Providing Employment References

by Carol Nibley
Several years ago, I received an angry call from a former employee asking why I had “sabotaged” his opportunity for a new position. He threatened to sue me and my company because my conversation with his prospective employer had been the reason he didn’t get the new job. “Glen” was an interesting employee (note: “interesting” is a wonderful all-purpose adjective), and I would never have been able to heartily endorse his performance to anyone. But I had been very careful during the conversation with the prospective employer and stated only factual information for which I had written documentation. So I wasn’t too concerned about Glen’s threats.
I learned an important lesson from this experience: Always provide former employee references in writing. Even though Utah is one of many states that have immunity laws protecting employers who provide factual information during reference calls, Glen claimed I had said things that weren’t true. In this particular situation, I called the person who had previously called me about Glen and explained the situation. He corroborated my recollection of the conversation and explained that his refusal to hire Glen was based on other information and not solely on the information I had provided. I never heard from Glen again.

Employers sometimes feel they are in a no-win situation when providing references for former, less-than-stellar employees. Following are a few suggestions to help navigate potential landmines:

1. Train all employees to let HR (or another company designee) handle all employee references. Similarly, never allow anyone in the company to write a letter of reference for a former employee without HR consent. This ensures consistency in the company’s message.

2. Require a written release from the former employee before providing the written reference, unless otherwise required by law. Many large companies will have applicants sign a release which the company then forwards when requesting the reference.

3. Decide how much information your company wants to provide about its former employees, and handle all general inquiries in the same (consistent) manner. Some companies offer only dates of employment, job title, and eligibility for rehire. If you indicate that a former employee is not eligible for rehire, make sure you have documentation that supports your company’s position. Ideally, former employees should know their own standing for rehire before being surprised by a reference, but that’s a topic for another article.

4. Consider the impact of not providing factual information for ex-employees who did something illegal, threatening, or otherwise seriously inappropriate. Employers have a moral, if not legal, obligation to warn prospective employers of dangerous employees. Failure to provide this information may result in liability for negligent reference. The truth is a good defense in a defamation claim, so make sure you have documentation and clearly state the facts without embellishment when providing negative information.

5. Always provide information in writing and keep a copy for your records.
These guidelines will help you when the “Glen’s” of the workforce come after you with threats of legal action. They will also free you from worry each time you have to deal with the reference process.

One Response to “Providing Employment References”

  1. Mia Wyzer says:

    Kudos to Ms. Nibley on this excellent article. I’ve met my share of “Glens,” and I can heartily endorse the approach taken here for dealing with this challenge.

Leave a Reply

Best of state in quality and service 9 times running