Reference checking is not standard. Smaller companies typically have neither the manpower nor the funds to do thorough reference checks, which could cost hundreds of dollars. Conversely, larger companies do reference checks but at varying levels of thoroughness. Different from the typical applicant’s concerns–which have to do with performance–companies typically do background checks for security and legal liability reasons.
A comprehensive preemployment check consists of an employer’s examination of court records, motor vehicle reports, credit reports, identity records, possible aliases, and several other kinds of checking. My informal research revealed that a significant number of applicants have motor vehicle violations, bad credit, and collection agency records. In addition, just shy of one-third of applicants have discrepancies in their résumés in terms of past employment; some have criminal records; some inaccurately report level of education; and some test positive for use of illegal drugs. All of those findings warrant companies’ doing such checking prior to employment.
However, the applicant’s concern stems not so much from the logical or legal angle as much as it does from the emotional angle. The question that torments most people in transition is, What will my previous boss or my previous company’s human resources department reveal about me and my past performance? From a practical aspect, references are being performed via two methods. The formal one is done by the human resources department, and its value is limited because it is legally restricted to answering only basic questions related to title, dates or duration of employment, and perhaps whether the company would rehire or not. However, an informal reference check is done through personal contacts in the industry. This is the one that’s done on the Q.T. and cannot be controlled or restricted. Here one’s reputation in the industry is what is important. Building such a reputation is a slow, deliberate, and often challenging process. Ruining it can be fast–and difficult to recover. This is the one that comes with consequences and pain.
Every job applicant should have a list of at least three references. Employers are looking for past supervisors, possibly at various employers. What’s most important is that you ask permission before putting a name on your reference list. Plus, as your job search progresses, keep your references abreast of developments. Many people fail to stay in communication with their references, with the result that when a contact is made, they may be caught surprised and unprepared.