Responding to a reference check request can be tricky. Fear of reprisal and lawsuits keep many employers from responding at all. These recommendations will help you respond reasonably to reference checking requests while protecting the legitimate interests of your company and your current employees.
First, follow your company's established policy. Many companies request that managers send written reference requests to Human Resources. If the manager's reference is positive, however, you can agree to have the manager provide a verbal reference directly to an employer.
Anything that is sent in written format should come from Human Resources, or HR staff should review the response for consistency and protecting the best interests of the company. A common reference checking format asks for the former employee's:
- job title, and occasionally, job responsibilities,
- final salary,
- dates of employment, and
- provides a checklist that asks the former employer to rank such characteristics as "teamwork" and "dependability."
This paperwork is best left to Human Resources - at least, ask the HR staff to review any written response you may be thinking of sending. I do not recommend answering questions that ask you to numerically rate a former employee on any aspect of their work or work characteristics. Numeric ratings are not comparable based on any shared meaning of the definition of the term, nor is the meaning of the numbers on a numeric scale defined on these forms.
Second, check to ensure the former employee's signature, authorizing the reference check, is on the paperwork sent by the requesting company. Without the former employee's signature, no information should be provided.
Respond to a Reference Check Request With a Positive Reference
If the manager can, with few reservations, recommend the former employee, in consultation with HR staff, the manager may return the call of the inquiring employer. When responding to a phone call, the manager should make certain that the employee's signature authorizing the reference check is on file with Human Resources before returning the phone call.
When a former employee was a good employee, and left your company on good terms (perhaps a spouse relocated and the distance was not commutable), you want to give the former employee assistance to find a new position.
Or, perhaps you have been used as a reference by an employee who reported to you at one time, although not most recently. If you have positive comments to make about the employee, you may respond to the potential employer with the positive comments you can contribute.
Answer only the questions that you are comfortable answering if you receive a reference request phone call or document. A manager should only speak to areas of the employee's skills and experience about which he has direct knowledge. There are several questions a manager should not answer:
Example Question: Predict whether your former employee will be successful in the position for which they are being considered. (Got a crystal ball, anyone?)
Good answer: When the employee worked for me, in her position with my company, she was a strong contributor whose work was appreciated.
Example Question: What were the employee's weaknesses?
Good answer: She had no weaknesses worth mentioning that affected her ability to perform her job capably, when she worked for me.
Example Question: Why did the employee leave the position in which she reported to you?
Good Answer: She sought increased responsibility and to round out her knowledge of our company and products.
Respond to a Reference Check Request: Not Positive
If the employee left your company under a cloud, whether the employee was a bad fit for their job, a non-contributing employee for other reasons, or unmanageable, I recommend you refer the call or the form to Human Resources staff for a standard response.
Sometimes unusual circumstances surround an employee's leaving your company. Perhaps an employee was watching pornography on his computer - yes, he asked me to be his reference. Another former employee may have threatened violence or committed a violent act while employed by your firm. While these former employees will rarely list your company as a reference, be prepared. These calls should be sent to HR staff for the standard response.
There is a caveat here, however. I recommend talking with your attorney before responding to any reference check about a potentially violent employee. If you fail to reveal violent behavior to a potential employer, and the former employee commits a violent act while in the employ of the new employer, your company can be liable for not revealing this information. So, check with your attorney in any unusual circumstances.
When a Former Employee Asks for a Generic Reference Letter
I don't recommend giving former employees a generic reference letter. Once a document exists, it lives forever. I have had prospective employees give me copies of letters that were 10 and 20 years out of date, sometimes barely legible from multiple photocopy sessions.
After a certain period of time passes, you have no idea what kind of employee your former employee has become, unless he or she is the rare exception who stays in touch. And, you never know how your letter will be used or how your words will be interpreted. Adopt a policy that states managers are never to give written, generic reference letters.
Inform the former employee that your company will be happy to provide employment confirmation from Human Resources to specific employers who inquire directly.
See some final thoughts about reference checks.