In February, 2011, I was terminated with cause by an employer of 24 years. I then worked with an insurance company for six years until a change in management resulted in me being let go without cause. This past October, a large financial institution offered a position, pending a satisfactory background check. The offer was rescinded following the check, though it would not disclose how or where the negative information was discovered. Both previous employers confirmed contact, but said they would only confirm that an individual had worked at the organization, and tenure of employment. What should my next steps be?
THE FIRST ANSWER
President, BlueSky Personnel Solutions, Toronto
Many organizations make it a policy to only confirm past employees' job title and tenure for reference checks – regardless of positive or negative work histories. This doesn't stop some people though, from asking for more intel off the record, and those conversations do sometimes take place, even though they shouldn't. Ultimately though, if there is no proof of unlawful wrongdoing, this all falls under the realm of speculation.
My recommendation: Put this experience behind you, and move on with your job search, unfazed and more determined. Maintain that positive outlook and don't let this one situation get you down. Besides, there are companies out there that don't conduct reference checks when making new hires. Your tenure at both companies is impressive. So leverage your strengths and showcase your work accomplishments with confidence.
Lots of people experience difficult circumstances work-wise and bounce back, and you undoubtedly can, too.
THE SECOND ANSWER
Vice-president and corporate secretary, BC Transit
Small consolation, however, this is not all that uncommon and there are definitely actions you can take to mitigate the impact of a reference that is less than positive. There are many reasons such as the one you outlined why one might not get a good reference from a past employer, even if its stated practice is to provide only role and duration of employment.
First, if you know that the official reference will be neutral at best, be upfront and let the recruiter know why and offset that with references from previous clients, colleagues and other managers who can provide a personal reference for you. My advice from long experience is to ask specifically, "Would you be willing to provide a positive reference?"
To have past circumstances impact future opportunities isn't really fair, especially when they are not of your doing, so provide relevant positive references as a counterpoint.
I would also ask your two previous employers to provide written references, which you would then provide to the recruiter. That will often avoid the off-the-record comments it appears may have happened in your case. Human Resources should be willing to provide those as it will want to avoid the legal liability that could result from a manager making negative comments about your employment.
Best wishes to putting this behind you and building positive references for your next job.