Do you know what your former employer is saying about you?
Regardless of circumstance, job separation requires a little finesse. Whether you are leaving of your own will or due to a layoff, downsizing or termination, it is important to know how future reference inquiries will be handled.
It’s a competitive job market, and the nod goes to the candidate with the most checks in the positive column. A strong reference from a former employer can be golden. On the other hand, if a reference will be lukewarm or downright negative, you need to know that ahead of time. In either scenario, at the time of your separation, you should discuss exactly what information the company will and will not provide to prospective employers — and get it in writing.
Following are two articles from Allison & Taylor, a company that specializes in reference checking for individuals and companies. Since Allison & Taylor are experts in this specialized field, we approached them to share their insights with Working World readers. Here is what they said.
They Can't Say That — Can They?
Your references may be offering more information than you think, like these actual quotes from former employers!
Maybe the way you left your last job wasn't ideal. Perhaps there were some personality, attendance or performance issues. You think: Don't sweat it — your employer will only provide your job title and dates of employment, not additional (and perhaps unflattering) information, right?
Not necessarily. While it's true that many companies do have reference policies in place, many do not. Even companies with strict policies cannot ensure that their employees will necessarily abide by such rules. Worst, the “safe” references many companies provided to potential employers may be the very ones that kill the job-seeker’s chances of winning that sought-after position.
Here are some actual examples of questions and responses in references checked by Allison & Taylor, who report that 50 percent of responses come back as lukewarm or negative:
Just the Facts
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 they were fired.”
The Good and the Bad
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.”
Is this person eligible for re-hire?
“He is not. I'm really not supposed to say much, but he was unreliable and sick a 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.”
Reason for Leaving
Could you fully describe the circumstances and reason for the separation?
“She was fired.”
“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 General Council in his office and couldn't say anything more.)
References are asked to rank skills on a scale from 1 (inadequate) to 5 (outstanding):
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!”
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 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!”
Some references will refuse to rank a past employee due to an unfavorable impression:
“No comment. They could not do anything correctly in the position they held with us.”
“Let's save time. Basically, you could rank them inadequate in all areas.”
It is not uncommon to contact a reference and find them 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.”
Four Key Items to Coordinate with Your References
The best reference will likely be one where you know exactly what the person will say about you, so be sure to contact your references before listing them on your application or resume. Here are some points to cover.
1. Your title, salary and dates of employment.
It’s very important that a former employer’s data matches what you’ve listed on your resume or application; otherwise, it may look like you are providing false information.
2. Status of eligibility for rehire.
“Is he/she eligible for rehire?” is a very commonly asked question, and also one that can be tricky for former employers. Some employers have a policy against providing rehirability status. Others have a “no rehire, regardless of circumstance” policy. It’s best for such employers to specifically say, “Our company policy doesn’t allow me to comment on anyone’s rehire status” or, “Unfortunately, our company has a no re-hire policy.” These statements tell a potential employer it’s not a personal issue.
3. A positive evaluation of strengths and weaknesses.
Let’s be honest, no one is perfect. The best thing to do here is speak honestly with your reference about what they see as your strong and weak points. No negative sound bites. Even a negative can phrased in a way that is positive: “What Carlos lacks in experience, he sure makes up for in ingenuity!”
This is a critical question for many employers. They want to know that you will show up to work, that you will complete projects on time, and that you can be relied upon to do the job for which you are hired. Your former employer cannot answer this one too emphatically. When a potential employer asks, “Is Alex reliable?” the proper response should be, “Absolutely!” not, “Oh, yeah, sure.”
Former employers should also be counseled to provide reference information on a timely basis, as their failure to respond or to return messages quickly could be construed as a “negative” by a prospective new employer. Also, they should adopt an open and courteous tone when responding to reference inquiries.
Allison & Taylor and its principals have been in the business of checking references for corporations and individuals since 1984. For further details on services and procedures, please visit www.allisontaylor.com.