don’t check references? here’s a horror story for you

This was originally published in 2010.

This post is for anyone who has ever said or secretly thought that reference-checking is a waste of time.

Not long ago, I had a job candidate on the verge of being hired. He had wowed everyone in the interview and clearly had the skills to the do the job well.

Something was strange about his reference list, though: The references he offered were from several jobs back; his list didn’t contain anyone from either of his last two jobs, even though he said his current boss knew he was looking. And one was a former professor, although he’d had several jobs since school. Red flag or someone who just didn’t know how to put together a good reference list?

We asked him to put us in touch with two recent managers, and he did. Okay, I thought, his lack of push-back or caveats could be a good sign.

And then we called them.

We found out that he’d been fired for theft and fraud at both of his last two jobs, and even served time in jail for one of those cases.

Imagine if we, like some employers, hadn’t bothered to check references at all, or hadn’t pushed back to get more relevant and recent ones. More to the point, would your reference-checking practices have kept this from happening to you, or would this guy now be working down the hall from you, defrauding you too?

Check references. And to make that check more valuable, use these tips too:

* Don’t limit yourself only to the candidate’s list of references. If the candidate has offered peers (or professors or “personal” references) rather than managers, or people who haven’t worked with her recently, ask to be put in touch with the specific people you want to talk to.

* Call main switchboard numbers. If you know the reference works at XYZ Company, look up the company’s main number online, call that, and ask to be transferred to the person, rather than just calling the direct number you were given. It’s not unheard of for candidates to give you a friend’s phone number so the friend can pose as the former boss. [Or even to pose as the reference themselves; see the incredible comment from MJB on this post (toward the end of the comments list).]

* Ask the right questions. If you just run through a perfunctory list of questions, you may never get to the most useful information. Rather than asking questions like “Is there anything Joe could improve in?” (to which a lot of references might respond “nothing comes to mind”), ask, “If you had to pick two ways Joe could improve, what would they be?” Also, you can provide options where there’s no “bad” choice and ask the reference to select the choice that sounds most like the candidate. For instance, “Some people thrive in fast-paced environments but might err on the side of losing precision, whereas others are incredibly precise but do better when there’s more time to focus on their work. Which sounds more like Joe?” (If you want a list of great questions, here’s a really good one from The Management Center.)

References are only a waste of time if you treat them like just an item to check off your list, rather than as a genuinely valuable part of your assessment process.

{ 139 comments… read them below }

  1. nicole*

    very good advice. Im guessing since he spent time in jail, and they didn’t know until they did the reference check, he failed to disclose on his application that he had been convicted of a felony.

    1. AVP*

      But there are so many jobs for which this isn’t asked. I mean, it’s usually asked if you’re filling out a paper application or a retail or food services job, and I would imagine it’s easy to put it in there if you’re filling something out online for an HR tracking system. But I know for my company it’s just a “send us a resume and cover letter” type job ad and your felony history isn’t mentioned at all.

      Not that I think it necessarily needs to be asked in most situations…but again that’s why references are so important!

    2. Aunt Vixen*

      Point of order: you can do time in jail for a misdemeanor. ;-) (Point of tinier order: I read somewhere, not that I can remember where, that a jail is where they hold you either pending trial for any crime or following conviction for a misdemeanor, i.e. for sentences of less than a year, and a prison is where they hold you following conviction for a felony, i.e. for sentences of a year or more. So it may be that if you’ve done time in *jail*, it can *only* have been for a misdemeanor. I suspect very few people outside the corrections business make this distinction, though.)

      Anyway the last one of those I had to answer asked if I had ever been convicted in court of anything other than a misdemeanor or a minor traffic violation. So depending on the degree of theft and fraud, the guy may – had he been asked this question, which I see Alison says he was not – have been able to answer it honestly without disclosing that he’d been in jail.

      1. Emily K*

        You’re correct: A jail is a (typically small) town or county facility run by your sheriff or county police. You can serve time there, but it’s usually a short stay, and more often it’s just a holding facility for people awaiting trial. A prison is a state or federal facility, run by the state government or the federal Bureau of Prisons, where people serve long sentences. (As a very general rule, you go to a state prison for violating a state law only and a federal prison for violating federal or federal and state laws.)

      2. University admin*

        People also go to jail before trial if they can’t make bail or are remanded, and some of them end up being acquitted.

    3. Bananka*

      In my experience in various industries, this would have been discovered through a background check to which the candidates must agree to upon getting an offer.
      Are there really companies that do not do a background check on prospective employees?

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Background checks, as in confirming everything on the resume, including schooling, and doing a criminal check (as opposed to a reference check)? Yes, absolutely — the majority of employers don’t do that.

        1. Joey*

          I wonder why employers don’t do background checks when depending on the job they can make a ton of sense. I’m no advocate of blanket backgrounds but for things like working around children, money, dangerous substances, etc it seems to be pretty irresponsible to not do them.

          1. Julie*

            For some jobs working with children, there are laws requiring background checks. When I volunteered in a public school in NYC, I had to give my fingerprints and agree to a background check.

        2. WM*

          My employer does a criminal background check on all employees – however that step is usually after an offer is accepted, etc. It’s really more a part of on boarding rather than the interview process. We do also have to consent to annual criminal background checks as well.

      2. abby*

        You bet! I am in my late 40s and just had my very first pre-employment background check in 2011. I’ve worked mostly for small companies, which may explain why.

  2. AdAgencyChick*

    MJB’s comment has my mind boggled. At least if you’re going to lie, don’t be stupid about it!

  3. Dang*


    It seems like a lot of employers only check references when there’s a conditional offer out. It’s better than NOT doing it, from the employers perspective… but I think checking the top two or three candidates’ references could be helpful, too. You might find out things that change your mind.

    This is probably just wishful thinking because I think my references can sell my skills more than I have been able to in my interviews!

    1. LAI*

      Well, I think at the point where you are being directly asked for a reference’s contact info, you can’t refuse to give it – that would be just as much of a red flag and would probably disqualify you as a candidate anyway. So his only option (besides going back in time and not committing theft and fraud) was to give the contact info and hope that they didn’t actually call/couldn’t get a hold of them/etc.

  4. Sharm*

    As a side note, I can’t believe people actually list personal references. I was always told to only list managers. We’ve been interviewing candidates at my current job, and one person gave us a list of references, two of which were listed as personal, and two as professional. That is so bizarre to me — why would you list a personal reference at all? Stick to professional, IMO.

    As for this horror story — I swear that when I was working in California, my colleagues kept saying that if you are someone’s reference, you aren’t allowed to say anything negative about the candidate because if it gets back to the candidate they could… I don’t know, sue you? There seemed to be some legal ramifications for it, but that just seemed outlandish to me. Has anyone heard anything like this before?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      It’s an urban legend. It’s not true. I think it started from companies that have policies of not giving references, which then got mis-translated into “you’re not legally allowed to give references.”

      1. LIZ*

        Speaking of companies that don’t give references. I have that problem right now. I worked for a small business 3+ years and quit a couple months to pursue something related to my major and now my ex-employer told me the only information he will give out is: dates of employment and title. He told me even thought I did a great job, his lawyer advised him not to give references because he could get sued. I am afraid my potential employer will see this a a red flag!! what can I do to? Should I still list them as reference? PLEASE HELP!

      2. SevenSixOne*

        I have worked for more than one place that explicitly prohibited anyone above a certain level from giving references. If they recieved a request for a reference, they were to transfer the reference-checker to human resources, who would verify dates of employment, salary history, and whether the employee was eligible to re-hire (and if the answer was no, HR wouldn’t necessarily say why).

        It’s not hard to see how that could get twisted around to NO REFERENCES FROM ANYONE EVER!!!

    2. AVP*

      So, I recently gave someone a lackluster reference, and while at the beginning of the call it seemed like they were ready to offer her a job, I know for a fact that she didn’t get it and that my reference was the reason. (I mean, she did herself in by making up dates of employment, but whatever.)

      Anyway, she called my boss after she didn’t get the job to scream about “HOW DARE YOU ruin my chances of future employment!!! This is not right or legal!!” He politely pointed out that um, if you do a shitty job and get fired, and then make stuff up on your new applications, it’s really your own problem to solve and all we can do is be honest to people who ask us questions. And it is perfectly legal to do so.

    3. Dan*

      I applied to two jobs that both use the Great Jobs interface. At the time of application, they both asked for three references, who were NOT former employers or family. WTF? I put former employers down anyway, because I’m sure as heck not putting friends down and I don’t know who else to put.

      1. LAI*

        I don’t even know what that means. Could they have meant that they want 3 references that are all from your CURRENT employer?

        1. Zillah*

          Which would still be a major issue for folks who are ether unemployed or who don’t to widely broadcast it around their current office that they’re leaving.

          1. Julie*

            Plus, it’s ridiculous to ask people for that information right at the beginning of the application process.

        2. Emily K*

          I’ve come across these requests and hate them. They’re supposed to be “character references” but I’ve always struggled with coming up with people who fit the bill. Most of the advice I come across suggests listing adults you know from church, social clubs, and things like that–which I’ve never belonged to.

    4. Anonymous*

      Of course its legal to give a reference whether negative or positive, but that doesn’t mean there can’t be legal consequences when serving as a reference. In cases of references there is something called “qualified immunity” but its not absolute. It won’t protect you if you are lying or misrepresenting facts. I assume most companies that prohibit giving references for former employers do so because they want to avoid any potential litigation. My only point is that if you are serving as a reference and you act in bad faith or lie, you shouldn’t assume there won’t be consequences.

      1. HR “Gumption”*

        Qualified immunity applies to State for Federal positions. Nothing to do with private employers.

        1. Anonymous*

          Excuse the typo, “qualified privilege” not immunity. Qualified privilege is a defense to defamation.

    5. littlemoose*

      It’s distressing that this belief seems so prevalent; I’ve heard it repeated many times. It is hard to imagine a situation in which a reference-giver could be used for giving a normal reference, even if it’s negative. Truth is a defense to defamation (slander is spoken, libel is written), so saying “He was fired for theft” or “He was late to work on average twice per week” is not actionable as long as it’s true. It’s also quite difficult to use for defamation based on someone’s opinion, e.g. “We thought his writing skills were poor.” I’m sure there are nuances of employment law that I don’t know, but broadly speaking, as long as the reference-giver isn’t lying, they would be fine. There is so much silliness and hesitation to act in general for fear of lawsuits that wouldn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of prevailing.

      *Not legal advice, talk to your own lawyer for specifics, etc etc.

    6. Anonymous*

      Why not personal? If I give out my WHOLE list, it includes 6 professional managers, 1 academic, and 3 personal references.

      Two of the personal references I also happened to work with (though they were not my manager), so they can attest to my work ethic, and the other is a police officer that has known me since high school.

      This may seem like overkill, but I don’t always give out the entire list. If I DO give them all, it typically means I’m a finalist or the job requires additional references. Note that I don’t want to give out my most recent boss, because he was a horrible bully and is vindictive towards those who leave his employ (I’ve witnessed this firsthand!). That is why I give the personal co-worker reference. She now works for a well-respected company and can verify, if need be, conditions at the ex-job.

        1. Kat M*

          When I’ve applied for jobs at faith-based organizations in the past (church daycares, small nonprofits, etc), they’ve always asked for both professional and character references. So I keep the list on hand, just in case, although I haven’t had the urge to work for such an organization in some time.

        2. Simonthegrey*

          So, this led me to a side question. My best friend of 10+ years and I own a small business together. It’s an online business, but it is listed on my resume. It takes up the bulk of our summer and we file taxes for it, etc. For jobs that “didn’t matter” – i.e. she has started doing petsitting and one requirement was a reference who had known her for more than 2 years, personal or professional – we list each other as references. While we were friends for many years before creating this business, we list each other as business partners. I have never done it for my *professional* jobs because I’m afraid it would look too much like a personal reference, but is this kosher? Would someone look down on a reference like that?

          Obviously we have other references, but we are in related fields at the same community college and have worked together at one other prior job before starting our business or working at the college.

    7. Anonymous*

      The “employers aren’t allowed to give negative references” legend is widely believed where I work. I have tried to point out that if this was so, it would be essentially pointless to contact a reference since they can only say good things anyway.

      1. Public Manager*

        I have worked for a couple of organizations that specifically told us (the managers) that we could not give out references. All we could do is verify the candidate’s job title, dates of employment, salary and whether or not they were eligible for rehire.

      2. Public Manager*

        In any case, I’ve always recommended to tell the truth, no matter how painful. In many cases, listing the boss that you didn’t get along with or the job you got fired from many not hinder you in the long run, as long as you are truthful.

        I’ve been fired twice in my career due to “poor fit” issues – I just did not like my conditions, or my boss. It happens. There will be jobs you won’t get, of course, but in the long run honesty is the best policy. There are many good people in the world out there – and they know stuff happens.

        Always, always tell the truth. Besides, in reality, no EVERY boss is going to get called. Just be prepared for if and when they do!

  5. HM in Atlanta*

    Reference checking is only good if the reference checker knows how to use the information. Otherwise, it’s a product of a bygone era where you would actually know the person providing the reference. (Or worse, they would be from your same social class, so you could “trust” their assessment – think Downton Abbey).

    References today should be about patterns of behavior, sharing information about serious situations (like AAM mentions above), or info that leads to further conversations with the candidate. This should only be one piece of the hiring decision thought process. Calling a person you don’t know and allowing their words alone to decide if you hire someone or not is foolish.

    1. Joey*

      Well I admit if I’m having a tough time between two and one has a reference that made me doubt the candidate it would be hard not to allow that to be the deciding factor.

  6. Lee*

    Wouldn’t a background check take care of the same thing a reference check did? Except you have proof, instead of word of mouth “truth” from a stranger.
    I can understand how a reference check can tell you things you wouldn’t normally know like attitude, attendance, etc but a simple background check would have eliminated the candidate before it even got to the point of calling recent managers.
    I guess my point is the candidate could have made up a managers name and number and then no one would have been the wiser but a background check would provide more solid proof.

    1. Jubilance*

      A background check can tell you if someone has a criminal background, but they can’t tell you if they will be a good employee. A good reference check can tell you if the person meets deadlines, is able to handle their workload, has error-proof work, etc. None of that would be on a background check.

    2. Interviewer*

      A background check might have caught this info – if the employer paid for the right screening service, and it includes the same region and the right time frame where the conviction occurred.

      For our background searches, we ask the applicant to list all addresses in the past 7 years. We ask for maiden names & aliases. We search for all criminal & civil results using that data. But candidates move, change names, and change jobs. What if it was a long time ago, in a county far, far away? It’s really possible to miss something in a background check.

      But reference checks – wherever possible, calling previous employers directly is a great start. You might not get anywhere with so many employers these days refusing to do more than confirm dates – but every once in a while, you hit the jackpot. I would love to tell a prospective employer about the person who took home client fees for 6 months. Please, hiring managers, call me about her! I’ll dish that dirt all day.

        1. A Cita*

          Yes, I was thinking the same–some government agency with security clearance, as the 7 year look back is pretty standard.

          1. WM*

            That sounds like our process – I’m not govt, finance, or childcare, but I do work with sensitive data. I had a new hire get caught up in the process because a company she worked for (it was right around the 7-year mark) had been acquired by another company and 7 years later the new company didn’t have ready-access to all the old records from 7+ years ago to validate employment records, etc. It was kind of a mess and we had to just say to human capital, “It was over 7 years ago… can we just capture the last 6 years and move on?” Geez.

  7. EJ*

    Hate to nitpick but this sounds like a success story and not a horror story…it was caught through effective hiring screening processes.

    1. Lee*

      I think the candidate was “caught” at the very last second and was essentially almost hired before the reference check.

      A truly effective screening process would have checked the candidate’s criminal history before it progressed to the point of an in-person interview. You don’t want someone onsite who has a past history of violence, domestic abuse, etc.

      1. ArtsNerd*

        Before an in-person interview is totally overkill in most situations. Background checks take a bit of time, and hiring is slow enough as it is. Best to just run them on finalists.

        Even if someone has a history of violence, MOST of the time they are not going to be violent. Proper security procedures to defuse threats from anyone on-site (not just candidates) are the way to handle that concern.

        1. Lee*

          “Background checks take a bit of time, and hiring is slow enough as it is. Best to just run them on finalists.”
          So, because some background checks are slow, that’s a legitimate reason to jump through all the hiring hoops with a candidate, only to find they have a domestic abuse history right before you decide to hire them?
          “Even if someone has a history of violence, MOST of the time they are not going to be violent. Proper security procedures to defuse threats from anyone on-site (not just candidates) are the way to handle that concern.”
          What does this mean? Violent offenders aren’t violent most the of time? So a history of violence, means more than likely you’re a gentle guy? And the only security procedure to keep a violent candidate from killing us in the workplace would be a armed guard inside our suite at all times.
          I guess I don’t understand why companies want to invest time in interviewing and referencing checking a candidate (both of which are more or less opinions of the candidate), when a preliminary background checks takes care of all that with facts.

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            A preliminary background check doesn’t actually take care of all that. As Jubilance pointed out above, it can verify things like employment history but not what type of employee the person was, which is something reference checkers care strongly about.

            The majority of employers don’t run criminal background checks at all. It’s more common at large companies and certain types of position, but not across the board.

          2. Just a Reader*

            I wouldn’t give my private information for a preliminary background check just to get an interview.

              1. Area51*

                Dealbreaker for me is any company that requires personal & confidential information (SS#, references, background check authorization, etc.) before a job offer. It’s 2014 and identity theft is happening everyday in so many ways. I don’t want that info in some company’s database if it really doesn’t need to be there.

                1. SevenSixOne*

                  Story time: I worked for a large regional company that implemented an online application system in 2008. When I left the company in 2012, every online application the company had ever recieved (>300,000) was still there on the company intranet in a database that was accessible to anyone in the company. I knew of more than one employee in my 7-person team who’d surf the database just for fun.

                  I learned from this not to share anything but the bare minimum on applications, since I have no way of knowing how long the company will keep my application or who can see that information.

              2. A Cita*

                + 1

                Yep, why would I give all that info for just an application (no interview yet). Nope, offer needs to be contingent first and it better be a job that really needs this sort of info (like my current job). If it’s for, say, slinging stilettos at Saks, no way. Not worth it even for getting to play with thousand dollar shoes.

      2. Dan*

        You’re exaggerating. Past histories are just that, in the past. People who have been convicted of a crime aren’t committing crimes 24/7. Being in such a monitored and controlled environment really minimizes risk.

        1. Lee*

          “You’re exaggerating. Past histories are just that, in the past.” If that were true, what’s the point of even doing background checks? It establishes past behavior.
          “People who have been convicted of a crime aren’t committing crimes 24/7.”
          I agree. Convicted felons are not continuously committing crimes every waking second of their life. It can be a fair indicator of past behaviors, patterns, etc in most cases though. I thought that was the point I made.
          “Being in such a monitored and controlled environment really minimizes risk.”
          What does that mean? Forego background checks because we have a recording camera in the ceiling that follows you?

            1. Lee*

              “But it’s not an indicator of future behavior and shouldn’t be viewed as such.”
              Are you really saying a candidate with a past history of theft should still be considered for a sensitive banking position?
              Or a man with a domestic abuse history could be a counselor for battered women?

              I understand “second chances” and the idea that people can change, but who wouldn’t consider someone’s criminal history for a position?

              1. AJ-in-Memphis*

                I’m saying you shouldn’t – not that most people wouldn’t. Your questions aren’t relevant to what I’m saying for this reason: A person with a conviction that is qualified to the work that you mention will never apply for that type job in the first place. They already know that they won’t be a good fit based on common sense.

                But to make a blanket statement that past choices are an indication of someone’s character or what kind of employee they will be is completely wrong, no matter the industry.

                It’s absolutely not a indication of future character, which is why drug rehab centers often hire former drug addicts or law enforcement enlists the help of former criminals. The majority aren’t bad people. That’s the point that you missed.

                1. Joey*

                  They don’t apply because they know the place probably does a background check or if they’re found out they’ll be fired, not because they don’t think they’re a good fit.

                2. Zillah*

                  I agree with Joey. In fact, I would think that many people who are at high risk to recommit would love to have those positions. It’s not like all pedophiles self-select out of jobs working with kids out of the goodness of their hearts.

      3. AJ-in-Memphis*

        You do know that you can’t bar someone from employment *just because* they have a criminal history… They can (and should) file a complaint with the EEOC if there’s any indication that this is happening in your company.

        Background checks should be used to see if a candidate is telling the truth about their education, employment and criminal history (if asked and relevant to the position).

        People do lots of stupid things when they’re young/angry/broke and should NOT be punished for it for the rest of their lives. Crime and punishment should be left up to the courts not private enterprise. (Obviously I feel very strongly about this.)

        1. Oin*

          I work for a public school system and we do bar people with certain criminal histories. If a person is convicted of a crime involving children then they cannot work in a school.

        2. Lee*

          I work in a financial institution, so every candidates has to be screened. If they have any fraud, laundering or theft on their record we can certainly disqualify them immediately.
          “They can (and should) file a complaint with the EEOC if there’s any indication that this is happening in your company.”
          Your referring to a law some states have adopted that says you cannot discriminate against a candidate if their crime is not relevant to the field they applied in. I think this law was intended to provide some relief to people with possession of marijuana charges (or some other menial charges….leash laws anyone??!). But as a financial firm with sensitive info, we consider ANY criminal charges the person has.
          “People do lots of stupid things when they’re young/angry/broke and should NOT be punished for it for the rest of their lives”
          Agreed. Everyone was young and dumb at one point in their lives. But being young and dumb has it’s consequences and it’s absurd to imply those consequences have some sort of expiration.

        3. HR “Gumption”*

          AJ, you are mistaken. There is some state laws that apply re: criminal history and hiring decisions but there is no “can’t bar…” absolute.

          1. AJ-in-Memphis*

            From iseeshiny below:
            “As I understand it, the idea is not to knock anyone out of the running just because they have a criminal background. The guidelines essentially say that if you are going to do a background check, you need to take into consideration the nature of the crime, the time elapsed, and how it might affect the work they’ll be doing. “

            1. Lee*

              These guidelines by the EEOC were made to protect other races and those with minor legal infractions.

              They were not made to force every candidate with a criminal history to be equally considered against candidates without one. What would even be the point of a background check if you aren’t really allowed to consider it’s information in hiring?

              1. iseeshiny*


                Also from my comment below: “They’re not saying a pharmacy has to hire a drug dealer, but maybe that contracting company doesn’t need to boot someone from the running because someone had a conviction for marijuana possession fifteen years ago.” I in no way said it can only be used to verify whether someone is being truthful.

                For the record, that is not the first time I’ve ever quoted myself, strangely, but it is the first time I’ve not done it to be funny.

        4. Anonymous*

          “People do lots of stupid things when they’re young/angry/broke and should NOT be punished for it for the rest of their lives. Crime and punishment should be left up to the courts not private enterprise. (Obviously I feel very strongly about this.)”

          +1. I work in retail and a conversation at work has come up about this before. Many people I work with have been in small trouble with the police at some point in their teenage years. I personally haven’t, but many people admitted to having shoplifted etc when they were a teenager, and some had small criminal records.

          These are all people trusted to run a till and some of them are managers. At work, I hang my coat and bag in the staff area (we don’t have lockers, though we should…) and in the 2 years I’ve worked there I’ve never heard of anyone having stuff stolen (except the odd cigarette people say has gone missing from their pockets). We have cameras on the till area but the main concern for cash shortages is forged bank notes coming from customers.

          People do stupid things. I once shook a vending machine to get a free chocolate out when I was like 13. I would consider that theft today and wouldn’t do it. But at that age I just saw the chocolate hanging out and didn’t think about it. Because I did that once doesn’t mean I have a criminal mindset.

        5. Joey*

          Well you’re certainly entitled to your opinion, but it would probably be better if you label your comments as such. You’re making it sound like the law bars employers from considering criminal convictions, the nature of the crime and its relevancy/proximity and that’s absolutely false.

  8. Anonymous*

    I really wish more would check references. 1 of my not-for-profit audit clients (many years and 2 jobs ago) had an accountant who stole funds from them. He paid restitution to them and they didn’t press charges. His next employer evidently didn’t check references because he was hired at another non-profit organization a few months later.

    He worked there for a year without a problem until some petty cash was missing and no explanation was given. Luckily his supervisor paid close attention to what he was doing and when he was questioned months later when checks were written to vendors the organization didn’t do business with, he resigned before the internal investigation was complete.

    Yes employers- please check references!

  9. KJR*

    We hired a woman who had worked for the same company for almost 20 years, and that company would not do anything but verify dates of employment. She had no way to provide any sort of work reference. She interviewed very well, but turned out to be a terrible employee. We had to terminate her after 6 months. I don’t know what we could have done differently here, other than to just not hire her at all, and move on to other candidates. Anyone run into this type of situation before?

    Also, the new EEOC guidelines on not necessarily holding criminal histories against candidates confuses me. Are we to use our best judgement and hope the EEOC agrees with us if it ever goes to court? I feel like we are stuck between a rock and a hard place — if I find a criminal history and still hire the person, and they do something criminal in the course of their employment with us, we are liable. If we don’t hire them based on the criminal background, they can sue us for that. Am I interpreting this incorrectly?

    1. iseeshiny*

      As I understand it, the idea is not to knock anyone out of the running just because they have a criminal background. The guidelines essentially say that if you are going to do a background check, you need to take into consideration the nature of the crime, the time elapsed, and how it might affect the work they’ll be doing. Obviously they aren’t saying that grade schools should hire pedophiles, but they might be saying that someone whose done the time for pedophilia should not be automatically rejected from a manufacturing job just because they have an (admittedly disgusting) criminal background. They’re not saying a pharmacy has to hire a drug dealer, but maybe that contracting company doesn’t need to boot someone from the running because someone had a conviction for marijuana possession fifteen years ago. If you automatically reject everyone with a record without considering these things then, yes, they can sue you.

    2. LAI*

      Who did you talk to at the company? In my experience, HR staff will usually only verify dates of employment, but if you contact the person who directly supervised the employee, they can usually talk to you. And if they can’t/won’t, I’d probably go back to the candidate and ask them to provide additional references.

    3. CAA*

      If a candidate tells you she can’t give you any work references because her current employer forbids it, you can help her identify people who know her work and aren’t bound by that restriction.

      She can give you (in order of my preference):
      – former managers or supervisors who’ve since left the company
      – indirect managers who no longer work there (these could be managers of other departments, or higher level managers to whom her manager reported)
      – clients or customers
      – former co-workers

      If I gave someone all of these options, and she still couldn’t come up with a single name, I’d probably pass.

    4. Anon*

      My boyfriend used to work for a large West Coast tech company whose policy is not to give references, only confirm dates of employment. He has a few horror stories from his department. One instance of theft of company property was particularly ridiculous. But since that guy’s manager couldn’t give a reference, he got another job in the industry. Honestly, every time I hear these stories they blow my AAM-reading mind.

      1. Woodward*

        That’s how I feel after being an almost daily AAM-reader for the last year: “every time I hear these stories they blow my mind”.

  10. Anonymous*

    My former manager was the fraudulent one. I don’t include him on any reference lists because he skipped the state to avoid confrontation or problems. Everything he did strode the line of not quite illegal but extremely unethical.

    But if someone asked me for his contact information I wouldn’t want to give it. Should I? (I think that chances are good he’d actually give a glowing reference but it isn’t really a reference I want.) I have listed others from the organization who were higher up than he was, but I’d really prefer not to list him?
    I haven’t had anyone actually ask for him as a reference yet but if I do how do I handle that?

    1. Carrie*

      If someone asked, I would probably explain why you don’t use him as a reference matter-of-factually, and offer an alternative that makes sense.

      1. Anonymous*

        That’s sort of what I’ve prepared as a response. Strangely I only had one interview that asked why I’d left that job and she actually knew what had happened so I had to balance a fairly direct truth with making sure it didn’t seem like gossip/bashing. No one else has asked my why I left or for my Evil Former Manager’s contact information.

    2. Anonymous*

      I have a similar problem. ExBoss and ExJob were horrible, unethical, and ExBoss routinely trashes employees who have left (I witnessed this when I was still there) due his bullying.

      As a reference for this job, I give a co-worker. I know it’s not ideal, but it’s all I’ve got right now as there is no HR department and it was a small startup company.

      1. Anon*

        Did we work at the same place? I’m in exactly the same situation, right down to the no HR and small start-up company bit.

        1. Very worried*

          I have a similar problem. I worked for a famous musician for 5+ years (2008 -2013) as his CFO. When I joined, his group of companies was in chaos. He is a US citizen resident in the UK. He hadn’t (and still hasn’t) filed his US tax returns since 1998, despite the returns themselves having been ready for filing. IRS keep sending him reminders which he ignores. His UK taxes on all companies – VAT, payroll and Companies House returns were all in arrears and he had been threatened with a 7 day court summons or go to jail. I sorted out all of the UK accounting mess, with much procrastination, obfuscation, confabulation, delusion and denial of responsibility on his behalf. I warned him for 5+ years he would run out of money. His son-in-law (a high-flying corporate lawyer) is the Managing Director and takes a whopping basic salary as well as agent’s commission gross on all deals – far more than the companies can afford to cash flow. Arguments between the two were commonplace and I was frequently caught in the cross-fire. The musician has had to re-mortgage his home to put cash into the companies. They are both appalling man-managers with little respect for people not of their ilk. Staff turnover in the accounts department was horrendous because they were treated like personal servants. I even politely informed them of this to try to remedy the situation. Their response was that they pay the wages so staff should do whatever they are asked to do! Then they blamed me and said I had a ‘personality problem’! I had enough and resigned when they falsely accused me of stealing £278K of his money. Typical narcissists took it very badly – as a personal rejection … they always do whenever anyone resigns. As is their way, I too was demonised and blamed for the cash flow crunch, despite having an impeccable work history before joining that group, a professional accounting qualification and MBA from top tier school. I know I could sue them for constructive dismissal, but I don’t want the grief. I worked for my previous company for almost six years 1999 – 2004 (it folded in 2008) and then left to study the MBA 2004-2006. Now I have the problems of no references other than the company I worked for prior to 1999 … 15 years ago which has been taken over … what do I say to future employers about references? … help!

  11. CCD*

    I would just add, from personal experience, to trust your gut.

    I once did a reference check where the reference giver was very cagey. She hadn’t volunteered this man’s name, but we knew he was her last manager and had required him as a reference. He never said anything negative, but after hanging up I just couldn’t put my finger on what the problem was. Her other references (from older jobs) had been normal, nothing outstanding, but since they were from several years prior, that wasn’t too shocking.

    I went ahead and hired her (ACK! I still shudder remembering) and she was one of my worst hires EVER. After 3 months, she was let go for being verbally abusive to her coworkers (including me, her direct supervisor).

    After receiving the “wrongful termination” lawsuit, it was discovered that the individual I had called was (at the time) going through a wrongful termination lawsuit himself and had been afraid to say anything that might have had impact on his case. I cringe every time I think about all I could have avoided if I had been more open to hearing between the lines of what he was saying.

    1. Emma F*

      I onced worked someone (we’ll call him Bob) who freely admitted to giving a good reference to a horrible employee (call him Tim) to avoid exactly that situation (this story had happened several years before, at a different company). Tim was the sort of a-hole who would scream abuse at Bob for asking him to do very reasonable, normal things (among many other problems). Bob was worried that Tim would sue if they tried to fire him, so he decided that giving Tim a good reference would be a far more painless way to make him leave.

      The moral of this story, according to Bob, is that you shouldn’t trust references from current employers. Of course, for situatuations like yours, that is a super-duper unhelpful lesson. Gut reactions are probably helpful, because that might be your brain picking up on subtle signs (e.g.: hesitations) that the reference might be holding things back.

  12. Ajax*

    I have a question for Alison from the employee/jobseeker’s point of view. Some of your other posts on this topic have said that managers are the preferred reference over coworkers, etc. So why not just submit a list of your past managers?

      1. Library Manager*

        Or sometimes because your manager may have no interactions with you. I worked at a place for years where I exchanged a few emails with my director but never actually met her in person.

        1. Kristen*

          This! My official manager (the one with hire/fire power, control over raises, etc.) is off-site and has made it pretty clear that as long as the client is happy, he doesn’t care what’s going on with me. I use a senior coworker/unofficial supervisor because that person knows my day-to-day work. Would this raise red flags for me?

      2. Anonymous*

        Or sometimes your manager isn’t a “good” reference because they were terrible employees. I had a job where after I left the manager was fired and escorted out by police for nefarious dealings. I followed that up with a job where my manager was fired because he stopped showing up for work (he literally stayed home for weeks without telling anyone). I wouldn’t want either of my former managers speaking for me because they aren’t credible and who knows if they would even be responsive to a reference request.

      3. Contessa*

        Or they only have one former manager (or only one whose contact info they have), and they need more than one reference.

    1. Celeste*

      That works if they are still at the same place, but they can take new jobs elsewhere, too. I would rather give a reference where I know that they’re going to reach the person I’ve named, than a phone number where they may hit a dead end.

    2. Emily*

      I’ve changed industries in the past ten years, so I’ve included two past managers and a past direct report (who is now a supervisor himself), instead of previous managers in a totally different industry, who I haven’t worked with in about 10 years (or more). Does that seem like a bad idea? My rationale was that the previous direct report is now a peer, and since managing people is now a big part of my job, it’s nice to show that I’m confident enough in my abilities to include a 360 perspective. Any opinions on that?

  13. Track Star*

    But what is a candidate supposed to do when they had bad manager after bad manager at one organization and they are trying to get out?

    I had one job where the first manager was passive aggressive and would not address issues until the performance review. Picture getting the same terse “thank you” for everything, but the only time you knew there was an issue was on your annual review. Prior to the review manager displayed what seemed like a fake happy attitude, or you were barely acknowledged (even when trying to address any issues or concerns).

    Then that manager gets promoted, so the new manager is a micromanager who manages everything down to how you sit in a chair and spend your lunch break. So who do you use as a reference and how does a candidate spin that?

    Not listing either manager as a reference will be a red flag, which will unfortunately be counted against the candidate. So how does a candidate get out from under that and move on to a hopefully better organization even though the reference will hardly be stellar?

    1. Adam V*

      In that case, when giving references, you should give an explanation of the (expected) negative information they’re going to hear about you. You still give them the option to call, but you give an explanation of why they might expect to hear negative things about you, and hopefully you’re able to back them up with good references from (former) coworkers who can corroborate your story (“oh yeah, Jane never gave us any information about what we were doing wrong, so we often got bad reviews without any foreknowledge it was coming”).

      1. Anonymous*

        Yeah, but they never ASK for you to give any input on the references… they just ask for 3 references. Period.
        Seldom do you get to add your two cents about what a manager “might” say.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          You absolutely have the chance to provide context during the interview process — although you might have to raise the topic proactively.

          (Also, side note to you and all other Anonymouses: Please use a user name! Makes it much easier to keep track of who’s who.)

    2. Marina*

      I think what would be the biggest red flag is if someone is unable to supply anyone, at any organization, who is unable to provide an accurate perspective on their work. One current bad manager is one thing, and ideally could be filled in with a supervisor, or a co-worker with whom you’ve worked on a major project, etc. But a PATTERN of not being able to list a manager at a reference at any job, or not being able to list anyone who can speak to what it’s like to manage you, would absolutely raise red flags.

    3. Lora*

      In that case, see if there is a senior-type person with whom you’ve worked on various projects and ask if you can use them as a reference.

      Job I had…jeez, 10 years ago…the guy who hired me ended up getting fired for incompetence, dropped out of the industry completely and went into sales, and his entire division was re-organized so it’s not remotely the same department anymore. However, there were several project managers and senior managers I had worked with on various projects, who offered to serve as references instead.

  14. tmarie*

    As an accountant job seeker this makes me sad. My manager of 22 years passed away. Her boss, my old RVP was re-orged out of the company. The HR person I worked with when I was doing managerial work has left that company. I have one person left at the company who is a reference.

    The next job I had was a horrid fit and they let me go after 8 months. I had taken a “junior” level accounting position with the thought I could learn and advance but it was frustration after frustration. So people who never saw me shine are my most recent work references. Sigh.

    1. CAA*

      There is no rule that says your references have to be people who are still at the same company you named on your resume. I see this assumption frequently here (3 times in this comment thread so far), and I’m totally confused by it!

      Reach out to your old RVP and the HR person on LinkedIn. Both of these would be good references for you, especially if you also explain that you had the same manager there for 22 years and she is now deceased.

      1. tmarie*

        I did reach out to my old RVP on LinkedIn, and he consented to be a professional reference. I also have the other GM who was my “go-to guy” when my manager was on her final leave of absence as a professional reference.

        Thank goodness for LinkedIn! I am so very bad at keeping in touch with former co-workers.

  15. Introvert Manager*

    What’s really sad is when you’re not allowed to call references due to company policy (“references only give out dates, nothing else, so it’s useless to call”), make a bad fire, find out it could have been prevented by calling their old employer, and then you’re still not allowed to call references…sigh…

      1. Woodward*

        That made me laugh! “Make a bad fire” is exactly how it feels when you hire someone that really doesn’t work out and you have to fire them and the whole situation is a painful waste of time and resources. Like it’s all going up in flame! “Bad fire” is right!

  16. Anonymous*

    I used to work at a big box store and the manager hired a teenage girl for the checkouts without calling any references or doing a background check.

    Guess who turned out to be an active gang member? Oops!

  17. Dan*

    From a societal standpoint, if we ban convicted felons from the workplace after they have served their time, we are making it hard for them to NOT be repeat offenders. If I ever get into charity work, this would be a place where I would spend my time. That and financial literacy activities.

    Those crimes must really be related to the job at hand for that to be disqualifying. Yes, I would have a hard time hiring someone convicted of embezzlement to be my CFO, but I have a more difficult time hiring him to be a software engineer if he has those skills.

    Someone convicted of domestic violence? I really don’t think there’s justification to not hire him to be a software developer if that’s his thing.

    1. The Other Dawn*

      Thank you for posting this! My brother was in prison for many years (not murder or anything like that) and I’m glad to know that there are people out there who feel that convicts deserve to work and earn a living just as much as the next person. So many times they can’t get a job and that increases their chances of being a repeat offender. My brother was very lucky that he was able to get a job right away and he’s doing well now; it’s been almost 10 years he’s been out.

    2. Elysian*

      Point well made.

      I think in this case though, the nature of the crime (theft and fraud) and the fact that he tried to hide, rather than explain, his past make his character suspect for a lot of positions.

    3. Yup*

      A friend of mine works with ex offenders on job training and workforce (re)entry, and it’s a fascinating + challenging field. He spends part of his time building relationships with employers — to create a job path for his clients — and part of his time working directly with clients directly. I mention it because his work stories tie closely to discussions we’ve had here about how class & background affect workforce readiness. For example, some of his clients who went to jail at a relatively young age have zero experience with job search or workplace conventions so he’s coaching them on things like how to respond professionally to a voicemail.

      1. Simonthegrey*

        Heck, my husband had gone into a string of low wage jobs right after high school to avoid college. He was unemployed for 2 years while going back to school. His voicemail message was a weird prerecorded thing he got from the Internet. I had to teach him to create a professional one….something I learned as a girl looking for my first job at 16!

    4. annie*

      Very true, and a difficult problem to wrangle. And I think from a pragmatic standpoint, as a society, we “pay” one way or the other – either we find ways to take chances on someone who has paid his/her debt to society so they can go on to have fruitful lives, or we end up with repeat offenders or long term unemployed people and we pay for their imprisonment and or benefits. There are a lot of race and class issues mixed up in this as well, but I just want to give you a hat tip as it is something I think about often and like you try to support organizations working with former prisoners.

    5. Mints*

      Yeah I have mixed feelings about this in general. Because I do think that the disenfranchisement of felons is a huge societal problem. And I know felons who are great people today (decades later) who made bad decisions as teenagers.
      At the same time, I’d never want to work with someone convicted of murder or a violent sexual crime.
      I think the key to successfully managing the grey area is to let people explain the crime, like the way you’d ask “Have you ever been fired from a job?” With the same idea that they should answer that it was a long time ago, and they regret their actions, and they’re learning still today, etc. And they should be totally honest! (AAM guy failed completely)

      It’s tough, from a societal perspective

      1. Dan*

        Truth be told, your fears aren’t really like to come true. Those crimes come with seriously long prison sentences, and those guys will be locked up for so long that they likely don’t have the skills to qualify in the white-collar world. They’re most likely qualified for retail and/or food service jobs.

  18. Lurker*

    What about a job-seeker that lists former mangers, but not just from the current one because you don’t want them to know you’re looking?

  19. Just a Reader*

    If I ever move on from this job I’m not sure what I’ll do about my manager at my last job. He was a flipping psycho. And I threw him under the bus in my exit interview because I knew I’d never trust him to give me a truthful reference EVEN THOUGH he cleared my promotion 5 minutes before I gave my notice.

    I have the owner of the company as a fantastic reference but he never supervised my work.

  20. Anonymous*

    I understand the reasoning for checking references, but I must say, I feel uncomfortable handing over my references. I’ve never committed a crime, and in three years of working at my current company, I have gotten an “Outstanding” every year in my employee review. But of course I’m not going to give my current manager’s information, I don’t want her or other people I work with to know I’m looking for a job. Your suggestion that a hiring manager call the main switchboard number and ask to speak to a candidate’s supervisor is horrifying–if that happened to me I could lose my job! Or if nothing else make things incredibly uncomfortable for me at work.
    Since most other people I work with are close with my boss, or have a vested interest in me NOT leaving the company, I don’t feel comfortable using them as references either. And even though I had some odd jobs in between college and my current job, this is the one where I’ve made the most impact and worked the hardest. I doubt my intern supervisors from before this position would remember me well, because they had a fleet of other interns working with them every semester, and it’s been years since I worked with them. They certainly couldn’t speak as well to my skills as people I’ve been working with for the past three years, were I to be comfortable with that.

    I wish I could just hand over a copy of my employee review and submit to a criminal background check and be done with it.

    1. De Minimis*

      That brings up a great question…if you’re applying for a new position what do you do when your most recent, best work experience is at your current job?

      1. De Minimis*

        And let’s say everything else you might be able to provide is either too far in the past, not relevant, or from a position where you did not do well and the references are either not going to be honest or might even directly hurt your chances.

        1. Anonymous (4:53pm poster)*

          Yes, De Minimis, I would say that applies to me. I don’t want a hiring manager to call my current employer, but since I’ve spent most (yes, only 3 years, but I am 25) of my professional career there, my other references would only really be able to speak to my character, not so much my professional skills that I have developed at my current job. Again, I wish I could just submit my performance reviews instead. Thoughts? Alison?

    2. Anonymous*

      Someone must have called the main number one day late at night and my ExBullyBoss took the call and it was for a job reference.
      The next day he sat all 4 of us employees down and gave us such a dressing down about how we must “think the grass is greener” elsewhere and if so we should just leave now. Nasty stuff.

      I don’t know who the call was for (it could’ve been me-as I was looking!) and he never said who. Since then I’ve been more than fearful to use this as a reference as I know he will never give a good one to anybody.

  21. Fiona*

    A couple of years ago I interviewed for a job, and they wanted 15 references. FIFTEEN. In specific categories. It was like…3 managers, 3 coworkers, 3 non-coworkers in the industry, 3 personal and…I can’t remember the last category. I’ve blocked it out. (Believe it or not, this isn’t what made me withdraw my candidacy – it was the THIRD required personality assessment on top of the 15 references and three-hour interview that was the straw that broke the camel’s back.)

    1. Dan*

      Shit. I make close to a six figure salary, and I’ve never been through anything like that. I’m not saying that to brag, as I live in a high COL area. But it just floors me what people have to go through to make a lot less money.

      I was laid off from my previous job four months ago. I don’t remember submitting references to my current employer, but my interview went something like this: “Your ex-VP is my neighbor. I know all about you.”

      I got a competing offer at the same time, and my other interview went something like this: “Your ex-GM, who I know reasonably well, (different guy than VP above) has lots of positive things to say about you, and that’s strongly influenced your candidacy.”

      Made me happy I didn’t blow up ex-job on my way out the door. New job is so good I’m glad I got laid off.

      1. Ruffingit*

        Congrats on finding a great new job and your story is illustrative of the importance of leaving a good reputation in your wake. Very important not to behave craptastically when leaving for this very reason. People talk and they know a lot more people than you think.

  22. Suz*

    My husband’s employer was burned once due to poor reference checking. He works in healthcare and has to be licensed in our state to be eligible for employment. His boss hired someone but neglected to find out if she was licensed. Not only was she not licensed, she wasn’t even eligible to take the licensing exam. Then when his boss tried to fire her, she sued them. Even though she didn’t have a case, they still had to spend a lot of $$ to deal with it.

    1. Ruffingit*

      That is really messed up. I’ve worked in two licensed professions and the first thing that is asked after my name is my license number. Big time screw-up on the part of the hiring manager here. If a license is required for the job, make sure the person not only has one, but that it’s active too!!

  23. madge*

    I’ve been reading AAM for some time, but I have to comment on this one. References are so important. I have an ex-employee who was terminated for theft and fraud among other colorful behavior. We never called the police; we just wanted her away from us. She’s now in her second week at a small accounting firm and is already dealing drugs out of the office. Had they called for a reference, I could have saved them serious grief.

  24. Anonforthis*

    I once worked somewhere where they had hired a woman who, it turned out, had been convicted of theft from a former employer. They hadn’t bothered to do a criminal BC on her and had allowed her access to the company credit card and other funds. She was fired for reasons other than the criminal conviction.

    After that, I told the owner of the company that she might want to consider doing BCs on people before hiring them for positions involving the company stock (the items in the huge warehouse that were rather valuable) or company funds. She said to me “Well, I don’t want to know the background of the people working in the warehouse, I’d probably have to replace them all.” UH…ok then. This woman had massive problems as should be obvious and was a horrendous manager clearly.

  25. Pulling the knife from my back*

    Wish my former boss had checked references. The last hire he made before retiring presented very well on paper and in interviews. I did not know that he never checked her references. After he retired I was promoted to succeed him. That last hire of his turned out to be a conniving backstabber -and has a history of lies deception and targeting the supervisor at former positions. I did not know until her former colleagues told me this is her national reputation.

    Too late. She has my job now and has damaged my professional reputation with lies and false evidence.

    Reference checks might have revealed her true nature before this toxic employee destroyed a close knit office and I was out of my hard earned promotion.

  26. jon vonn*

    Use a service with a track record and learn how to to it on the internet. Personal references today are not reliable as the boss may be only allowed the basics(no law suit). or you get a person with a grudge.

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