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How bad references can cost you that new job
By Susan Bowles, Special to Gannett

You’ve aced your interview, met with company executives and even heard the golden phrase, “Once you’re working here.”

Then … nothing. The hiring manager stops calling and – worst of all – won’t even return your calls.

What’s going on?

Most likely, it’s a reference; specifically, a bad one.

References are golden – particularly in today’s era of heightened security and tight employment. Yet most jobseekers take them for granted.

Don’t. About half of all references are mediocre to poor, says Workplace Fairness, a non-profit employee rights group in California. And, adds Heidi Allison-Shane, managing director of the reference-checking firm Allison Taylor Inc. in Rochester, MI, “they can make or break a hiring decision.”

Instead, be reference savvy. To wit:

  • Don’t think a company will simply verify your employment.

The idea that former employers aren’t allowed to give you a bad reference is just plain wrong, Allison-Shane says. In reality, every state has a different law. Besides, she adds, the discussion between a former employer and a prospective one is a private conversation. “Anything can be said, regardless what the laws are.”

  • Don’t think a former employer will stick to yes or no answers.

Former employers may, indeed, decline to discuss your tenure. But they can sully your reputation with a very few words, Allison-Shane says. Among her favorites:

    • “Check their references carefully.”
    • “Hang on and let me get the legal file.”
    • “Are you sure they listed me as a reference?”

  • Don’t assume a hiring manager will stick to your reference list.

You may have put together a stellar list of people who love you. But companies serious about signing your paychecks may stray into not-so-stellar territory.

First of all, they can find out just where you’ve worked. So if you leave a former job off your resume, curious minds will want to know why.

Likewise, if you had a great relationship with your department head but a not-so-great one with your direct supervisor, your prospective employer may not follow your lead and skip rank, says Workplace Fairness. Hiring managers may want to hear from the person you worked with most closely.

  • Don’t assume your background is spotless.

In addition to references, a company will look into all facets of your background, says Jennifer Sullivan of That includes your criminal and civil history, your address history and any credentials or academic degrees you profess to have. A red flag in any area can cost you a job.

How, then, do you cope and steer clear of these job-ending minefields?

First, consider hiring a professional reference-checking and/or background-checking service.

A firm like Allison-Taylor ( will call former employers, press them for details about you, then give you the results. To ensure professionalism, the company uses a questionnaire crafted by human resource consultants. Additionally, consultants work with each client to make sure questions are industry-appropriate. offers its clients a service called SureCheck that lets jobseekers see just what’s in their background. The basic service provides statewide civil and criminal histories and an address history, Sullivan says. Jobseekers can also sign up for a credential verification service. If mistakes exist, they can contact the appropriate state or federal agencies for corrections. They also can make comments about whatever shows up in their histories. Best, she says, flags resumes on its site that have been pre-screened.

“The vast majority of employers conduct background checks,” Sullivan says. “It’s a good idea to make sure all your information is accurate.”

Next, know your rights.

If someone is saying unfavorable things about you, take a look at what’s being said. If it’s simply an unfavorable opinion, you don’t have much recourse, according to Workplace Fairness. Yet if the opinion is based on a fact that is false and it damages your reputation, you may have a legal claim. In any case, it might be worthwhile to hire an employment attorney to write a letter to the offending company.

Best yet, avoid surprises.

You know if you had a good relationship with a former boss. You know if you didn’t. “Now the question is, is this boss overly emotional or will this boss conform to company policy?” Allison-Shane says.

If you’re unsure, it’s best to be upfront with prospective employers. Admit you may not get a glowing recommendation from someone. But come armed with past job reviews and performance evaluations to help offset any negative comments.

Susan Bowles is a business journalist based in Washington, DC. She has 20 years journalism experience and has written for USA Today,, the Washington Post, the St. Petersburg Times and The Palm Beach Post.