References – What’s the best and worst that can be said about you?

There is a lot to be said about references. After all, most people hire doctors, lawyers, contractors, caregivers, and mechanics through referrals, which are in a way “references”. However, in most corporate structures there are many policies regarding reference checking. Human Resource departments have hard and fast rules on references. Why? Because references are not always objective and candidates can sue if references are given arbitrarily and not in the best light thereby ruining their chances in obtaining employment. 

What many people don’t know is that they should be very careful in doling out references. I have had “sticky” situations where the references given have not actually been very positive about the candidates. This often surprises me because one would think that a candidate would know ahead of time whether a former employer or peer is going to give a good reference. I have often wanted to tell candidates that the people they have chosen have blasted them and that I would not use them in the future, but of course, I can’t do that. So, this is why there are laws and procedures that HR departments have regarding employee verification which require signed releases from candidates before they offer references. 

Most HR departments make it very clear to all employees that verifications or references are only handled through the HR departments in order to protect the organization. When giving information on past employees, HR departments normally only release title and dates of employment. Salary is only given if the request is in writing and they have a signed release from the former employee. However, having said that there are companies and managers that will disclose more information when asked about the former employee’s knowledge, work habits, professionalism, and overall character. After all, what prospective employers really want to know when obtaining a reference is, ”Are we getting a great employee or are we getting a lemon?”

Major corporations do conduct reference checks through outside investigative firms that may give them more information regarding background checks on anything such as criminal activities, credit, education, and former employment. Depending upon the company and the level of the position, they may choose to rescind an offer if the candidate fails on any of the above.

I normally tell my candidates to follow through when submitting references and information on past employers. Here are some helpful tips:

  • Check that the people you are giving as references are going to present you in the best light. (Recruiters/HR managers can read through vague answers). 

  • Make sure that you do the legwork when giving the proper information and contact numbers or addresses. 

  • Call the people you are offering as a reference and let them know that people will be contacting them and who these people are. 

  • Ask them whether they feel comfortable or are able to give you a reference.

  • Tell your past employer or reference a little about the position for which you are applying and the qualifications for which the company is looking. This provides them with information from which they can draw and answer in the best way possible. 

As I said, many people may not be at liberty to give references and may have to defer to the company’s policy and Human Resources department. Do not give out phone numbers that are old or companies that are defunct and/or the reference is no longer there. This will not put you in the best light in the mind of the recruiter, hiring manager, or investigative service because you come across as disorganized and unprepared. By the way, it’s not the employer’s responsibility to chase down references and their new phone numbers or addresses. You are accountable for the information you provide.

Another issue related to references and background checking is drug testing.  Most major financial and other large corporations require drug testing.  You probably know this because drug testing has been around for between ten to fifteen years. In most situations, if you do not pass the drug test, you will not be hired. The same holds true with reference and background checks. It is all part of what is called the pre-placement or hiring process. So, a word to the wise, if you are using illicit drugs, make sure to stay clean throughout your interviewing life cycle or stay away from companies that require drug tests. Why should you embarrass yourself? Let’s face it, you shouldn’t take drugs anyway – but in the real world lots of people do, even if it’s only recreational. If you are on medication that is a controlled substance, make sure you can verify that and that you have a valid prescription.

Regarding salary verifications, many companies may ask for your W-2 to confirm salary or income from your present or past jobs. Be very careful when completing applications and inflating your salary – it may be checked later and if it is found out that you misrepresented your salary, the offer may be rescinded.

It’s important to know that even with all of the policies and procedures in most companies regarding "references", many hiring managers have a broad network of contacts and will do their own checks even before the process gets to Human Resources.  So, the old adage of "don't burn your bridges" is still very much alive today.


Resumes and Cover Letters

“Speaking of resumes and cover letters, let’s set the record straight. I don’t hate cover letters. But as a recruiter, (and I know I speak for my recruiting brothers and sisters), I just don’t have the time to read them. There is a time and place for the cover letter, and I will cover that later, no pun intended. When responding to job ads, resumes are sufficient. Cover letters just clog up the e-mail server and makes it take a lot longer for the recruiters to possibly never get to the perfect candidate, who might very well be you!

Recruiters can get over 200 resumes a day. When you add the cover letter, well, you do the math. It’s sufficient to send some specific information on the e-mail with the attached resume. In the course of an average day, recruiters read so many resumes that it’s no wonder they don’t recognize you when you get him or her on the phone. So, be kind to the recruiter – remember he or she only has one pair of eyes.”

Member of Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM)