How far does reference checking go?
February 21, 2016 7:59 AM   Subscribe

I was fired from a job like 5 years ago, and I am thinking of just saying that I was laid off if I am asked “why I left”. I am not planning to give any references from that company but I heard that sometimes they will call the company and fish around for a reference without you knowing.

With that said:

1) I heard that there is the potential that the employer can decide to call that company and fish around for a reference, but in reality does that really happen? Does HR have time to do a detailed reference check?

2) Will HR bother to check for any references AFTER I am hired? Like 1, 2, or 3 months or even a year after I am working at the company? I have heard it’s a possibility but it sounds impractical. I just don’t like the feeling of an ax over my head for that length of time.

3) And I was fired like a little over 5 years ago, and that’s a long time, will any HR person even care? I have had a lot of jobs since then.

I am just tired of being truthful because the interview doesn’t go well no matter how much I put a “positive spin”. In the end they just end up wanting a clear and clean answer. And whoever says to tell the truth most likely hasn’t been fired themselves and hasn’t experienced what it is like explaining it in interviews.

Can anyone in HR share their experiences? There is so much general information on the internet, and I am looking for what happens in the real world versus theory.

Can anyone who has been in the same situation share their experiences too?
posted by pieceofcake to Work & Money (25 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
If you've had a lot of jobs since then and the job in question isn't all that relevant to the one you're applying for now (or if it is but the jobs you have had since have been similar), I'd just leave it off your resume.
posted by kitty teeth at 8:10 AM on February 21, 2016 [2 favorites]

do you know that the company will say you were fired? many just verify dates of employment and title. you might have a friend pose as hr and call just to see what they say. you might be worried about all this for nothing. also, what field are you in - that makes a difference on how thorough you have to be.
posted by nadawi at 8:11 AM on February 21, 2016 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: It's a financial analyst position, and it's not something that I can leave off a resume for certain reasons. But I heard HR will just give out dates and title, but if asked further they can give out names, like my former boss.
posted by pieceofcake at 8:18 AM on February 21, 2016

The answer to "How far does reference checking go" is "You never know, so don't lie."
posted by erst at 8:45 AM on February 21, 2016 [15 favorites]

Are you a registered person? If so, what did it say on your U-4 when you were let go? If you are not a registered person, I would not worry one lick about it. There is no magical cutoff for how far they will go back, but 5 years is a long time in someone's employment history. If it were me, and I was asked in an interview why I left the job from 5 years ago, I would say something along the lines of, "I was let go. It was a long time ago and I was not the person who made the decision, but my department wasn't doing so well and I was let go. Since then I have worked at these 3 companies and I never really looked back."

I have been called about past employees, and all I was able to do was confirm start and end dates. The next question was always, "Iis this person eligible for rehire?" Unless you stole from the company or did something so egregious that it probably bordered on criminal, the answer is yes, eligible. That does not mean we would hire you back, just that you were eligible to apply.

As for calling after you started, I think it is possible in order to dot their i's and cross their t's they would call listed references for the first 3 months of your employment, but after that, your performance will be the indicator or continued employment unless or until you do something wrong.
posted by AugustWest at 8:50 AM on February 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

The best way to figure this out is to have a friend pose as HR and test the waters. If you are applying for jobs, then having more than one "HR Inquiry" won't be weird. But then you will know what will happen.

Basically it's, "Could you confirm employment for pieceofcake from X to Y?"
"Is pieceofcake eligible for rehire?"

There aren't many or . . .really any? Circumstances under which I think they can say much more.
posted by Medieval Maven at 9:01 AM on February 21, 2016

Anything could happen, but at 5 years out I would absolutely choose to split that hair and take my chances. Unless there were criminal charges involved, your former employer will likely not choose (or not know, which is honestly more likely at this point) to discuss any sort of cause, and wouldn't be able to do much more than confirm that you worked there for a specific date range.

Plus, people who are looking at hiring you are aware that you stopped working at other places and there were probably a number of reasons for that and you may have made someone mad by leaving, so they have to take any information they get with a grain of salt. That's why there's so much emphasis now on the references you specifically give them for actually talking to.

Five years is ancient history in employment time. This is not significant enough that any place but the kind of place you don't want to work anyway would actually try to detective out the real story.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:05 AM on February 21, 2016 [6 favorites]

the only way i see this as being an issue is if you were fired for something related to money - lost money, stolen money, fraud, security violations, etc - if you were fired for absences, not meeting metrics, culture fit, and so on then i don't think it's a big deal at all to just fudge over the ending.
posted by nadawi at 9:14 AM on February 21, 2016

Sometimes hiring managers will call people they know who may know the person who has applied for the job, even though that person isn't listed as a reference. You don't want them finding out that way that you'd been fired. Best advice is to never lie.
posted by purplesludge at 10:24 AM on February 21, 2016

Sometimes companies hire third parties for employment verification. It sets a legal cushion around liability. Call the company that hired you, and ask what is the number for employment verification. HR is utterly indifferent to your drama-- this happens dozens of times a day with credit checks etc. Call the number and ask what info they will provide. Should be no more than title, first and last date of employment and possibly final salary.

You should check linked in and find out if the hiring company has high level associations with the previous company, or whether you know someone at the hiring company who might remember you. If your job is sensitive or high profile, the hiring manager might make informal inquiries.

Unless you were fired for wilful misconduct, the circumstances around your departure shouldn't come up. AugustWest's explanation is perfectly adequate-- big companies play numbers games where they require each department to slash payroll by 25%. New department heads come in and expect to fill all positions with their followers.

Never hint that you experienced conflict in the workplace or showed lack of competence.

Be honest that your departure was not voluntary, but fuzz around the edges with accurate data-- "they let go 25% of the finance department that year" or "several functions were outsourced in that time period."
posted by ohshenandoah at 11:16 AM on February 21, 2016 [2 favorites]

If I found out at any point that you lied in the interview process (and this is a lie), I would terminate you on the spot. Don't do it.

Firing is not a deal breaker. Ive been fired. It's only a big deal if you make it one. You explain why you got fired. You explain what you learned by being fired. You express that you're happy to have moved on from it and been able to positively contribute in later career roles. 2 minutes total. No big deal.
posted by bfranklin at 11:36 AM on February 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

I would say it was a layoff. Absolutely. (And I am a staffing professional.)

Look, it was 5 years ago, so likely nobody's going to call and check on the circumstances of your parting in any case. They might, but it's not likely. Now, say they do. What happens then? Worst case - and this is so unlikely - they get someone from that company's HR who to takes the trouble to check the file, or happens to have personal knowledge of what happened, and they hear that you're not eligible for re-hire. Ok, so you maybe don't get the job because of that. Maybe. But they're only checking the reference at that point because you're the candidate they want and you've cleared every other hurdle, so maybe you do get the job! Maybe they don't really care all that much whether you're eligible for re-hire from that ancient job, and are just relieved to hear that you were in fact employed there, and not just making that up.

The alternative, saying you were fired, is - as you have seen - making your interview a nonstarter.

So I would go with option #1.
posted by fingersandtoes at 11:55 AM on February 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

Why were you terminated? If you were terminated for misconduct it's hard to dress that one up, but if you were terminated for performance you can definitely provide a clean and clear answer in a positive light.

I work in HR and cannot think of a situation where 3-4 months/years after a hire anyone would say, "You know, I really want to check out why that person left their job 5 years ago." Even if you get the job and subsequently get yourself into a pile of trouble HR cares about now and not 5 years ago. (I handle the people in piles of trouble, fwiw.) For ex-employees we use a third party to provide only titles/dates to verify employment and in fact its against policy for employees to provide references. That's definitely not unique to my employer.

I don't know whether we call references. They didn't check mine but I was referred to the role by a current manager. That being said, do not lie and don't say you were laid off if you weren't; if they find out, they already have at least three candidates just like you. Even if you were more likable in the interview, now that just means you're a bullshitter.
posted by good lorneing at 2:40 PM on February 21, 2016

Also, something to consider if you were terminated because of performance: I quit my prior job because of the stress related to my performance issues. My ADHD kept me from mastering certain types of multitasking and organizational skills I needed and my employer really enjoyed shaming people. I never ever ever want to go through that again so I was actually really blunt about my weaknesses when I interviewed for my current role. If those were big parts of the role then it wouldn't work out for me or them. I think that also helped me sound more credible? genuine? when I was talking about my strengths.
posted by good lorneing at 2:53 PM on February 21, 2016

Response by poster: Okay, then how can they find out? Everyone says don't lie but they don't give a reason how it can be found out. I was fired for a bullshit reason too, which I don't want to explain, I just want to know what my options are. I don't think it has anything to do with integrity, it's just a game that people in the corporate world play.
posted by pieceofcake at 2:58 PM on February 21, 2016

If someone at the new place happens to be friends with someone who was at the old place when you were there, they might absolutely get in touch and ask about you. Someone I know once asked me for a verdict on a long ago ex colleague, and used my answer to inform their hiring decision, even though it wasn't someone I had managed or even worked directly with and it was years ago.
posted by emilyw at 3:13 PM on February 21, 2016

Everyone says don't lie

that's not actually what's being said in the thread, some people have suggested lying, others have discussed creative ways to be truthy, and others said don't lie. there's a variety of viewpoints being expressed here and if you read the thread again with more nuance you might find the advice you're looking for.
posted by nadawi at 3:14 PM on February 21, 2016 [4 favorites]

Everyone says don't lie but they don't give a reason how it can be found out.

It could be found out if they call the employer. The idea that a prior employer can't say truthful negative things about you is 100% urban legend.

I interview at a small company that very much depends on trust and if I found out about something like this it would be a deal breaker, however we would never randomly cold call prior employers so finding out would depend on a coincidental connection like a friend at that company. Other fields may vary greatly.
posted by ftm at 3:57 PM on February 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

I call references. HR may call too, but they're just checking dates and titles. I will often call the workplace myself to talk about a coworker if I'm on the edge about hiring them. If I found out in that process you were not honest about something you said in the interview, you'd be done.

HR will only tell you things like dates and titles. However, your direct manager often has considerably more freedom to answer and they definitely answer. Even in cases where a manager not allowed to say anything about why someone left (i.e., there was a court case) then there is a very simple way around it-- when asked the question "why did mr. x leave the company", they will answer: "I am not allowed to answer that question." No need to ask further questions.

OTOH, I wouldn't call after someone was hired unless there was a question about professional qualifications (i.e., you said you were certified in xxx but you were not) or if there were serious accusations of dishonesty (theft, etc.) which were being investigated.
posted by frumiousb at 4:08 PM on February 21, 2016

This answer is playing the numbers here; there is no blanket rule with this stuff. Source: my wife is a recruiter.

1. No.

2. No.

3. Possibly.

1. The only situation in which someone is gonna call a +5 year job is if it was your second-to-last job, and then only maybe. If you had at least two jobs since then, and can supply your prospective employers with references from these two jobs, the odds are vanishingly small. Employers only reference check people they want to hire, so they check the references you give them, they don't call up randoms at previous employers; it's a waste of time. I speak of the corporate world here.

2. Neither of us have ever heard of this happening. It's a legal minefield that employers do not want to enter - and also a total waste of time. No one would do this unless they were questioning your qualifications/experience on the job, and you are generally on probation for at least three months, so they would just fire you.

3. Depends. Your idea of a "bullshit" reason, and someone else's may vary. Non-bullshit reasons include: criminality; something that would open the employer up to a lawsuit (eg harassment, negligence), substance abuse and/or staggering unprofessionalism such as having an affair with a direct report, etc.

Say "laid off", prepare an excuse ("restructure", "wasn't a good fit", "position description didn't match work", "ready for a change, wanted to explore blah blah blah" or something else that won't be relevant to the jobs you're going for), and then talk/demonstrate a) how you learned from it, b) what steps you've taken to ensure it didn't happen again, c) examples where a similar dynamic occurred and how you resolved it successfully for yourself and the organisation. Don't say it was for a bullshit reason. Don't even say it was for a bullshit reason in fancy euphemistic terms. Don't volunteer it unless they say "And why did you leave Acme?"

Best of luck with your search.
posted by smoke at 3:09 AM on February 22, 2016

Oh, and just to highlight, most large employers do background police checks in addition to references. If anything about this previous job - or anything in your life - involves criminality or a criminal record it will 100% come up in the background check and you should disclose first. Your chances of being hired with a criminal record are greatly reduced, if you don't disclose in advance, your chances of being hired are 0.000000001%.

Not: background checks will often find stuff where a judge or whomever decided not to register a conviction. If you were involved with a court, it will come up. Disclose and sell your learning experience redemption super well. Apologies if this isn't relevant.
posted by smoke at 3:14 AM on February 22, 2016

1. Don't lie. Say "let go". No need to explain it. As long as it wasn't a registered offense that would prevent you from being licensed, or make you ineligible or otherwise put the hiring company at risk for something, that should suffice. "As it happened to a lot of people in that time period, I was let go."

2. They will do background check. Just expect they will. But it is "please confirm employment." They'll get dates, or a note saying "Yes, we confirm he worked here through xx date of termination." Termination being generic, not loaded with meaning.

It is NOT impractical. I've known plenty of folks called in after more than year - were 3 credits shy of that degree they said they graduated with, decided to cover a gap in employment with extending the date of their previous job, and some just made stuff up.

Again, as in #1, if it's not relevant or an officially documented offense (with authorities - financial conduct or law enforcement),stick with the "let go" and a shrug.

3. Yes.


Again, you don't have to be full disclosure truthful, but you need to be truthful. If you start to explain - well my boss was an ass because he thought I was macking on his wife at the Christmas party, and I saw him photocopying his butt on the 3rd floor, then he fired me.. it just is too much info. It's not the firing, it's that you're talking poorly about a former employer, you're gossiping, and in the end not "taking responsibility". So, save it and brush it off, like "hey - everyone gets let go at some point for different reasons.. learned how to deal with the stress, brush myself off, and get back into it."
posted by rich at 5:51 AM on February 22, 2016

Is this to go on your resume, or is this to answer the question if it comes up in an in-person interview? If it's the former, you're probably structuring your resume wrong; I've never listed anything besides duration of employment, responsibilities, and accomplishments. If it's the latter, I cannot imagine that this question will ever come up in an interview, especially if it's 2+ jobs prior. Interviewers want to know what is causing you to seek employment outside of your current job; they don't care about employers in the distant past. On the vanishingly small offchance they do ask, you should answer vaguely, as rich suggests. There's no possible reason for them to probe more deeply.
posted by Mayor West at 9:56 AM on February 22, 2016

I don't currently work in HR, but I have hired in the past. I was always very careful because we were a bank. Ways your potential employer could find out you were terminated:

1. They call. People are acting like 5 years is a long time ago, but for many people 5 years is only 1-3 jobs ago. 5 years isn't so far to go back and it could happen, especially if you've been in many short term positions since then. As a manager, I'd want to know why and I'd be reaching out to some of those jobs to see if someone can tell me. Was that your last long-term position? I'd want to talk to them even if it was a while ago.

2. Someone who worked at ex-employer now works at potential employer. Some industries and towns are smaller than others and its more likely to happen, but all it takes is one employee mentioning that you were terminated from ex-employer to have this come back to you.

3. Someone who worked at ex-employer knows someone who works at potential employer. Again, if you're hiring and you know someone who works for or has worked at place X, its easy to email or call and see if a name rings a bell. Most of the time its no, but if its a yes you get caught.

4. Background check. If the employer requires a background check, its possible they may uncover something to suggest you were fired and not laid off. Did you qualify for unemployment after you were let go? Did you try to claim it and didn't get it? If there's anything there, you risk getting caught. If the reasons you were fired are legal, they will find out. If it has to do with credentials, they will find out.

I get that being fired makes the job search harder and its very unfair that once you make a mistake of some sort, we make it even harder to learn from that mistake and put it behind you. I wish it was easier to give someone a second chance, but in some industries there are so many candidates that its hard to fight for someone with a blemish on their record when there are other candidates who don't have the same history.

I'm not going to tell you what to say in the interviews but I do suggest that you think carefully about it. If I found out someone was lying to me during the hiring process, I wouldn't hire them. From your point of view, that's probably no big deal since you figure I wouldn't have hired you anyhow. But if I find out someone lied to me during the hiring process after I hired them, I'd fire them. And from your point of view that's very bad because you'd be fired twice in a five year period making it even harder to get another job.
posted by GilvearSt at 11:56 AM on February 22, 2016

Response by poster: So there is a chance that I might get caught, and then there is a chance that I might not.

Has anyone ever been in my situation, and then lied about it, and then still has a job at the same company? Or will you sooner or later get caught anyway?
posted by pieceofcake at 5:34 PM on February 22, 2016

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