Find Out What References Are Really Saying about You

Employers, recruiters, and background-screening firms are checking out job candidates more thoroughly than ever. Be upfront with potential employers, but consider doing a background check on yourself, and be prepared to counter negative remarks.

Keith O’Rourke of Reno, Nevada, was concerned about the references he’d get from his last employer, a small start-up in the San Francisco Bay Area, where he did sales and operations management.

“I reported to the [vice president] of finance and had a good relationship with her, but I had a
personality conflict with the owner,” he says. “So I wasn’t sure what the VP
would say when people called [to ask] her about why I left the company” To find
out, O’Rourke hired, a Philadelphia reference-checking
firm, to call the vice president and ask for a reference on him. The comments
turned out to be good. With a lighter conscience, O’Rourke found a sales
position and moved to Reno.

O’Rourke’s concern
isn’t unusual. Employers, recruiters and background-screening firms are checking
out job candidates very thoroughly these days. Three-fourths of companies
surveyed this year say they check applicants’ criminal, employment and
educational histories, while nearly two-thirds contacted references, reports
Human Resource Executive magazine. Asked how their screening programs had
changed over the past three years, 64 percent noted that requirements had been
increased or enhanced.

Greater concern about
security since September 11, 2001, and publicity about corporate executives and
professional sports coaches who faked credentials have prompted the increased
scrutiny, says Lester Rosen, president of Employment Screening Resources (ESR),
a background-checking company in Novato, California. The Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002
also requires employers to assume greater accountability for new hires.

The recent employer’s
market also has allowed companies to be more choosy, says Richard Taylor, chief
executive officer of Taylor-Rodgers & Associates, a Stamford, Connecticut,
executive-recruiting firm. And it’s a good thing, too. “We’re seeing
unbelievable scams, like people hacking into an educational institution’s system
and changing the records,” Taylor says.

Levels of Reference-Checking

Technology has made the
process easy, notes Lisa Gallagher, operations vice president of HireRight Inc.,
an Irvine, California, screening firm. “It’s so much less expensive now than it was
in the past that it’s foolish not to do a background check on everyone,” she

Employers may verify
employment, education, credit and criminal records as well as contact
references. Much of this work is outsourced. Providers range from The Work
Number, a St. Louis database company that helps employers verify employment and
income of potential hires, to the attorney-led ESR, which conducts thorough
background checks and provides advice on such issues as compliance with
government rules. For instance, employers must get a candidate’s permission
before they can conduct background checks or outsource the process to a
screening firm.

Many companies will verify
only former employees’ dates of employment, position and salary. But reference
checkers try to circumvent this policy. “I can’t simply tell a client I talked
to the head of HR and confirmed that [someone] worked there,” says Taylor,
who checks references and writes a subsequent report for his clients.


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