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Thursday, October 29, 2009

employer won't give job references

A reader writes:

I have recently been on two interviews with a company. "When can you start" and "will this salary be acceptable" have been discussed.

My issue is that my former employer of 12 years has a strict reference policy that only allows them to confirm dates of employment and salary. I provided additional references at the potential new employer's request, one former employee of my former company who now runs his own company, and a current client and current supplier of my former company, as well as a former co-worker of my former employee.

It seems that my potential employer is not aware of this growing trend of strict reference policies and we keep going back and forth: "I still haven't heard back from this person, or that person you provided." "Can you provide more?"

I've been searching for a year with no results and I fear my references situation may be part of it. I did not leave my former employer on bad terms, just felt I need to move on and better myself.

What can I do? I feel like I'm being held back because of this procedure of my former employer and this will affect any future tries at employment. I feel stuck and not sure how to proceed. Can you advise me?

I'd be concerned if a candidate couldn't get a former employer to give her a reference. Yes, many companies do have the type of policy you described, but I've never -- and I mean literally never -- had a problem getting someone at those companies to give a reference anyway. HR may stick to those policies, but the actual managers usually don't. And I would be very surprised if a former employee who shone on the job didn't have past managers jumping to help her.

Have you tried reaching out to your former manager(s) directly, despite what the company says its policy is?

Also, you said that the new employer is telling you they haven't heard back from the references you did provide. That's not a good sign either. Have those references told you that they're able to provide you with a good reference? And that they're available this week (as opposed to out of town, for instance)? You want to prep your references beforehand, to make sure they're going to speak well of you, as well as simply willing to return the calls promptly.

If a candidate told me that they weren't able to get any past manager to serve as a reference (despite the reason) and the references they did give me either weren't getting back to me or weren't in a position to be able to really speak to the quality of the person's performance (which can be the case with peers), I'd consider it a red flag.

I think you do have a reference problem here. I don't know if it's because your references aren't particularly enamored of you or if it's because you haven't been hands-on enough in managing the process, but I recommend being more aggressive in figuring it out. Specifically:

1. Contact your former manager(s) and tell them your job offer is contingent upon the company being able to speak with them. Ask for their help.

2. Contact the other references you offered and say, "The employer is becoming concerned because they haven't heard back from you, and my job offer may be on the line. If you're not able to serve as a reference for me, would you let me know so I can find alternatives?"

3. If all else fails, ask the new employer if they'd accept (hopefully glowing) past performance reviews in lieu of speaking with your manager.

Good luck.


Kisa said...

As a manager who often receives these types of phone calls inquiring about former employees, I will say the following: In this litigious society, I (and many other managers) will not answer any more than what is specifically asked. I will also not say anything disparaging about a former employee. So, if a GOOD former employee has a reference called in, I will verify employment information, and respond positively to the ubiquitous question about whether I would re-hire them or not. Most reputable companies looking to hire ask very little, these days, beyond basic and relatively objective "Was she able to adequately fulfill her duties" - type questions. I think this is because they KNOW most of us will not answer questions of a more subjective nature. That said, if your references are simply NOT RESPONDING, then you have a problem. You either haven't given your potential employer the right contact information, or you left your former employer with a worse taste in their mouth than you thought. I would suggest contacting your former employer yourself, alerting them of the potential incoming inquiries, and then gauge their response. You'll know if they are less than warm. If a reference is called in to me for an employee who left on bad terms, I will generally do no more than verify their employment, and refuse to respond to other questions. Believe me, that tells them what they want to know.

Kisa said...

One more thing, because it bears elaboration: Although most companies, as I said, now only ASK objective questions in their reference-verification script, I think that any really good employee who had a reference called in would discover that I gave highly subjective, positive, comments. On that I don't hesitate. I WILL be emphatic about someone that I feel deserves a really good reference, and I WILL volunteer information in that case.

Suzanne Lucas said...

My husband once worked for a company that had a strict no reference policy--and it was enforced. Managers really wouldn't give references.

He had a job offer once that was "contingent on references." The former boss at this company wouldn't do more than confirm dates of employment, told the recruiter that it was against company policy to do more than that and held her ground.

My husband didn't get the job because the recruiter said, "If you were a good employee, she would have broken the rules for you."

She wouldn't have broken the rules for her own mother--which I believe shows integrity. There really are some companies out there who WON'T GIVE REFERENCES.

(In the end, he got a better new job anyway, so ha! Take that lame recruiter.)

Just Another HR Lady said...

I'd be interested to know how many people are actually litigious around receiving a negative reference. In Canada, this topic comes and goes, with few to none cases of litigation. I think employers are going way too far off the side on long as you are telling the truth based on factual evidence, a reference is fine even if it's negative.

Anonymous said...

As a staffing company we check a lot of references. We rarely have trouble finding someone who will talk.

Before you provided the references did you check with them first to make sure that 1 - they are willing to provide a reference and 2 - that they are available?

Also it's a good rule of thumb to ask for a reference letter when you leave a job. This won't stop any future employers from wanting to speak with your former employers, but at least you will have it on the record.

Anonymous said...

I think there is a difference between not being able to verify one reference and not being able to verify ALL references. Unless you are a recent grad... you should have at least one great reference.

Unknown said...

I asked professors at the college for references prior to graduation (in advance). I believe in asking an employer for one in advance. If you do not burn bridges and have been a good employee, there is no reason the employer will not give a good reference (even in these litigious times). You may have to type it yourself and get their signature, because a lot of people are busy and procrastinate about such things. This is my opinion.

Anonymous said...

My company has a strict "no references" policy and we have managers call to verify this occasionally. We refer all reference calls to our outside verification source and advise managers they can no and should not give personal references. No, I don't know why, I'm a cog in a huge HR wheel, but I do know that there are companies out there who refuse to allow more than "dates of service" type of references.

Charles said...

If I may chime in with another reason for a "no references" policy.

I used to work for a company that has a very strict policy against references to the point of firing anyone who violated this policy.

The reasons were really quite simple. In their line of business a competitor can make a few calls asking about "recent" employees. Even simply asking for the dates of employment and salary (which would include bonuses paid based upon work completed within those dates of employment) will give the competitor an idea about the amount of business conducted. Information that the company would not want a competitor to know.

So, their policy was for HR to only give a simple answer "Yes, they work here or used to work here." Nothing more. No salary information, no dates.

Does such a policy suck? yes indeed; especially for those of us looking for work. I do wish more recruiters understood this; as the only references one can get from working there are co-workers who are willing to give "personal references." While such references are okay - they don't seem to carry the same weight as managers' professional references. Why do so many recruiters not understand this type of situation?

Genny said...

When a company states no reference check. Do you think anyone want to risk against their current company to help you?????? Everyone is afraid to lose their jobs. One of my previous companies is like that. When I talked to my previous manager, she was almost a friend to me, but she would not give reference no matter what happens. She is so happy to hear from me, but when it comes to reference, she said no straight away and said the company has a very strict policy against it. I totally understand her. Because you dunno how people can lie. If a company can do background, employment verification, education verification, interviews w. the candidates. Then why let a simply unnecessary reference from a complete stranger ruin all the good processes that had been there and legal documents to prove the candidate. I just hope this reference check should be banned all together. There are too many people losing job offers due to bad ex managers, irresponsible ex co-workers, maybe even harassment, and etc. What do they care? Just talk whatever they want. Whether you lose a job or not doesn't affect them in anyway. Even it is illegal to give a negative reference. People looking for jobs really do not have time to actually sue anyone. So, please ban this super unnecessary process that caused more problems and inaccuracy then anything else.

Anonymous said...

Indeed I worked for a very large software company for 15 years and they have a very strict no references policy to outside companies, internal is fine. You could lose your job if you gave a reference. Which given this economy and the number of layoffs that occured there made finding a job difficult. Only job I could get was as a contractor at the same company.

Anonymous said...

One thing that is NOT being discussed here are actual STATE LAWS. Some states don't allow a former employer to give any sort of reference other than to answer Yes or No (ONLY) to questions being asked. This means that NO information may be offered up, including such simple things as dates of employment. Just Yes or No!!! That this has not been discussed means that no one here is a professional HR person, including the original blogger.

Ask a Manager said...

Anonymous, that's wrong information. Can you cite one such state law?

Anonymous said...

My company is very serious about NOT allowing any employee to give a reference about a past or current employee. They will not give references, and basically threatened the rest of us as well. I think it SO strange. What are they hiding? But I'm not willing to lose my job over it. So I guess I will stop giving references.

Chu said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

My former employer has a very strict reference policy. No one outside of HR is allowed to answer reference questions. One person was fired after being caught agreeing to serve as a character reference for a former employer. Everyone else is terrified of being caught and also fired.

And the HR department will only answer 'yes or no' questions. That is, if you ask 'what dates did this person work for XYZ firm', they will not answer. But if you ask, 'did this person work for your firm from 01/05 to 12/09' they will answer either yes or no. If you ask them 'what salary did this person have at the time of their departure', they will not answer. If you ask them, 'was this person earning 50,000/yr at the time of their departure' they will answer yes or no.

I am actually grateful that everyone in my department was laid off, because we can serve as references for each other. Since none of us work for the company anymore, we are not bound by their policy.

Of course, I have other references too, from previous employers, colleagues, non-profit directors, et cetera. Some employers don't care about anyone but the most recent employer, though, and don't care at all about my previous work experience.

I'm pretty surprised that the author of this blog claims that they have never encountered such a strict policy. Just about everyone I know has worked for a company with the same policy at some point in their career, a company that enforced it to the letter.

Michael Snow said...

My previous employer two jobs back was a large insurer. They never give references. The confirmation of dates worked is garbage, it counts for nothing in the eyes of the new company that's hiring. They tell me this when I go for jobs. The agencies are the same. I agree with the comment that reference checking should be banned. It's open to abuse or non-compliance. If interviewers can't judge a candidate based on the face to face discussion and things like certificates, they really are peter paranoids. I mean these days firms have around SIX MONTHS to fire someone if they really think you've turned out to be a dud. If they like your personal presentation at interview, that should be more than enough to go by. I had one temporary employer who was INTELLIGENT enough to do this, just using his judgment on the day, and he to me stands out as a man who is confident in his managerial post. All these other HR/agency/managers are a bunch of gutless cowards, imagining that what a person did in different circumstances still bears relevance. We all live and grow but the stupid HR theory doesn't recognise this. Their saying "past performance is indicative of future behavior" is the biggest load of university junk-science--and i'm speaking as someone who majored in business and hr management!
People think about it--you can impress a company leaps and bounds, but then when it comes to references, you have zero control and can literally lose all the hard work you've put in. Surely academic background and police checks are more than enough to tell about a person. They can do psychometric and computer tests too if they want.
Using referees is so subjective. There's zero science in it.
I call on all industry to wake up to this outdated and unscientific garbage.
We don't reference check toshiba before we buy a laptop do we? We don't reference check our spouses before marriage do we? Seriously, with much more important things in life there is yet further proof that character references count for a big fat zilch.

Anonymous said...

yes, since a career change some years ago, my first employer backed out of its agreement with me; second employer went to the wall; third employer decided it was too busy to provide a reference; fourth employer was involved in a workcover claim, and my original occupation is seen as irrelevant.
so it's bad luck for me, despite accolades, hard work and dedication.
whereas, if you looked at everything as a whole - specifically all of the self-development and career preparation that i've achieved, and spoke to me face-to-face, you'd be hard put not to recognise a valuable employee.
only thing i can suggest is for those who can get it, a written ref when times are good, or personal refs such as from volunteering.
reference checking is often an expedient device lacking potential for genuine discovery, such as with simple questions as: what happened to you there and what did you do in between times?, but it would be improbable to find anyone in the recruitment industry being intelligent enough to recommend this to their employer client.
there are some employers who will claim to not have to conduct face-to-face interviews, having educed suitables from the refs and cv, which means if you're an ugly, mean, arsehole werewolf going for a job in a childcare centre, but have at least one 'great' ref, you're home and hosed.

Anonymous said...

Interesting comments - thanks! References are a terrible way to determine wether or not someone is a great candidate. A person's performance ten years ago, may not reflect their performance today. Further, managers have so much responsibility, that they do not have the time to return calls for reference checks for all of their direct reports from previous years. This is an antiquated system that should be modernized. Skills assessments, personality testing, academic checks and background checks should be sufficient.