By law in many regions, employees enjoy a great deal of protections. If you give a bad reference, you expose yourself to the risk of a future lawsuit. For this reason, many employers choose to adopt very strict reference policies, which sometimes end up hurting prospective employers who call them for a reference.
You can strike a middle ground when it comes to giving references, satisfying legal requirements while also meeting the need for honest references.
Designate a single person in your organization to handle reference requests. Often, this person is someone in human resources, since he or she would have access to the relevant information. Work with him or her to develop a clear policy on references, and make it clear that all requests for references are to be sent directly to this person, and no one else.
In addition to ensuring that all requests are handled properly, this will also ensure the validity of references. Bad employees may choose to have friends stand in as "references" if they suspect that they will be getting a bad reference. If a company knows that it can call any phone number at your company and be forwarded to the person who handles reference requests, it can be assured that a reference is genuine.
Only give references to people who are authorized to request them. References should only be given out to prospective future employers who have informed applicants that their references will be checked. If someone calls to request a reference, you should always verify this. Some companies require reference requests in writing, for this very reason.
If you suspect that a reference request is not genuine, ask them to have the ex-employee contact you and confirm that it is ok to release reference information.
Stick to the facts. Some employers choose to take this very literally, and when called for a reference, they will only confirm that someone did work for them, and provide the dates of employment.
If you choose to give more information than this, especially if you plan to give a negative reference, choose your words carefully. Only make statements which can be factually backed up, and if you state an opinion, make this clear.
"Mary Sue was a bad employee," for example, is not the way to go.
"In my opinion, Mary Sue was not a good fit for the position" would be more appropriate, and it allows the company requesting the reference to request additional information.
Information you can provide:
- The employee's dates of employment.
- The employee's job title, and any promotions.
- Any awards or commendations received.
- The on-time record for the employee.
Information you cannot provide:
- Speculation, opinions, or hearsay.
- Information not specifically related to job performance.
- Information which could compromise the employee's privacy.
Do not repeat gossip or violate employee privacy. It's not just illegal, it's also poor form. Stick specifically to information which is related to your employee's job performance, and do not repeat hearsay or information which is not relevant to the discussion.
Be aware that in many regions of the world, it is illegal to discuss an employee's health, sexual orientation, political ideals, religious beliefs, or family status. If you think that a piece of information is not relevant to the job, it's safe to assume it's not safe to repeat.
Do not provide information which has not been requested. A request for references is not a request for a novella. Answer questions concisely and clearly, and wait to be asked for additional explanations.
For example, if a prospective employer asks if you would hire someone again, say "no," not "no, because..." Always wait to be asked for explanations or supplementary information.
Consider using a release form. A release form will protect you from the legal liability of giving honest references. When employees exit your company, inform them that you will only give neutral references confirming dates of employment and job title unless they sign the release form.
A release form can also be used to provide negative references, in a sneaky way. Employees who are likely to get negative references are probably aware of this, and so they will decline to sign the release form. When asked for a reference in these cases, you can say that company policy only allows you to give neutral references for employees who have not signed releases, allowing the requester to draw his or her own conclusions from that information.
Giving references is a legal and ethical minefield which must be navigated carefully. By sticking to the facts and speaking without malice, you should be able to give negative references without exposing yourself to the risk of a lawsuit. You may also want to consider recording phone calls and conversations related to reference requests for additional legal protection.
s.e. smith is a connoisseur of literature, adventures, and fine food who loves sharing knowledge with others and putting her otherwise marginally useful liberal arts degree to good use.