Responding to Requests for Reference Checks

Explore and Manage Concerns About Responding to Requests for Reference Checks

Businesswoman with paperwork talking on telephone in office
••• Responding to requests for reference checks. Hero Images / Getty Images

You’d think that supplying a reference for a former employee should be a simple, straightforward activity. But, in our litigious society, providing a simple employment reference, in response to reference checks, is no longer widely practiced. In fact, most companies assign reference checks to the Human Resources staff. This means that obtaining a reference that reveals any information about the candidate you propose to hire is increasingly difficult.

In an earlier article, I discussed the different approaches available for reference checks for former employees. My recommended approach to a verbal employment reference differed based on the employee’s performance while he or she worked for your organization. My response to a request for a written recommendation, especially the forms that request numeric responses that rate employees, remains the same. Send the form to HR.

Informal Verbal Reference Checks

These sample employment reference and verification of employment policies are suitable for the majority of reference checks, especially those checks requested in written format. In the earlier article, I discussed an unwritten, more informal reference discussion, that the immediate supervisor might hold with the potential employer.

Especially in the case of a valued, performing former employee or current employee, you may want to informally discuss their contributions with a prospective employer. In this way, you assist your former colleague to select an appropriate employment opportunity.

You enable the prospective employer to experience a certain comfort level with his or her employee choice. Since a reference check phone call comes late in the employee selection process, rest assured that your comments are confirming what the prospective employer has decided through the application and interview process.

Guidelines for Informal Reference Checks

My research online indicates that certain employers, especially universities and government entities, still appear to allow managers to provide responses to reference checks. (Policies of private employers are more rarely online.) Employees of companies that require employees to send formal, written reference checks to HR may also feel comfortable talking with a prospective employer informally.

These themes about reference check content are worth noting for readers who decide to respond to a verbal reference check for current or former employees. Managers need training to provide these responses to reference check requests. Please note my recommendations for when and whether a manager should provide a response to a reference check.

When responding to reference checks, managers may answer these questions.

  • Identify the job title, final salary, dates of employment, and major job responsibilities.
  • If you decide to provide any information about the employee’s performance, make sure the response is balanced. The employee exhibited mostly positive work performance, but you had some concerns in these areas. These areas may or may not be relevant in the new job; in any case, they are insufficient to preclude the employee’s hire.
    Answer only questions about which you have information. Use the employee’s file including performance evaluations and other written documents to provide specific, truthful examples that highlight the employee’s performance. Stay away from opinions, hearsay, and predictions.
  • If you decide to provide negative information about the employee, provide information about which the employee has had feedback. Provide specific examples from written documentation that have been shared with the employee.

Questions Never to Answer About Former Employees

You may refuse to answer these questions directly or deflect them with an answer that sidesteps the problematic components. (Example: would you rehire the employee? Answer: If all aspects of the employee's experience, education, job performance, and interests remained consistent with the requirements of the position, yes, I would rehire the employee.) Watch out for these questions:

  • Any question that would reveal information about any aspect of an employee’s protected class for potential discrimination or civil rights protection. Examples of such questions include:
    Questions about marital or partner status, family matters, personal health, disabilities, medical or attendance records, race, national origin, age, religion, gender, and so forth.
  • Any question that would identify the political or legally protected employment related activities of an employee such as union organizing, serving as a union steward, filing a grievance, political party affiliation or activities, worker compensation claims, insurance utilization, or employer-related lawsuits.
  • Questions that are unrelated to the work setting or to work performance. These might include questions about the former employee's interests, hobbies, volunteer associations, or association memberships.
  • Any question that asks you to predict the future performance of an employee. All you are qualified to respond to are questions about the performance you experienced, backed up with examples you have in writing. You cannot predict the performance of an employee in a new job, in a new environment, for a new employer, in a set of circumstances that you can’t define or know.

    With care and consideration, you can give valued performers an employment boost. Your informal, truthful, documented performance assessment may provide the tip of the scale in favor of your former employee's next opportunity.