are bad references stored in a database?

A reader writes:

When I recently applied for a job, I gave my former boss’ name on an employment form as supervisor. I was under the impression they would check only my personal references and limit discussions with my former company to dates, salary, job role.

However I am under the impression my former boss gave me a bad reference. I plan not to list him next time, but I wonder if it stays in a database for these 3rd party reference checkers. If my next target employer uses this same 3rd party, I am worried they may say what happen with the last potential employer. Can I assume they start fresh on each background check?

I know there is always a risk they can locate my old boss, but I am more concerned about the database piece.

There are weird assumptions in this letter.

First, good reference-checkers will not limit themselves to just the formal list of references you provide. They will call former managers, listed or not — and sometimes especially those not listed, since they know the omission may have been intentional and thus notable. (After all, the list you hand over is of course the people likely to present you in the best light, and they want to see you in brighter lighting.) And they won’t confine their questions to dates of employment; they’ll ask what you were like as an employee.

The only thing typically considered off-limits in reference-checking is your current employer, so assume everything else is all fair game.

As for some sort of universal database for reference-checkers, I know of none. Good reference checkers want to ask their own questions and hear the answers first-hand so they can judge tone, inflections, and so forth. That said, I suppose that if a company uses a third-party reference-checking firm, and then you later apply to another company that uses that same firm, you might be already in their database. I don’t use third-party reference checkers, so it’s outside my knowledge range. But it’s probably irrelevant for the reason above.

If you have a potentially bad reference in your past, here’s a previous post on how to handle it. Good luck.

{ 3 comments… read them below }

  1. llamaface*

    Last year when I was job hunting, I was concerned about what my references were saying about me. From actually talking with the references, it sounded like I was getting excellent references from them. Yet, I was still having trouble finding a job.

    Finally I had a professional friend call all of my references. She was involved in the hiring process at her business, so she knew how to be professional about it. I found out that my references WERE giving me excellent reports, I guess it was just a crappy market.

    Still, if done right, having someone call your references for you can be a good way to make sure exactly what your references are saying. (Though, if done wrong, it can be really annoying to your references)

  2. Just another HR lady...*

    This must be a little different across country lines, but here in Canada, you need written or express oral permission from the candidate to contact any employment references (privacy issues) or to give out any employment information to anyone else, so contacting those outside the provided list is a legal no-no. That’s not to say however, that references “informally” get checked by those in the know. That’s common practice everywhere I believe. Also, if someone says “no” when I ask to contact a specific reference, there has to be a very good answer as to why not, or I’m going to be suspicious.

    In terms of reference checking in general, I rarely call personal references, they have no real relevance as to whether or not you can do the job I am hiring for.

    The bigger question here would be why do you think your former boss gave you a negative reference? Perhaps you need to speak to that person? Sometimes people assume a reference was negative because they didn’t get the job, but there are dozens of factors around whether or not someone is successful in obtaining a position or not, of which references are just one.

  3. Anonymous*

    Get your reference checked to see what they say about you. Try or then you’ll know for sure

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