hire: Is this person eligible for re-hire?
• “He is not. I’m really not supposed to say much but he was unreliable and sick at lot.”
• “Probably not. She had a hard time working in a team environment.”
• “No, but I can’t say why.”
• “Probably not, but it’s just a suspicion of mine.”
• “No, because he didn’t want to work here and made it clear he didn’t want to work here.”
• “I wouldn’t re-hire him. He was disorganized and dishonest.”
• “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.”
• “He was let go … there was a conflict with the children – he didn’t follow safety standards and guidelines.”
• “I fired him! He and his buddy had some illegal things going.”
• “She had been written up and she walked out on work … because she was upset.”
• “It was a rather delicate and awkward situation. You should call her other past employers. I made the mistake of not doing that.”
• “She was terminated in an investigation…” (The reference then got very quiet and said he had the general counsel in his office and couldn’t say anything more.)
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: “One. 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 for 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, 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 him or her 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?”
• “I cannot believe you were given my name as a reference.”
• “Hold on, let me get the legal file to see what I am allowed to say.”
• “Never heard of him!”
• “I’m surprised she even listed us on her work history.”
Allison & Taylor estimates that half of the references it checks come back as lukewarm or negative. Don’t allow yourself to be surprised and sabotaged by an unfavorable reference. A simple reference check, such as one conducted by a professional agency, can tell you definitively whether a reference is providing a positive, professional response to inquiries made about you. If they are not, you can take proactive steps to prevent this continued spread of negative information and you may even have legal recourse.