The View from HR

No need for employers to refuse all job reference requests

June 30, 2012 

No employer is happy with the quality of job references they receive from other employers. Applicants are routinely denied an effective way to prove their past workplace behaviors and skills. So, why do job references repeatedly fail to serve either employer or employee well?

They fail because employers are afraid they will be sued. They fail because it is easier to say no, or to provide only basic data. They fail because employers do not trust the judgment of their managers (or the manager is gone). They fail for a dozen reasons, mostly weak.

The fact is, there are not enough lawsuits in this state over a slanderous job reference to fill a thimble. It is an exaggerated fear. On top of that, we have a statute protecting job-reference givers and seekers in almost every case from liability, unless they knowingly provide false or discriminatory information. (Sure, you cannot report claims of discrimination, union activity and such. Stick to the job!)

Use a catchall

This mess hurts good job applicants and employers because it keeps good people from standing out in the crowd. References who do talk are often so “friendly” to the applicant that their recommendation has no value. Further, the federal government is actively working to limit other effective job-screening means such as assessment tools/tests, criminal background checks and such. We may soon see the day where the only broadly accepted selection tool left is the interview! How effective are most interviews?

As an employer, consider giving detailed job references out about past employees, for example, where the employee voluntarily resigned. Perhaps seek an exit document that allows/encourages you to talk in such cases. Maybe you can agree on a reference statement. Also, why not tell another employer if a person was terminated in a layoff? If you do this, will it encourage other employers to help you with your applicants?

In discharge cases, if you are concerned about liability, try “this person was involuntarily terminated and our policy does not allow us to provide more information.” We really already do that when we say “not eligible for rehire,” right? You could even go further and say “terminated for violation of company policy” as a broad catchall. Some employers do this today. Others seek a reference release from the former employee.

Stay in touch

Applicants, your best opportunity to get a useful reference is when you leave a job. Write a reference letter for your manager to revise and sign on company letterhead. The letter might thank you for five to eight accomplishments during your tenure. You can also provide a letter to the manager and HR authorizing them to provide any employer with references requested in the future.

Applicants should stay in touch with key people at former workplaces so a reference can be found even when the employer has changed. Maybe you can make a video recording of an influential reference speaking to your skills and performance, with an encouragement to call.

Employers that blindly refuse all reference requests except basic dates of employment and such are overreacting to the legal threat and underreacting to an opportunity to get the very best predictor of future success. Take a second look at this important problem with more than just a lawyer’s lens.

Bruce Clarke, J.D., is president and CEO of CAI Inc., a human resource management firm, with locations in Raleigh and Greensboro, that helps organizations maximize employee engagement while minimizing employer liability. For more information, visit www.capital.org.

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