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.

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