Job hunters, take heed.
CIO.com has a good little primer intended to uncover the truth behind myths about job references and background checks, some of which really surprised me. The article is written by Jeffrey Shane who works for a professional reference checking service (Allison & Taylor), so it takes a somewhat different tone than expected. It's a whole lot more reactive and psychologically driven than I had ever heard before.
From the article:
"Myth: Most corporations direct reference checks to their human resources departments, and those people won't say anything bad about former employees.Reality: It's true that most human resources professionals will follow company protocol with respect to reference checking. However, the professionals conducting reference checks evaluate how something is said, not just what is said. They listen to tone of voice and note the HR staffer's willingness to respond to their questions. So even if the HR person doesn't say anything blatantly negative, their tone or reticence can speak for them. If they want to discreetly indicate to someone checking references that a former employee was problematic, they'll tell the reference checker, "Check this person's references very carefully.""
The idea that reference checkers look for red flags based on the nuances of how your HR department responds seems like it makes for a pretty tricky situation. Sure, there are legal issues in terms of what HR people can say, but if what Shane is saying is correct, then you may have a better answer on why you didn't get that job than the standard "We've decided to go in a different direction with another candidate" speech we've all heard before.
The other surprise was about those who have legal battles with former employers and how much HR can play a role by telling background checkers things like that they need to check the legal files to see what they can legally say about the former employee. Big red flag there if you've had past legal issues.