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They Can't Say That, Can They?

Your Reference May Be Offering More Information Than You Think - Actual Quotes From Former Employers

DETROIT, MI (October 5, 2010) - So, maybe the way you left your last job wasn't ideal.  Perhaps there were some personality, attendance, or performance issues.  You think: Don't sweat it - your employer has a pre-established corporate reference policy.  They will only provide your position title and dates of employment, not additional (perhaps potentially unflattering) information.  Right?

Not necessarily.  While it's true that many companies do have reference policies in place that prohibit them from giving out anything but limited, prescribed information, many do not, says Allison & Taylor Reference Checking.  Additionally, even companies with reference policies in place cannot ensure that their employees will necessarily abide by such rules.

As a consequence, while countless job hunters feel secure in the idea that a former employer will only provide their position title and dates of employment, there's a very good chance that this is not the case.  The “safe” references many job seekers provide to potential employers may be the very ones that are killing their chances of winning that sought-after new job.

Here are some actual examples of questions and responses in references checked by Allison & Taylor:

We would like to verify that (the candidate) held the position (title) from (dates), is this correct?

  • “He was an account executive, not a Senior V.P.”
  • “His name doesn't ring a bell.”
  • “We do not have this person anywhere in our records.”
  • “I am not allowed to say anything about this person as they were fired”

Some references will refuse to rank a past employee due to an unfavorable impression:

  • “No comment, they could not do anything correctly in the position they held with us”
  • “Let's save time.  Basically, you could rank them inadequate in all areas”

When questioned about strengths and weaknesses:

  • “I cannot think of any strengths, only weaknesses”
  • “I'm sure there must be some strengths but nothing jumps out at me.”
  • “Weaknesses seem to stick in my mind ... I'd have to really think about any strengths”
  • “I'd rather not comment - you can take that however you want”

Regarding Eligibility for re-hire: Is this person eligible for re-hire?

  • “He is not.  I'm really not supposed to say much but he was unreliable and sick at lot.”
  • “Probably not - she had a hard time working in a team environment.
  • “No, but I can't say why.”
  • “Probably not, but it's just a suspicion of mine.”
  • “No, because he didn't want to work here and made it clear he didn't want to work here.”
  • “I wouldn't re-hire him.  He was disorganized and dishonest.”
  • “No, it was the departure - kind of burned his bridges when he left.”
  • “No, she stole from the company.  We have an investigation pending.”

When asked about the reason for employment separation:  Could you fully describe the circumstances and reason for the separation?

  • “She was fired.”
  • “She was let go - she didn't do her part as expected.”
  • “He was let go ... there was a conflict with the children - he didn't follow safety standards and guidelines.”
  • “I fired him!  He and his buddy had some illegal things going.”
  • “She had been written up and she walked out on work ... because she was upset.”
  • “It was a rather delicate and awkward situation. You should call her other past employers. I made the mistake of not doing that.”
  • “She was terminated in an investigation...” (The reference then got very quiet and said he had General Council in his office and couldn't say anything more.)

Responses to questions about performance: References are asked to rank skills on a scale from 1(inadequate) to 5 (outstanding):

  • Oral Communications:  “Can I give a negative number ... -1”?
  • Financial Skills:  “Well, that's why our company had a major layoff - left her in charge of finances!”
  • Written Communications:  “You mean when she finally turned in the reports due a week earlier??”
  • Technical Skills:  “Is zero in your rating scale?”
  • Interpersonal Relations:  “One.  He had a problem with a few of the people. I should have ended the relationship just after he started.”
  • Productivity:  “Is there a rating less than inadequate?
  • Employee Relations:  “There was a lot of he said/ she said happening with other employees. And other than her leaving, nothing else has changed.  We haven't had any problems since then, so we know she was the source of the problem.”
  • Decision Making:  “He couldn't make a decision if his life depended on it!”
  • Leadership:  “He had no leadership skills.”
  • Crisis Management:  “He [fireman] totally ignored the emergency call when it came in.  He said he didn't hear it!”
  • Short Term Planning:  “Lousy, can't remember something that was completed on time!”
  • Personal Integrity:  “I don't think she had any integrity.”
  • Long Term Planning:  “He wasn't here long enough to rate him.”
  • Overall Performance:  “Inadequate would be a positive word for him!”
  • Managerial Skills:  “He couldn't manage a group of children!”

It is not uncommon to contact a reference and find them hesitant, evasive or annoyed by the call. Sometimes tone of voice and inflection speak volumes- many express anger, shock, unhappiness or disbelief that they have been called regarding the employee.

We are calling you as a reference regarding (the candidate).

  • “I do not care to comment at all.  I let him go and that's all I care to say!”
  • “Are you certain he gave you my name?”
  • “I cannot believe you were given my name as a reference”
  • “Hold on, let me get the legal file to see what I am allowed to say”
  • “Never heard of him!”
  • “I'm surprised she even listed us on her work history.”

Allison & Taylor estimates that 50% of their references come back as “lukewarm” or “negative”.  Don't allow yourself to be surprised and sabotaged by an unfavorable reference.  A simple reference check, conducted by a professional agency such as Allison & Taylor, can tell you definitively whether or not a reference is providing a positive, professional response to inquiries made about you.  If they are not, you can take proactive steps to prevent this continued spread of negative information, and you may even have legal recourse.

To find out more about reference checking, please visit Allison & Taylor.


Allison & Taylor Inc. and its principals have been in the business of checking references for individuals and corporate accounts since 1984. We have successfully built our brand and corporate recognition and have been recommended by industry specialists such as The New York Times award-winning author Martin Yate (“Knock 'Em Dead Resumes”). Numerous articles have been published about our business in newspapers and magazines including The Christian Science Monitor, The Wall Street Journal, Glamour Magazine, New Woman, Worth, National Business Employment Weekly, The Detroit News, and The St. Petersburg Times. For more information, please visit or call (800) 890-5645.

Media Contact:

Jeff Shane

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