How to Handle a Reference Call

We might not always like it, but at one point or another some of our employees are going to leave. Be it for a new job, a new location or a simple change of pace, employees will not be with us for forever. Hopefully when they leave they leave on good terms. Part of being an employer then, is to be able to convey this employee’s work ethic and drive to future employees if asked. If you accept it, being a reference for one of your former employees comes with a great deal of responsibility. After all, if you are an employer that relies on a candidate’s references then you know how much weight is placed on their input. So when it comes time for you to be a reference, you should have a good handle on what you can and cannot say. There is a fine line between the facts and your opinion.

So say one of your star employees decides to leave the company for other opportunities. They were a great employee, had a strong work ethic and always got the job done. You are sad to see them go, but it’s clear that when another employer contacts you to inquire about their work ethic, etc it won’t be too difficult to answer their question. However, what if another employer contacts you to inquire about a not-so-great employee? What can you say? Moreover, what legally can you say? Currently, there is no law that states that you are only allowed to confirm employment and the employees start and end dates. If you had to fire this employee, you can release that information. If they quit, you can tell them that too. You can also legally refuse to give any detailed information at all. If you don’t want to say anything, you can safely keep it to employment confirmation and the dates.

On top of that, you can also tell this prospective employer why they quit or why you had to let them go. If they were constantly late for work or very unreliable, you can certainly relay that information to another employer. After all, if they are thinking of hiring this person then they should know that these were serious issues you had to tackle. If this employee quit and did so in a very unprofessional manner, then it’s up to you whether or not you want to disclose that information.

The situation only starts to get a little tricky when you start disclosing details. You can say whatever you want about this former employee, as long as everything you say is true and is fact. You have to be very careful about what you say though because if you say something, anything, that is untrue and your former employee finds out, they can hit you with a libel case or sue you for defamation of character. That’s why most companies have a specific policy in place on how to handle reference calls. Some companies stick to simply confirming employment and the start/end dates to avoid a potential mess.

If your company does not have a specific policy, then it is up to you how much information you want to disclose about this employee. However, keep in mind what was stated earlier and be sure to only convey the facts as they are. Not doing so can get you into a whole heap of trouble.