Many companies have policies on providing references. Some require that reference checks be funneled through the human resources department, while others allow managers to give references but restrict what information can be divulged about former employees.
Such policies may be formal or may be informally communicated.
Even if your company hasn’t communicated a stance on dealing with reference checks, you may have heard cautionary tales about the danger of sharing information. You might even have heard that it’s unwise to give a reference checker any more information than a former employee’s dates of employment.
While some cautionary tales may be based on merit, there’s actually a lot you can safely communicate to a reference checker. Consider the following scenarios to understand what you can and cannot say, and why:
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Reference checker: “Can you tell me a little bit about Ben’s work ethic?”
Supervisor: “Well, I didn’t work that closely with Ben, and I don’t have any proof of this, but I always got the impression that Ben wasn’t really that motivated. He seemed to be the kind of guy who would do the minimum amount of work he had to do to get his paycheck every week.”
In this case, the supervisor confesses that he does not have solid evidence to back up his claim, and even admits to not having much interaction with Ben. The answer provided is largely speculation. Since it isn’t rooted in fact, it could be considered defamation.
Reference checker: “What can you tell me about Ben’s relationship with his coworkers?”
Supervisor: “Oh, Ben was everybody’s favorite guy. He was always friendly and ready to help others out.”
If this statement by the supervisor is true, there’s not much risk for the employer here. However, in this situation, Ben is actually a current employee that the supervisor has yet been unable to terminate based on the company’s policies. He frequently yells and swears at coworkers and has been disciplined many times for his violent behavior. The supervisor in this situation hopes that by giving Ben an extremely complimentary reference, he will get a job elsewhere and leave.
However, providing misleading information – specifically giving an overly positive reference for someone who was known to be less than stellar – is a form of what is known as negligent referral. Since Ben was known to have acted violently, the information provided by the supervisor could cause him to be hired at another organization because it didn’t have the relevant information. If Ben is involved in a violent incident at his new workplace and it is found that his behavior could have been predicted had the reference been given honestly, the new employer may have cause to sue Ben’s former organization for negligent referral.
Reference checker: “Did Ben leave on good terms?”
Supervisor: “Well, I wouldn’t say he left on good terms. He actually sexually harassed several of our female employees, and we suspected that he was stealing from the company. I think he quit because of the allegations that were being made by other employees.”
With this answer, the supervisor has provided information that is not necessarily based in fact. While several female employees did complain about a comment Ben made, “sexual harassment” is a legal term, and Ben was not convicted of this. Additionally, the supervisor’s suspicion that Ben was stealing from the company was not confirmed, so it shouldn’t have been shared with the reference checker. Ben would have a legitimate claim of defamation here.
Reference checker: “How was Ben’s attendance?”
Supervisor: “Ben used six sick days in 2010. He also used all of his 15 days of vacation time.”
Assuming the information given here is completely true, the supervisor hasn’t given out any information that shouldn’t be shared. It’s important to remember that there’s usually minimal risk involved when the information given is factual, related to an individual’s future employment, and shared with an individual who has a legitimate business reason to collect it.
When you’re asked for a reference, first consult your organization’s policy on providing references. If you’re permitted to give references according to your own judgment, stick to the facts and don’t offer information that wasn’t specifically asked for or isn’t relevant.
Keeping these basics in mind can help you deliver helpful information that won’t get you into trouble.