Employer references: Just the facts, please

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Fair Exchange

Q:

What should I be able to say when providing an employee reference? My new employer has a policy that restricts managers to confirming dates of employment for ex-employees.

A:

Let me answer by demonstrating why so many companies have policies that limit what you can say in a reference.

Many years ago I was trying to decide between two general contractors. I discovered that a friend was well-acquainted with one of the contractors. My friend didn’t hesitate to vouch for him; he had nothing but positive things to say. And because my friend worked in construction with many contractors, I trusted his opinion.

After I found 4 inches of water in the basement and an interior wall destroyed on the second day of the project, the contractor admitted he forgot to turn off the water before taking out plumbing fixtures. And then he jumped into his truck and drove off.

Soon after, my friend told me, “I thought that he was OK now and hoped your project would help him get back on track.”

And that’s the problem with references. People who are well-intentioned, or mean-spirited, apathetic, lazy or in fear of a lawsuit have stripped references of their value. They can’t help imposing their own agenda or assuming that they should influence your decision.

It is understandable that some companies want to restrict what their managers can say, but it isn’t fair to the employee or other employers. Information from references should allow an employer to make an informed decision.

Today many companies use a “no comment” policy, others distort an employee’s work record and make it appear better or worse than is fair to the employee or potential employer. And some will provide a guarded reference that needs to be carefully decoded.

What we need are employers who are willing and able to provide a fair and factual reference that protects everyone’s interests.

Good employees deserve a good reference. Such references can make the difference in a tight job market. If an employee has a record of good attendance and solid performance there is no reason not to provide that employee with a reference that is more than a mere confirmation that he once worked at your business.

If that means an employee gives his former employer written permission to provide a full record of his performance it may be worthwhile to remove any reason to withhold a reference statement.

Employers deserve to be warned before hiring trouble. When an employee demonstrates weak skills, has repeatedly created difficult problems, has put the employer’s business at risk, has behaved unlawfully or been abusive, other potential employers need to know. And that’s just the information many employers are afraid to provide in a reference check.

Fair, objective and factual references should be required for some professions; health care is an obvious example. No one wants an abusive caregiver to be fired from one facility and quickly hired by another.

Washington and Oregon have enacted “good faith” legislation that provides limited liability to employers who provide a reference and disclose information on the employee’s ability to do his or her job; the skill or reliability of the employee; or any illegal or wrongful act committed by the employee that relates to the duties of the employee’s job. (Washington RCW 4.24.730, Oregon 30.178)

This is good news. An employer can feel comfortable giving an honest reference — so long as it is factual and reasonably well-documented.

And that’s the bad news, too, because too few employers track and document performance problems and that includes failing to document the reason an employee was fired.

Many states have enacted legislation allowing lawsuits for “negligent” references. They are telling employers that they can be held liable for glossing over problems that could put the new employer (or public) at risk. States legislatures should be given credit for trying to end the “no comment” reference.

It doesn’t matter if you like the person or not; the new employer might be a good fit for an employee that just irritated you. The reference should be about the skills and objective performance of the employee, and if you stick to that you should have little fear of lawsuits.

Virginia Detweiler, based in Walla Walla, provides human resource services and management training to businesses in southeastern Washington with her consulting firm HR Partner on Call. Her columns are written as a service to employers and employees and rely on reader questions and comments for topical material. Contact her by email at wwcomplady@gmail.com or phone at 509-529-1910. Because of job and employer sensitivities, care is taken to protect identities.

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