Between a rock and a hard place?
January 17, 2012 4:04 PM   Subscribe

New Job Filter: My references provided negative feedback, OR I'm possibly being nit-picked by new job's HR? WTF. Now what?

I interviewed for a new job last week and the hiring team and hiring manager all unanimously agreed that I was perfect for the job. I was even sent home with reading materials to start studying up on the new work to be done. I received an offer for the position the next day, signed my offer letter (which states the job is 'at will' employment - e.g. can be terminated by either party at any time) and started my background check.

The background check was completed this week and two discrepancies showed up in title of past positions held. The HR Representative called me to discuss and everything is fine, although it seemed very nit-picky to me to be discussing discrepancies in titles (I work in an industry where titles are pretty much irrelevant). I would like to add that this background check was extremely thorough. I had to provide W2s and exact dates from previous positions held up to 10 years ago. They dug all through my credit, past addresses, criminal history (none, obviously), even parking tickets.

I was asked to provide four references with three being from past Managers. I provided my four references. The reference check was done via an online survey by HireRight.

Well, today I received a phone call from the HR Represenative noting that they might not be able to move forward with me as a candidate due to negative feedback from my references that they will not disclose to me. They are intending on calling my references directly. Not a problem I told them! I agreed to this and upon hanging up the phone, immediately sent my references emails noting that HR would be contacting them to clarify a few questions. All references responded to me positively, noting their best telephone numbers to reach them at and best of luck and such. No red flags. I had asked all references if they would be open to providing me with a reference for the position PRIOR to me even submitting them as a reference.

Meanwhile, the hiring manager emailed me to let me know that she is following up with HR and understands that there are a few questions and to call her if I would like to discuss. I called her immediately and talked about it with her. I explained that I spoke to HR and followed up with all references so they know that HR will be calling. She mentioned that three of my references indicated that I didn't have the quickest follow-up time in the past. However, she also sounded very reasonable and told me to 'sit tight' and that she's the one making the hiring decision and that the team's gut reaction was to hire me because they felt I would be a great fit and enjoyed speaking with me. This made me feel a little better.

I got home this evening and I just received another phone call from the HR Representative who is requesting additional references. I told her that I really don't have anyone else to consult. She asked me if I could try to dig up old contacts who I've lost touch with on LinkedIn (honestly, I do not feel this is appropriate) and I politely indicated that I am not comfortable doing this. She also asked for me to send her past performance reviews (I have no idea if I even have any saved!) I diplomatically pushed back letting her know that I may not be able to accommodate these requests but will see what I can do. I also received the impression from her that she had not spoken with the hiring manager as she seemed a little taken aback that I had called the hiring manager. I told her that I'm willing to help move this process along and that I'm excited to be part of the team. I also asked the HR Rep to clarify what specific information they are questioning and she noted that at this moment she doesn't feel it is appropriate to disclose this information.

Ok. This is like, my dream job. I don't know what to do in this situation. Help? I cannot give a reference from my current job due to a toxic situation and my previous position which I held very briefly (7 months) prior to the job that I'm currently leaving, I left due to political drama that I don't feel like re-opening. All references are from that job backwards. They only want additional manageral references and I really don't have any others! Advice? Am I totally screwed and should just assume I don't get the job after all??
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (15 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I'd just move on. It sounds like they are stringing you along.
posted by dfriedman at 4:11 PM on January 17, 2012 [5 favorites]

Are you sure you want to work with these guys?
posted by yoyo_nyc at 4:19 PM on January 17, 2012 [5 favorites]

If you are positive the hiring manager really wants you, or if you are kinda ready to move on anyway, you might send an email (not call) the hiring manager. In that email, briefly say that because the HR Rep has so many apprehensions about you, you are regretfully considering other offers.

Here's the key: Be brief -- no real details. And, "regretfully considering other offers" whether or not you have other offers on the table. If she really wants you, she'll walk down to HR and straighten this out right away before you walk off. However, if she's ambivalent, she may just reply that she understands, and then you've gambled it away.
posted by Houstonian at 4:20 PM on January 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

My impression, unlike dfriedman, is that HR is following procedures and getting hung up on not being able to properly check off all boxes. If the hiring manager really wants you, he/she will have to push HR to just make it happen. Probably not much you can do.
posted by metahawk at 4:22 PM on January 17, 2012 [7 favorites]

You can hire reference checking services to call your references (posing as a potential employer) and report back to you what they're saying about you.

Here's one I've used myself:
posted by Jacqueline at 4:24 PM on January 17, 2012 [26 favorites]

It's also worth considering that there may be some quality (quick follow-up time, for example) that your past employers didn't care was less than amazing that the new employer actually wants, or needs, to be amazing.

In other words: there is the possibility that this is not a technicality but, in fact, a very legitimate reason why you are not suited to the position.

Still regardless of whether they're right or being absurd, you probably don't want the job if they're not willing to offer it to you.

Give them what they want if you can provide it, tell them you can't if you can't, and otherwise keep looking for other jobs. Having a second offer might make this one happen faster, as noted above.
posted by toomuchpete at 4:27 PM on January 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

Actually it sounds like HR is trying really hard TO hire you, but hit some roadblocks on your references. That is a LOT of effort to be putting into reference checking which is, by far, no one's favorite part of the hiring process.

I agree with the above that maybe there is a skill they really really need that one or more of your previous managers said wasn't your best feature but wasn't a huge problem at those previous jobs.

If they are using an online form for their references it could be that your previous managers all gave you lower marks on one particular thing and stellar ratings on everything else so they think they did give you an amazing reference because they don't think one thing is going to hurt you all that much. Except in this case, it is.
posted by magnetsphere at 5:00 PM on January 17, 2012 [3 favorites]

Since HR was digging around so much (into your credit and your parking fines and everything) it seems unlikely that they didn't realise you had not given them your last two positions' managers as references. Is it possible that they contacted them anyway? And that the negative feedback is from them, due to the drama and toxic situations you mention?
posted by lollusc at 5:05 PM on January 17, 2012 [9 favorites]

You say this is your dream job. Don't give up your current position if you have one, until they really, really have a solid offer. That they would give you an offer letter, then try to withdraw it is a huge red flag to. But do try to help them hire you.

Dig up colleagues and/or clients from the previous job. Tell them to give totally positive answers, or to give a prepared report, i.e., Company policy prohibits me from discussing staff. I can verify Anon's dates of employment, and state that Anon had no disciplinary action, resigned (was laid off during office re-location, etc.) and we would re-hire anon. It can feel weird to keep saying "Anon was terrific AAA+++" to a long list of questions, so it's possible somebody would say "Anon was average at follow up." And this company may require that every answer be AAAAA++++, Candidate walked on water.

This is why so many companies now don't permit managers to give references other than the above.

Do you have copies of written reviews, letters from clients, etc? You might be able to get Drama-laden Previous Corp. to send a positive reference directly to HR team, so it would be obviously not faked. Or get your references to call back and say "When I said Anon's follow-up was his weak spot, I meant that he's fine at it, but it wasn't as awesomely, insanely great as anon's other skills. Anon is still a legend here, and you should hire anon before we have an open position to bring anon back to."
posted by theora55 at 5:15 PM on January 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Regarding the background check: a large portion of these checks are automated these days, by computers with no common sense and very little tolerance for discrepancies. The background check company doesn't bother to reconcile these differences, they just forward them on to the employer and let them decide for themselves. So, "Anon was a Technical Supervisor, not a Supervising Technician!" and "Having parking tickets means that Anon does NOT have a spotless record!" get added to your report by the computer with no context at all. The cover/summary of these things just says PASS/FAIL for each category and the details are buried in the body of the report.

It sounds like HR reviewed your background check results and agreed that the discrepancies were minor. Let me assure you that this is totally normal and reflects on a nit-picky background check service, not this company that you are applying to. Don't let that color your impression of how the rest of your candidacy is going.
posted by ceribus peribus at 5:41 PM on January 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

It seems to me there isn't much that you can do - you don't know the specific nature of the negative feedback or from whom, and I would advise against coaching your current references in any way -- just keep following up, being polite, and if it seems like this is dragging out (weeks) then I'd start pushing back. HR can be sometimes very stringent about certain things and will push back as much as you let them - but having the Hiring Manager on your side is a plus so long as you are certain that your references are not (intentionally or accidentally) giving them information that is hurting your candidacy. It sounds to me like there might be some minor concern about something that you either didn't excel at or your references minimized (for example, if it's a numerical scale or something) and they want to verify whether you can perform as expected with more current references that you can't provide -- which sorry to say, doesn't bode well for you from an HR standpoint but may not matter to the Hiring Manager.
posted by sm1tten at 5:47 PM on January 17, 2012

A candidate that didn't want to use his last two employers as references would definitely make me think twice. Just sayin'.
posted by purenitrous at 8:13 PM on January 17, 2012 [8 favorites]

I cannot give a reference from my current job due to a toxic situation and my previous position which I held very briefly (7 months) prior to the job that I'm currently leaving, I left due to political drama that I don't feel like re-opening.

I agree with purenitrous. It's a bad sign that you're not willing to use references from your most recent two jobs. It sends up all kinds of red flags. You say there's a lot of "drama" and "political" stuff going on, but really, even bad jobs give people references. It looks you look bad, makes you look like the problem, when you're not willing to get a reference from those places.
posted by jayder at 8:42 PM on January 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

Are there any issues in terms of the salary negotiations? If so, I would be tempted to interpret this as a prelude to "well, we can still hire you, but due to the background check issues, at $Salary-25% instead of $Salary which we discussed."
posted by feloniousmonk at 9:05 PM on January 17, 2012

A candidate that didn't want to use his last two employers as references would definitely make me think twice. Just sayin'.

Ditto this. So it's not just the last job you can't provide a reference for, but the last TWO jobs? Unless they were extremely short lived jobs (like a month, 7 months is too long not to have any reference) I would also be wary as a hiring manager because I'd feel like you were hiding something that I now have to figure out if it is worth considering or not.

I got home this evening and I just received another phone call from the HR Representative who is requesting additional references

This is them trying to get you to talk about your last two jobs.

You have two choices - 1) sit tight and see if the hiring manager wants you enough to fight for you or 2) come clean about those last two and explain in a diplomatic way why a reference isn't possible
posted by like_neon at 2:03 AM on January 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

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