Dilemma of the Month: Responding to Requests for Reference Checks

Back Q&A Aug 8, 2019 By Suzanne Lucas
My company has a policy of only confirming job title and dates of employment when people call for reference checks. I know managers are giving out more information. How can I train managers to send all reference requests to human resources?

First, some questions. When you hire people, do you check references? Do you want to speak with their managers? Do you ask questions about performance? 

Most companies want to do reference and background checks but then balk at giving out the same information as they require before they hire someone. In fact, a friend lost out on a job because his former manager wouldn’t give a reference, saying it was against company policy and she could only confirm job title, salary (more on that later) and dates of employment. The recruiter explained that if he’d truly been a good employee, she would have broken company policy and given him a reference.

Managers are caught in this game between their company policy, which requires them to be tight-lipped, and the reality of job hunting, which is everyone needs references that can speak to their performance. Many managers like their former employees (I know I do) and are happy to give references. They want to see their former employees succeed and know they need the reference to do so. And, on the flip side, they don’t want their horrible employees to move up the corporate ladder, so they are desperate to blab.

But your policy isn’t entirely irrational. Many lawyers advise against giving references because you don’t want to expose the company to any liability. If I say, “John was a horrible employee!” and then John doesn’t get the job, John might sue. No company wants to be sued. But no company wants to hire a terrible employee, either.

So, you need to teach managers how to give references instead of instructing them to send all reference requests to HR, which will only confirm dates of service and title. They are going to provide references anyway, so let’s teach them how to do it.

Just the facts: Some people love to talk and share opinions, but that’s where you run into trouble. Tell your managers to stick to the facts. If it wasn’t written in a performance review, then you don’t want to say it — especially when it comes to negative things. So, it’s OK to say, “John made a higher number of errors than other employees,” if that’s a documented thing. But it’s not OK to say, “John was a terrible employee.” 

It’s OK to say, “John was promoted after being here for only six months!” It’s not OK to say, “John was the best employee ever!” One is a documented fact. The other is an opinion. If the statement won’t hold up in court, don’t say it. 

Remember the law: Remind your managers they can’t hold any protected activities against their former employees. For instance, you might think attendance is a slam dunk thing to reference. After all, the number of absences any one employee had is easily documented and would hold up in court. But were those absences covered by the Family and Medical Leave Act or military service? Were they part of a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act? If so, you can’t hold that against the employee and mentioning it — “John was on intermittent FMLA, so he was gone a lot” — shouldn’t be allowed.

Additionally, saying “John filed three sexual harassment complaints” may be accurate, but telling a potential employer that could be seen as retaliation. Leave that out.

Don’t answer every question: Just because a recruiter asks about your former employee doesn’t mean you have to answer. You can say, “I’m super busy, but I’ll let you know that I would rehire John into this or a similar position.” Or, “Thanks for asking! I terminated John after he failed to meet the conditions of a performance improvement plan.” And then hang up. You’re done. You should never go into the gossipy details. 

Dealing with salary issues: Salary used to be a standard question asked of job candidates, and it was usual to confirm it from previous employers. Now? Forget it. It’s illegal to ask the candidate, and it’s only legal to ask a former employer if the candidate has already received an offer. (And, in San Francisco, you need the candidate’s written authorization before their previous company will release the information.) It’s also something you don’t need to know. You should offer a salary based on the market rate for the job. What the person earned previously is irrelevant.

Training your managers in these areas will likely result in more compliance and better references than just saying, “Don’t say anything!” And your former employees will thank you for it.

Discuss this story and others on our Facebook page; “like” Comstock’s on Facebook by clicking or tapping here.


Stacey Green (not verified)August 15, 2019 - 2:09am

This article is interesting because I have noticed on some job applications the employer ask for previous salary history. I never knew past salary issues are irrelevant.