Withholding Employee References: It’s Time to Stop the Insanity

Editor’s Note: Sometimes, readers ask about past TLNT articles they may have missed. That’s why on Fridays we republish a Classic TLNT post some of you have asked about.

Do you give candid references on former employees?

If you’re like most, probably not. Due to advice given by legal counsel or an article someone in HR once read, the preponderance of employers has one of the following policies:

  1. No one is allowed to give any information under any circumstances.
  2. You can report only “name, rank, and serial number” (dates of employment, job description, starting and ending pay).
  3. You must refer the caller to HR (where they only report name, rank, and serial number).

This is insanity. It stacks the hiring odds in favor of the most questionable job applicants. A huge number of bad hiring decisions could be avoided if only employers were more forthcoming with one another about their former employees’ actual performance on the job.

How to circumvent legal liability

The good news is you can circumvent any legal liability and share this vital information when you have all employees who are leaving your organization (for whatever reason) complete and sign a Reference Release Form. In essence, this is a “hold harmless” document that asks departing employees to choose which work-related behaviors (i.e., honesty, initiative, dependability, quality, etc.) you, as their former employer, may discuss when asked for references.

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Of course, the really great folks who leave will allow you to discuss all aspects of their performance. The marginal or poor performers may choose to let you to only report on their strengths, if any, or report nothing at all, but it will be just as telling to a potential future employer if you have to say: “I’m sorry, but John did not give us permission to discuss any aspects of his on-the-job performance with any of his potential employers.”

This was originally published in the May 2011 Humetrics Hiring Hints newsletter.

Mel Kleiman, CSP, is an internationally-known authority on recruiting, selecting, and hiring hourly employees. He has been the president of Humetrics since 1976 and has over 30 years of practical experience, research, consulting and professional speaking work to his credit. Contact him at mkleiman@humetrics.com.