References – A Reality Check


A phone call comes and you are asked about an ex-employee who worked in the company; what would you do? In most cases we would talk positively about that person and use flowery and decorative language so that the next employer gets impressed and/or in reality would be eager to just get rid of the person ASAP and so the best way would be to talk very nicely.

On the other side, a similar phone call and the Manager responds negatively about the employee, he would say all that he could think of saying just to spoil his/her image and restrict the chances of that employee to be employed anywhere else. It is not necessary that an ex employee is always really bad; it could very well be the employer’s version of maligning him/her just to take revenge or show dislike.

How Hypocritical? Isn’t it? It’s a really debatable topic! Isn’t this a common situation in many organizations? I’m sure many of us must have behaved in one of the two manners while giving references, unless of course, if the employee is worthy of these kinds of feedback-positive or negative. It gets confusing many a times as to what to say and what not to say about an employee…

Miscellaneous examples tell different tales about reference check and their failure in various organizations,to quote one such example;

A Recruitment Manager hired a female employee in the HR department, the girl looked suitable for the specific role and after clearing all the rounds smoothly she joined as a Recruitment Executive. One error that was made was that there was no reference-check done, and few months down the line everyone could see behavioral problems coming up, sometimes to an extent that she would go in to depression for days and just refuse to open up to anyone. She would complain about her work environment, colleagues and even her Manager and surprisingly all of them were baseless complaints.

After 3 months we got to know that she even tried to commit suicide when she was in her previous organization. An error turned in to a blunder, which implies that due importance should be given to reference-check in every organization.

There are many myths attached to reference-checks that if we give negative remarks about employees their future will be in jeopardy, but think this way if you do not give the right feedback there are chances that you as an employer may not get the same and so, all this practice of reference-check loses its lustre. Why not use our own prudence and rationale prior to providing feed backs about the employees?

In fact, some employees do not hesitate to file defamation lawsuits even if they are just angry over missing out on a job and such inherent perils have effectively tied their hands and make them (employer) shy away from honest, insightful and detailed answers.

The Prevention:

  • A reference check is not the time to give vent to your malice or get your own back against the former employee. Let’s be professional and not take revenge of any kind.
  • One should stick to a factual, unbiased and accurate evaluation limited to the work-related aspects of the employee’s behavior.
  • Never offer judgmental opinions, voice-subjective ideas or misleading/incomplete information.
  • If required, hold the phone call, take out the file and then tell them about the ex- employee through it.
  • If asked, try and disclose both negative and positive aspects of the ex-employee, and unless asked for do not speak about any other information on your own.
  • If at all there is something that your employer needs to know, present your side of the story during the interview itself, especially in case an ex employer has not relieved you happily.
  • In case of any serious offence, do let them know about it, but if the matter is sub-judice then seek out legal help before giving reference.

Each one of us have our own strengths and liabilities, and sometimes how differently people perceive them obstructs our path, so be very vigilant while providing feedback! And who knows you might also require some references in future….so think twice and be wise!

As it’s a complex, debatable topic I would invite insights from fellow HR professionals about the same, be it stories, examples, cases…which can be of use to all. So wear your thinking cap and put your thoughts in here…….;)


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