Learn About Employment Verification and Reference Checks

Know what prospective employers are checking

Business woman on phone in office
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Expect potential employers to check your resume thoroughly. This means it is important to address issues such as employment gaps, potentially negative references, or other red flags. None of these are insurmountable problems, but it's important that you be honest about them and be prepared to address them in a way that shows how you've grown and learned from the circumstances.

What Employers Check

How much employers check depends on how much verification they do during the hiring process. Some employers will confirm, very thoroughly, every detail of your resume or application. This includes calling all of your references. They might even ask your references for a summary of your character and/or work ethic. The most important question they'll ask your references is if they'd hire you again if given the chance.

Other employers may do a cursory check. They might simply check a few details on your resume or call only one of your references. Some employers won’t check any of your information, and might not even call your references at all.

It is a good idea to assume every employer will conduct a thorough background check on your work history. Even something you might perceive to be a minor embellishment could be perceived as a lack of honesty, and the negative that comes with that outweighs whatever positives might come from the embellishment. Even if it is discovered after you've been hired, such a discrepancy can cost you your job. So, the bottom line is that you need to be honest.

Employment Gaps

When listing employment dates on your resume, you don't need to list the month and year if you were in a position for more than a year. For example, you can list 2015–2017 instead of May 2015–August 2017. By only including the year, you can cover some employment gaps that were only a couple months long.

You also don't need to list all of your positions on your resume. The rule of thumb, typically, is to limit your experience to 15 years for a managerial job, 10 years for a technical job, and five years for a high-tech job. You can leave other experience off your resume or list it without dates in an "Other Experience" category.

Keep in mind, there are a lot of people who have been out of work for a long time. It's not going to be a big concern for most employers because so many candidates are in the same situation. Finally, if you're asked why you weren't working during an interview, tell the truth.

It's perfectly acceptable to say you were home with your family, laid off, or whatever else you might have been doing. Just focus on emphasizing your strong work ethic, before, during, and after your time out of work.

Limited, or Unrelated, Work Histories

What if you have work experience, but you have had only entry-level or unrelated jobs? One solution is to be creative and write descriptions of your positions that put a positive slant on your responsibilities. For instance, "Extensive work with visual standards and merchandising high-ticket items" sounds much better than "Set up clothes racks." Emphasize responsibilities that are related to the job you are applying for. For example, if you have only worked in restaurants and are applying for a job in retail, highlight your customer service experience.

If most of your jobs were entry-level, and you are applying for a position with more responsibility, include any examples of experiences that involved you stepping up and taking on additional responsibilities. For example, perhaps you gave a presentation to your coworkers or led a team project.

Remember, too, that any volunteering, freelance work, or consulting can be listed in the employment section of your resume. List it just as you would list your other jobs—with job title, company name, dates of employment, etc.

Finally, as mentioned above, you can simply leave certain jobs out of your resume. You do not need to include all of your experience. Therefore, you can leave out jobs in the past that are completely unrelated to the position you’re applying for. It's also a good idea to review resume and cover letter samples to get some ideas on how different situations can be handled.

Negative References

If a job application requires you to include the contact information of your last employer, but you know that person might give you a bad reference, there are things you can do to make yourself look better. First, include other references on your list who you know will give you glowing reviews. These can be other former employers, clients, vendors, or personal references.

Second, you might also be proactive and reach out to the person you are concerned about. Explain to the employer that, while you may not have parted on the best of terms, you are passionate about the job you are applying for and would appreciate a positive reference. Many people are willing to let bygones be bygones, and you may be able to end up with a reference that both you and the former employer feel comfortable with.