The above question is a tricky one, and it’s a query that many job searchers wrongfully assume they have the correct answer to. Indeed, many people believe that past employers are legally barred against revealing much information about their workers. These job hunters assume that when a prospective employer calls a previous employer, the latter party is only permitted to confirm job titles, dates of employment and salaries. On the contrary, there are no laws dictating what employers can and cannot say in a reference check. Technically, your past employer can reveal anything about you that he or she wishes to reveal.
“Anything” is a big word, and it’s one that scares the average job searcher when he or she hears it. No one likes the thought of a past employer trashing his or her reputation with potential employer. As a result, many people like to believe that companies are somehow bound by a code of honor when it comes to revealing information about former employees. Some companies, especially larger corporations, do have policies limiting the information they disclose about old employees. However, not all employers are quite as accommodating. Even when those policies are there, they aren't there to protect you.
The Sticky Subject of Libel
So why will some companies not disclose anything other than employment dates and job titles? It’s because they are still bound by one thing: the truth. There are
no laws that bar employers from discussing anything about you as an employee, but there are laws protecting you from libel, slander and defamation. In other words, employers can’t tear your reputation apart unless every word they say is objectively true. This is why many companies have policies in place limiting the information they disclose about former employees. They want to avoid saying anything that could be regarded as libel, because such statements could come back at them in the form of a lawsuit.
With that said, if you quit your job without notice, were fired for mouthing off to a superior, or had chronically poor attendance, keep in mind that your employers are at liberty to reveal that information. As long as issues regarding your attendance or behavior are documented, then your old boss can present them as absolute facts to a prospective employer. The issue is that employer-employee relationships that end sourly tend to breed bad feelings, in which case the employer can easily get carried away dissing his or her former workers. Therefore, to avoid the consequences of such exaggerations or falsehoods, some companies simply don’t answer anything other than “yes” or “no” questions to confirm employment dates and other non-emotional facts.
Do Your Homework
All of this is just a long way of saying that you should be careful when building your list of references for a new job application. You need to do your homework and put some time into building this list. If you don’t, your references could easily have the opposite impact of what you want them to do.
Make sure that you have a good reference list long before you have to start handing that list to prospective employers. Remember that every job you have, your p
erformance is being observed. What you do every single day could have an impact on how your current boss describes you to a future hiring manager. Show up to work on time, be respectful to your superiors and colleagues and try not to burn bridges when you leave. You never know when you are going to be counting on these people to help you land a new job.
If you are fired or terminated, don’t presume that your former employer will remain tightlipped about your grievances. Instead, get in touch with the employer and try to get a sense of what they will say when a hiring manager comes calling. If you don’t feel comfortable doing this yourself, you can hire a reference checking service to find out what former employers are saying about you. You’ll pay a fee for such a service, but it will be worth it if it helps you determine why you can’t seem to find a job. You can also use a reference checker to find out if a former employer is only telling the facts, or if he or she is lying or exaggerating to the point that it can be considered defamation.
Before you use a reference checking service, try to find out your old company’s reference policy. If there is a “no comment” policy in place, then you don’t have to bother with a reference checker because you’ll already know exactly what your employer will say.
Tell the Truth
Regardless of your relationship with a past employer, a reference check comes down to one thing: honesty. You need to be completely honest on your application, resume, interview and cover letter.
Many job hunters will make up job titles to exaggerate their contributions at an old company, boost their salary figures in hopes of giving themselves a better negotiating position, or lie about their employment dates to fill in gaps on their resumes. These are all bad decisions, and your old employers will almost invariably be called upon to confirm this basic information. If you lie, previous employers will confirm this and you will very likely lose the job opportunity at hand.
Provide information that is 100% honest. You can’t always control what your old employers are going to say about your work ethic, but you can control whether or not they corroborate your employment information.
Kavaliro Employment Agency has offices in Tampa, Fla., Charlotte, N.C., Orlando, Fla., Washington, D.C., and Jacksonville, Fla. and can make sure you find the right people for this important role. We are ready and waiting to help you anytime and look forward to hearing from you.
Michael Klazema has been developing products for pre-employment screening and improving online customer experiences in the background screening industry since 2009. He is the lead author and editor for Backgroundchecks.com. He lives in Dallas, TX with his family and enjoys the rich culinary histories of various old and new world countries.