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Solving the reference riddle: Know what to ask and how much to say

Checking references has a way of putting employers in a pickle. When they want information about a potential new hire, they’re often frustrated when references divulge no more than dates of employment, position held, and pay rate. That “name, rank, and serial number” response can be frustrating. But when the employer is on the receiving end of a reference request, the temptation is strong to withhold all but the most basic information as a way of warding off a defamation claim. 

Leigh Anne Benedic, an attorney with Porter Wright Morris & Arthur LLP in Columbus, Ohio, says the risk comes when an employer is seen as sharing false or misleading information that causes the job applicant to suffer damages by not being hired. Since the defamation danger often leads employers to shy away from saying much, what’s an employer seeking a reference to do?

A reference-seeker doesn’t have much recourse if a previous employer is bound by company policy to hold back, but often previous employers will talk, presenting an opportunity that shouldn’t be missed, according to Brad Federman, chief operating officer of human resources consulting firm F&H Solutions.

Reference checks aren’t just another task on the list
Too often employers consider checking references as a task to be checked off, and that’s the wrong mindset, Federman says. Instead, employers should treat a reference check as an interview. He suggests asking questions such as:

  • How well did the applicant perform?
  • Is the person a leader or follower?
  • How accountable and reliable was the person?
  • What are the person’s strengths and weaknesses?
  • What were the person’s key accomplishments?
  • What was the person like to work with? Was he or she a team player or difficult?
  • How did the person handle stress, difficult people, and difficult situations?
  • What role did the person play? Also, tell the reference what role the person is applying for and find out if the reference thinks the person is qualified.
  • How does the candidate respond to feedback?
  • Why did the person leave?
  • Company policy aside, would you hire the candidate again? Federman says companies often have policies against rehiring people, so any such policy should be removed from the equation.
  • Federman also suggests the “great open-ended question”: What should I know about the person that I might not otherwise find out?

How much is a reference worth?
Federman says references are “a really good tool,” but how much stock a potential employer places in the information gleaned depends on how well people are trained to get information.

When an applicant supplies the name of a reference who then gives a negative recommendation, the employer should take it seriously, Federman says, but if the employer has found the reference on its own, any negative information should be verified because it could be from someone with an ax to grind.

Trained interviewers asking for specifics also can learn whether a candidate is exaggerating skills and past accomplishments, Federman says, and he suggests checking a minimum of three references.

Even though employers may limit what they say because of legal concerns, they also have good reasons to give references, Benedic says. “When the references you share are positive, it can help former employees obtain employment elsewhere, which is a good thing to help prevent lawsuits (although not a complete solution) and ill will from former employees,” she says.

Sometimes state laws offer employers limited protection for good-faith responses to reference-seekers Having employees sign releases allowing the employer to respond to reference requests also can help. “These statutes and releases should be viewed as a potentially helpful defense if the reference results in a legal claim but not a complete one, or a silver bullet,” Benedic says.

Who should answer reference requests?
Benedic recommends funneling reference requests through the human resources department rather than allowing managers, supervisors, or coworkers to comment. HR professionals “are more likely to be attuned to the legal risks associated with providing references, while being sensitive to other legal requirements about information that is proper to share with third parties about former employees,” she says.

Federman also recommends having HR handle reference requests, but if an employer opens the process up, it should be to just a core group of people trained in responding to requests.

The rise of social media has added another wrinkle to the reference process. Often coworkers or even casual acquaintances will write LinkedIn recommendations that become part of an individual’s profile on the career-oriented social media platform. Those recommendations can be tricky for employers, Benedic says.

“Opinions on employees can evolve over time, for good or bad,” Benedic says. “When you ‘recommend’ someone via social media, that recommendation can live for much longer than your positive opinion of the employee and may be difficult to retract. At a later point if you’re defending a claim against an employee, it could be problematic if you’ve publicly recommended them but later have specific concerns about their performance or conduct.”

Now that you have tips for checking references do you need to learn more about finding the best candidates (so that you can start the hiring process that may lead to checking their references)? According to a recent social recruiting survey by Jobvite, 94 percent of recruiters plan on using social media to find the best candidates. While LinkedIn and Facebook are obvious sources for connecting, there are other platforms and places that are ripe for making connections. Join us February 17 for  Cutting-Edge Recruiting Tactics: How to Stretch Your Candidate-Sourcing Skills Beyond LinkedIn and Facebook, a hands-on, tactical look at how to stretch your candidate sourcing skills beyond the usual LinkedIn haunts. Our presenter will discuss the most effective new places to source top candidates online, and teach you how to leverage all the online tools at your disposal to find and land that super new employee. For more information, click here.