Past employees will often use previous employers as references. If you are asked to respond to a reference check request, follow these suggestions to do so in a professional and respectful manner.
Ensure that the former employee has authorized the reference check. Most professional reference check requests come in the form of a written request. Before you even begin to respond to the request, ensure that the former employee has signed the reference check request. Otherwise, do not disclose any information. You are not required to respond to anything that a former employee hasn't specifically asked for, and it's actually a good idea not to.
Follow company policy. Most companies have a policy on responding to reference checks. Follow this closely when divulging any information about former employees. Avoid oral conversations with anyone requesting a reference check. This will cover you if there are any issues. All communication should be sent in written form. And this is usually done by your Human Resource (HR) department. Don't get yourself into trouble by ignoring these policies. Your company's reputation is at stake should anything be misinterpreted about your reference check on your former employee. Ideally, leave reference check requests up to your HR department who knows exactly how to respond to them.
Try to always give a positive reference. If your former employee left on good terms, then make the effort to give a positive reference. It is necessary to help the employee find new work, and you're likely the one person who knows this employee best. Comment on professional aspects of the former employee's demeanor. And never, ever discuss personal or inappropriate issues not pertaining to the job. You could sabotage a lot more than just this employee's new job. So remain professional and positive whenever possible.
Only answer questions you are comfortable with. Again, your company policy probably outlines the protocol for answering reference check questions. Only answer questions that are professionally phrased and will legitimately aid the new employer with his decision. Don't feel pressured to answer every question and beware of any sly or unprofessional questions. State that you're not comfortable answering that question and stand your ground. Just because the new employer is being unprofessional doesn't mean that you need to be as well. Be honest, but provide general answers. And don't be afraid to consult your attorney before giving a reference check for a less-than-stellar employee.
Avoid unprofessional answers. Similar to the suggestion above, refrain from giving answers that will not genuinely help your former employee find employment. Resist the urge to ‘rate' employees on a scale from one to ten. Can you really be fair with that kind of an answer? Instead, give a general answer that doesn't degrade your former employee. That's the best way to respond to a reference check request without putting your job or your former employee's job at risk.