What To Do About Negative References

Reference checking is often viewed as a routine matter. But not for the company or the job seeker when certain information is shared.

Allison & Taylor, a company engaged in the reference business for more than 30 years, offers the following:

It’s an all-to familiar scenario – a job seeker with strong employment credentials has interviewed well, and received positive feedback from a prospective employer.  After being asked to provide a list of references, communications suddenly stop; no explanation is provided, and the job seeker’s attempts to follow up elicit a vague “we decided to go in a different direction” statement.

What is happening here?

While there may be multiple reasons why a prospective employer has suddenly lost interest, one possibility is that a reference they’ve contacted has offered negative commentary about the job seeker.  When this happens, the employer begins to see the job seeker as an employment risk, and it’s highly likely that the entire process will stutter to a stop.

The employment process can be tricky, and there are three common ways that an unfavorable reference can derail even the most promising job prospect:

  1. The Supervisor Dilemma – A potential employer will often ask, “May we contact your former supervisor?”  If they are told “no”, it sends up a red flag and makes the employer wonder what a job seeker has to hide.  If the contact is permitted, a job seeker runs the risk that the reference may offer some negative feedback – supervisors often give a mix of favorable and unfavorable commentary about their former subordinates.    
  2. HR’s Influence – Human resources, which most former employees feel is a “safe” reference bet, can actually be quite problematic.  While company policy may not allow them to provide damaging commentary, they may indicate that the employee is not eligible for rehire or suggest that the separation was due to involuntary, unfavorable circumstances.  
  3. “Do Not Hire” – Still another possibility is that a job seeker is on a former employer’s “do not hire” list.  This could be due to any number of reasons, including a failed background check, minor corporate infractions or resume fraud. While most U.S. hiring managers rarely admit that they keep such records, they do exist.

Allison & Taylor reports that approximately half of all reference checks it conducts reveal negative input from the reference.

Good to Know: NLRB Sides with Employer in Twitter Dismissal

If you’ve drafted a social media policy for your company, you’ve learned by now that it’s a bit of a gray area. A recent decision by the National Labor Relations Board should inspire some confidence in employers that — should the time come — it could be allowable to dismiss a staffer due to questionable use of social media. Although, in this case, note that the Tweeter in question did identify himself as an employee of the company in his bio. An electronic alert from the Oregon law firm Barran Liebman has the report (reposted here with permission):

In good news for employers, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) issued an advice memorandum finding that an Arizona newspaper’s termination of one of its reporters for inappropriate Twitter postings was not an unfair labor practice. The NLRB’s advice memo itself is great guidance for employers looking to understand what they can and cannot do when employees post offensive or disruptive messages about the company on social media sites.

Here are the basic facts that the NLRB examined: A Tucson, Arizona newspaper publisher terminated its public safety reporter after he posted a series of messages on his Twitter account, which the newspaper encouraged him to set up and which identified him as a reporter for the newspaper and included a link to the newspaper’s website. After the reporter tweeted, "[The newspaper’]s copy editors are the most witty and creative people in the world. Or at least they think they are," human resources questioned him about why he felt the need to post his concerns on Twitter instead of speaking to people within the organization. Although the newspaper did not yet have a formal social media policy, it then told the reporter that he was prohibited from airing his grievances or commenting about the newspaper in any public forum.

The reporter continued tweeting, including a tweet about a local television news station misspelling something in its Twitter feed and several tweets of his own commentary about homicides in Tucson:

"You stay homicidal, Tucson. See Star Net for the bloody deets."

"What?!?! No overnight homicide? WTF? You’re slacking Tucson"

"Hope everyone’s having a good Homicide Friday, as one Tucson police officer called it."

The publisher confronted the reporter about his tweets and instructed him to not tweet about anything work-related until they determined what to do. The newspaper then suspended him and terminated his employment.

The reporter filed a complaint with the NLRB, alleging that his termination violated Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). Section 7 prohibits employers from disciplining employees (regardless of whether the workplace is unionized) who have engaged in "concerted activity." In this case, the NLRB attorneys concluded that the reporter’s Twitter messages were not protected and concerted activity because they did not relate to the terms and conditions of his employment, or seek to involve other employees in issues related to employment. For that reason, the newspaper was free to discipline and terminate him for misconduct since his conduct did not involve protected activity.

UPDATE (May 24): Here’s another NLRB decision regarding social media and the termination of employees. Clear as mud now?

Small Businesses Can Help Laid-off Employees

BusinessWeek offers some useful tips to help small businesses assist their laid-off employees. Valuable information in a time when you may have to reluctantly let good workers go:

When small businesses decide to lay off workers, they often can’t afford generous severance packages or access to professional outplacement services. But employers strapped for cash can still help their departing workers. 

Tap your network. Reach out to clients, vendors, competitors, and others in your network to see if anyone wants to recruit workers you have to cut. "Before I would let someone go, I would talk to other entrepreneurs I knew," says Dan Cohen, a former owner of a specialized construction firm and now a lecturer at Cornell’s School of Industrial Labor Relations. Cohen sometimes shared employees with another company until he was able to rehire them full time.

Start an online forum to pool talent. Some companies are using groups on LinkedIn or Facebook to connect workers they’re laying off with potential jobs or freelance work, says Kathryn Kerge, an HR consultant in New York. "They truly want to see their employees able to find work in the sector when they know they don’t have it for them right now," she says.

Give workers ample notice. Giving employees a month’s notice before they have to leave, instead of two weeks or less, will give them a bit more wiggle room, Kerge says. During that time, be flexible about giving employees time for interviews. If you can’t give them extra notice, consider letting laid-off employees come in and use the office printer, copier, and fax to prepare for their job hunt, says Peter Cappelli, director of the Center for Human Resources at Wharton.

Direct employees to local resources. Career centers run by local colleges or government agencies often have résumé writing workshops, career counseling, job fairs, retraining help, and other resources for the unemployed, says Sally Klingel, director of labor-management programs at Cornell’s School of Industrial & Labor Relations.

Give employees an honest reference. Other potential employers may think you laid off workers because of poor performance. "Often the biggest thing [companies laying off staff] can do is offer to write a glowing letter," says Klingel. Explain why workers were cut and vouch for their experience.

Keep in touch. Business may pick up sooner than you expect. If you maintain a relationship with laid-off workers, you may be able to offer them work—even if it’s just part-time—later on if they’re still looking, a situation that could benefit both sides.