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Reference Checking Your Next Employer

Now that you have an offer or are Closer to one, consider this idea. It is rare for a candidate to ever be considered for hire unless his or her references are checked. These are usually previous employers, previous supervisors, or sometimes people with whom the candidate has a personal relationship. They can speak to a candidate's integrity, character, work ethic, previous work performance, etc. This is one of the very many ways that hiring organizations try to protect themselves from making a mistake in hiring.

What is equally as rare is a candidate that thinks to check the "references" of an organization that he or she is thinking about going to work for. It seldom crosses the candidates' mind to pursue just as much due diligence about the organization or the individuals in it, as the organization should pursue about him or her as a candidate.

Most of us work for smaller firms where we not only establish personal relationships with the people we work with, but usually also take on the "identity" of the company. Since companies and the people in them put their best foot forward when interviewing you, as a candidate, they rarely reveal the difficulties, struggles, or problems they have as a company. Just like you, as a candidate, didn't reveal the risks that you bring to being employed, your prospective employer isn't going to intentionally reveal its risks in the interviewing process.

Think about most of the jobs that you have had. Did the company, the job, or the people in the company turn out to be exactly what they appeared to be when you were being recruited by them?

Now there are always problems in any company. If companies didn't have problems, they wouldn't need to hire you or anybody else. All companies have strengths and weaknesses . . . just like the individuals who run them and work there. The challenge for a candidate who is thinking about going to work for the organization is to be aware of all of the problems and issues that a company might have before he or she goes to work there. The problems that the company might have, even if they are gigantic and seemingly insurmountable, are rarely the ones that cause a new employee to feel like he or she made a mistake in accepting the job, if those problems were clearly stated before the candidate goes to work.

Even worse is when the candidate feels that the problems, even if minor, are purposely concealed from him or her in the interviewing process for fear that the candidate would not have accepted the job if he or she knew about the issues.

Most often, candidates are so excited about finding a new job and finding a company that they really like and want to go to work for that they neglect to dig deeper than the surface that people in the company show them during the interviewing process. So if you get close to getting an offer from a company that you really like, give yourself a "gut check" and check the company's references. Here is how to do that:

1. Put in a phone call to one of the people that you might have interviewed with that is not directly responsible for the position you were interviewing for and ask him or her if you can talk to him or her "off the record." This could even be an administrative type of person who isn't even involved in the interviewing process but whom you met while interviewing. Tell that person that you are seriously entertaining an offer from the company, and you would like to know about some of the things "they wouldn't want you to know" before you took the job. Ask the person to be open and honest. You might even ask if there are any serious problems with the company or its people that were not revealed to you. Ask why he works there, and if he knew then what he knows now, would he still accept the job. You can get a tremendous sense of what's going on in the company this way.

2. Call some of the customers or clients that your potentially new company does business with. Find the individual in the customer's or client's organization who deals directly with your potential employer and ask every question you can think of. Even try to find (although it would be hard) previous customers or clients of your potential employer and talk to them as to why they are no longer customers or clients.

3. Check legal records. Find out if your potential employer or the people are involved in any serious business or personal lawsuits. Minor lawsuits are hard to avoid in business, but the major ones can be devastating to an organization. Acrimonious divorces can destroy a seemingly good small business. Personal bankruptcies or grand jury indictments of officers in a company can represent a whole different set of problems that most firms don't want to talk about.

4. Talk to previous employees. If you're interviewing for a position that was recently vacated, find the person who was in the position and talk to him or her. If she has left the company, she is apt to be more open and blunt with you than if she is still with the firm. But even if she is still employed by the company in a different position, ask her to be blunt about the problems you might encounter. Previous employees who are related to the job you are interviewing for are still good sources of information.

5. Try to get to know, on a personal basis, some of the people you might be working directly with or for. If you get them in a social situation, listen carefully to the way they talk about their company, the people they work with, their customers, their jobs, etc. Check out the attitudes of the people you are thinking about going to work with and for. If everyone's attitude is upbeat and positive about most things, you can bet the company has the same attitude. Beware of the opposite kind of attitude. It can make a company and a job miserable.

6. Professional networking sites such as LinkedIn and Jobster can make it easier for you to find people who have worked for specific companies or specific individuals.

7. Blogs. Although comments about certain companies and individuals might be hard to find, they might be helpful. Knowing what others are saying or have experienced can be very enlightening. Remember, though, that this information may not be true or substantiated. Anyone can write anything in a blog. Be mindful that much of your reference checking can be a double-edged sword. Many social networkers and bloggers have a strong tendency to be negative and may have only a passing relationship with the people or companies they write about. Consider the sources of information and the context of their comments.

No company or situation is perfect. Don't expect it. You are simply trying to minimize surprises once you go to work. Whatever you discover, put it in the context of the other things about the job and the company. Do your reference checking, but decide what is best for you personally.

...As Long as We Are Talking About Reference Checking

It may be a very good idea for you to run a background check on yourself! Sound odd? Well, the truth is that at least once a month in our recruiting company we have at least one problem with background checks that turn up information about the wrong person. That's right: Information, usually negative information, is found and attributed to a candidate and it turns out to be a different person, a bad record, or a mistake. A 2004 study by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group found that 79% of consumer-credit reports contained at least one mistake. This kind of mistake can cost you a job.

So, if you get close to a job offer and you know your references are going to be checked, you better bet that a credit, criminal, and any kind of other check people can think of will also be done. You had better know beforehand what kind of information will be found. If there are mistakes of identity, which is likely with common names, you need to know. If the information is wrong, you need to know. Often companies rely on third-party organizations to do this kind of checking. It is easy to make mistakes.

So, run a credit report on yourself. Google or Yahoo yourself. Find blogs or other kind of online postings that might talk negatively about you or someone with a name like yours. Junk can stay alive in cyberspace forever. You might even check to see if your Social Security number has been used by someone else. We have had a number of candidates who claim their identities were "stolen" off their resumes when they were posted on one of the job boards.

If there are going to be any problems with any kind of background check, you need to know before they happen. You can't control these negative references, but you can mitigate the damage they may cause you.

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