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How to Find Out What Your References are Saying About You

A great reference from a former manager can impress a prospective employer and help clinch a new job, however, a bad reference from a former manager or employer can sink a great opportunity and cause enormous damage to a career. If you have a long career that extends across various employers, there’s always a chance it can happen to you.While employment laws, standard HR practices and fear of litigation keep most former managers and human resource departments from saying outright damaging statements about former employees, the reality is, negative references regularly occur.

Standard reference checks commonly start with confirming employment dates and title, but then delve into things like performance, interpersonal relationships, if the employee is eligible to be rehired, reasons for separation and overall strengths and weaknesses. Opportunities for negative references can come in the form of responses to questions such as, “Would you hire this person again?” or "Is this person eligible for rehire?" Sometimes not answering questions can be even more telling then answering them. For example, "Our attorneys have advised us not to comment on this individual." Or imagine a former manager is asked, “Was s/he a good employee?” and not responding or being asked whether you quit voluntarily or were fired and stating, "I can't answer that."

The bottom line is, even with laws, conservative HR practices and fear of litigation, sometimes emotions, bitterness and unedited reactions slip through or companies and people just engage in plain bad or questionable behavior and say something negative. My experience as a human resource professional is that it's more common that a candidate's manager, and not a member of the HR staff, ends up giving a bad reference, as HR professionals often follow strong process to avoid potential litigation. However, business managers sometimes aren't so careful or in control of their tongue. Talk to a few recruiters and ask if they'd dealt with candidates who received bad references and I'm certain you'll hear stories.

If you suspect you may be getting a bad reference and want to confirm or rule out your suspicion, you might consider investing in reference check service that thoroughly documents their findings and has sound court-tested processes (just in case you end up in court). Most of these services cost less than a couple of hundred dollars to check on a few past employers, and you may find the peace of mind alone is worth the cost. Second, if the firm did find solid, well recorded evidence that you've been getting bad references, it can provide you with an opportunity to address the situation, either by removing the job from your resume, working with the former employer or through legal channels. If you weren’t at the employer long, you may want to remove the job from your resume. If you had been at the employer a long time, and the damage is severe, you may want to consider discussing the situation with an employment attorney to explore your options.

We found several firms that perform reference checks on former employers for individuals. These include allisontaylor.com and checkyourreference.com (MarketingHire.com does not endorse, have a relationship with or receive compensation from any of the these firms).

In the age of social media, we also recommend you regularly conduct thorough searches on your name and determine if any questionable content comes up. As the majority of mid- and large size employers conduct social media searches on prospective employees, we recommend you do the same. If you do find negative or questionable information or images related to you, we strongly recommend taking action to get them removed.  It's also a smart practice that if you post social media posts that others might consider controversial or objectionable, that you remove those from public view. At minimum, change your settings so that only the people you want to see that content can see it, and not a prospective employer who made decide -- even if it is for a completely unfair and subjective reason -- that you're not the type of person they want working at their company due to their perception of you based on that content.