Professional References: What Do People Really Say About You?

You may be surprised to learn how often professional references speak ill of the job seekers they purport to represent.

Have you ever wondered what your professional references say about you when prospective employers call them? Perhaps you suspect that one or more of your references isn't providing the glowing review of you that he or she promised when you were laid off. How do you find out if bad references are preventing you from obtaining job offers?

Just as there are companies that employers hire to conduct reference checks on potential employees, there are also firms that check out those employees' professional references, to find out what those individuals are saying about the job seeker.

Jeff Shane is vice president of one such organization, the Rochester Hills, Mich.-based Allison & Taylor Inc. He says professionals come to his firm when they suspect their professional references may be doing them in.

For more stories that address professional references, see 5 Tips for Managing the Messaging About Your Departure From a Company and How to Start Your Job Search 2.0.

"So many of our clients have been unemployed for a while," Shane says. "They've tried many, many times to get a job, had excellent prospects, gone in for second interviews, and then suddenly the bottom drops out. They come to services like ours to see if we can shed light on the problem."

More than 50 percent of the time, Allison & Taylor finds a bad reference to blame.

In this dismal job market, a whiff of negativity from one reference could be all it takes for an employer to disqualify an otherwise A candidate.

CIO.com spoke with Shane about his firm's approach to investigating references, why references sometimes speak negatively about the job seekers they represent, and what job seekers can do to ensure they get good references in the future.

CIO: When you contact a client's references, what goes on?

Jeff Shane: We [say who we are and] indicate we're doing a reference check for the client named. Then the reference basically answers our consultants' questions , which can be fairly detailed. Our consultants will, as best they can, record in a report (not using tape recorders, but like a stenographer) what the reference said, their tone of voice and other nuances like verbal body language. They will try to quote the reference verbatim. We then make that information available in electronic form to our clients.

Do the references think you're the employer or an agency acting on behalf of the employer?

Because so many people are on the job market, a reference will assume that we are looking to hire that individual or that we are a third party hired to do the reference check for that individual. We will not misrepresent ourselves, but we don't dispel that assumption. Obviously, we want to get as candid a response from the reference as we can.

What have references told you about your clients?

We hear every kind of comment under the sun. Some of them are mildly negative. Some are almost beyond belief. We have heard comments that were slanderous, sexist, and that in a court of law would be regarded as clear evidence of defamation of character. In those situations, some of our clients have taken the documents we've provided to them to a lawyer and pursued lawsuits and legal action successfully, based on comments that were found to be slanderous.

Can you give an example of a slanderous comment you've heard?

"If you would even consider hiring that idiot, you'd be making a serious mistake."

Why would a reference say anything like that?

The people who make comments like that are usually direct supervisors. They've had a working relationship with the employee, and there's bad blood. They have an axe to grind. Some of them have made it a mission to blow the employee out of the water.

We've also found many instances of passive aggressive behavior from the supervisor. They tell the employee that they'll give him or her a good reference when they really have no intention of doing that, and they do just the opposite. Unfortunately, they do that a lot, even when mutual non-disclosure documents have been signed, indicating that the former employer will not say anything negative about the employee. Unfortunately, what people say they will do doesn't always translate to what they actually do when the situation presents itself. You can't assume that someone who says they will be a good reference necessarily will be a good reference.

I thought most managers and HR professionals whom prospective employers call to check a candidate's references knew not to say anything beyond confirming the individual's title, dates of hire and departure, and salary information.

There are some who will hew to hose rules. However, a strong majority of people we contact as references will offer more information than you would expect.

How many references that Allison & Taylor checks are negative?

Of all the reference checks we do, a little more than half are negative. Most of the rest are virtually neutral. Some are generally favorable with a slight negative component. A small minority are extremely negative.

Do you think so many of the references you conduct are negative because the people who ask you to do this suspect they're bad?

That's possible. Your point is, if they're asking us to check them in the first place, they have a higher degree of probability that they may in fact be negative. That's undoubtedly a factor in why the figure is so high. In fairness to our consultants, who are top of the line, I will say they are very skilled at ferreting out negative information. They ask probing questions, and they will not easily take no for an answer.

Is there a risk your consultants go too far, probe too much, and get negative information out of a reference that the reference might not otherwise say to an employer?

Our people are not pushy or obnoxious. I would say they're politely inquisitive, and they want to get, as best they can, a total and accurate read. We want to identify concerns within reasonable boundaries.

Is it possible in probing that our consultants might get negative input that a normal prospective employer might not get? I suppose that's possible, but our belief and our assumption is that what a reference says to us is likely to approximate what they'd tell a prospective employer because they assume we're a potential employer.

There are job seekers who've been hardworking, talented, dedicated, valued employees, who have no reason to think their references would say anything bad about them. Do they have their heads in the sand?

A great many job seekers underestimate the possibility that something negative is being said about them, though many will indeed get good references.

What can candidates do to ensure their references speak well of them?

Cultivate your references and keep them close to you. You want to maintain active and positive relationships with them. Let them know the kind of positions you'll be applying for and when they might get a call from a prospective employer. Keep them updated on your activities and tell them you appreciate their support.

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