By Eve Tahmincioglu
msnbc.com contributor
updated 10/26/2009 12:07:22 PM ET 2009-10-26T16:07:22

Checking references seems more like guerrilla warfare lately. Hiring managers want to find out everything they can about you before they offer you a job, and conventional tactics don’t seem to be enough.

Many managers are reluctant to give recommendations because companies are worried about being sued if they bad-mouth a former employee. And many employees are stacking their reference lists with people who will only say glowing things about them, even omitting employers from their resume who may have negative comments.

To combat this, hiring managers have a cadre of maneuvers. Many are now using social networking sites such as LinkedIn and Facebook to dig up dirt. Others are calling references you never OK'd. Still others are grilling past employers on your reference list in the hopes of getting them to slip. Some firms are also asking job candidates to sign waivers promising not to sue a former boss if he or she says bad things about you.

“They’re going above and beyond, and they’re going underground,” said Julie Bauke, a career expert and owner of Cincinnati-based Congruity Consulting.

During tough economic times, employers want to make sure every hire is the right one, making reference checks more important than ever.

Some employers have only a few open positions, so they want employees who can best help boost the bottom line. The cost of a bad hire is even more painful when there’s less money to go around.

“Three years ago, if you had a live body and no one really hated them, then they were hired,” said Peter Engel, senior recruiter at New York-based Cantor Executive Search Solutions Inc. “Now they’re really looking much more closely.”

Alan, an unemployed marketing professional, had one of his listed references call to say a hiring manager grilled him for more than a half hour about his job performance.

Digging deeper
Alan, who is looking for a position in New York and did not want his name used for fear of jeopardizing his job search, said: “The HR person was almost trying to trick my reference into saying something negative. They were asking, ‘What are Alan’s weaknesses? What can he improve on?’ and on and on, beyond what was expected. It was like the third degree.”

Hiring managers are looking to get beyond the name, rank and serial number approach used by so many employers that have told by their HR department not to provide too much information, said Maryann Donovan, president of recruiting firm Impact Personnel in Norwalk, Conn.

It’s also getting harder to just leave an employer off your resume if you’re afraid they’ll give you a bad reference, Donovan added, because some employers are now asking for proof that you did what you said you did during those gaps on your resume.

To check off-list references or figure out what a candidate's career path was really like, recruiters are turning to social media sites such as LinkedIn and Facebook. Functions such as the recommendation option on LinkedIn can immediately show a hiring manager if former bosses or underlings liked working for them.

But too many recommendations on any of these sites can seem disingenuous, Donovan warned. “I had one client call me recently to tell me they were about to make an offer to someone but were worried because the person had 50 recommendations on LinkedIn. The client wondered why they needed so many,” she said.

Unauthorized references
Despite some issues, LinkedIn is a “godsend” for Andy Dunn, CEO of men’s apparel site Bonobos.com. “It enables me to make an organizational chart within a company,” he said, giving him a way to find individuals who may have worked with an applicant.

Dunn is looking to hire six people right now and makes a point of calling six off-list references for each applicant he’s seriously considering.

He also puts the onus on a job candidate if a former boss claims they can’t talk about an applicant due to company policy. “Ultimately, if a candidate can’t convince or persuade people they worked with in their career to take my call, then that’s not the right person for the job,” he said.

Some employers are asking job applicants to sign a waiver stating that they won’t sue a former employer if someone at the company says something negative about them and they don’t get the job. “It’s a more litigious society than ever,” said Paul W. Barada, author of “Reference Checking for Everyone.” “But you can’t hold a reference liable for telling the truth.”

There’s nothing illegal about asking job candidates to sign such a waiver or hiring managers contacting former colleagues you didn’t OK in advance, said Shay Hable, employment attorney for Bryan Cave.

So it seems many of these practices may be here to stay. Your job as a job seeker is to be proactive so you stand up to the reference scrutiny.

  • Think long and hard before you connect with friends on social networking sites. More hiring managers are relying on these sites for information about job candidates, so your contacts should be people you trust who will give you a good recommendation. Also, use the privacy settings if you don’t want a potential employer to know who your connections are.
  • Be careful not to over-coach your references if you know a hiring manager will be calling them, said Barada. “You don’t want references overstating what you can do, saying ‘She walks on water,’” he explained. “That’s a red flag.”
  • Call your references ahead of time and make sure they know what type of job you’re applying for. Also, make sure they support what you say about why you left your last job, said Congruity’s Bauke. And warn all your references that they may be grilled so that they’re prepared with facts.
  • If a hiring manager tells you they are going to contact a former boss or subordinate not on your list and you know that person will probably give you a bad review, it’s time to 'fess up, added Barada. He suggested saying something like: “I don’t mind you calling Mary but don’t be surprised if she doesn’t give you a glowing report. We just didn’t hit it off.” (Resist bad-mouthing anyone.)

Unfortunately, sometimes prospective employers won’t give you a chance to defend yourself if an off-list reference ends up dogging you.

Carolyn Thompson, author of “Ten Steps to Finding the Perfect Job” and president of executive recruiting firm CMCS in McLean, Va., recently had a client’s job offer collapse after an off-list reference check.

The job seeker was an executive in the accounting industry and had worked for a manager seven years ago who essentially demoted her because she was married and wouldn’t date him.

The woman did not get the job and has hired an attorney, Thompson said.

Eve Tahmincioglu writes the weekly "Your Career" column for msnbc.com and chronicles workplace issues in her blog, CareerDiva.net.

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