I received a call from a company requesting a reference for a former employee on my team. What am I allowed to say and what information should I keep confidential? I want to be as professional as possible while being honest. Thanks.
Dear, Reference Check Responder:
Many employees/job seekers are under the impression that it is illegal for their previous employer to disclose anything besides the dates of employment, salary information, and job title. Though it may be your current company’s policy to disclose nothing more than dates, pay, and title, there are no current federal laws in place that prevent additional employment information from being disclosed to potential employers. Each state’s laws are different so it is best to check the Department of Labor for your state to make sure you are within the protections of the law.
Keep in mind that there are laws against defamation of character (slander and libel) or invasion of privacy that you must be very careful not to break. It is important that you give an accurate description of the employee in question but an exaggerated and personally charged negative reference should be avoided. Not only can it open the door for potential lawsuits, but it may also damage your credibility and professional image to peers outside of your company.
Some simple guidelines that will help you:
- If you feel a question is too invasive, you can politely say that you are not at liberty to discuss this topic due to your current company’s policy.
- Give responses only to questions that you feel comfortable answering.
- If the employee left the company on bad terms, I would refer the call to your Human Resources department. These colleagues are trained to handle these situations properly.
- Avoid giving detailed information of an employee’s negative performance.
- Only comment on your direct observations of the current or former employee’s performance. Hearsay should not be relied on or involved in your description.
- Medical conditions and other personal health information should never be discussed.
- For your protection, keep a log of all reference inquiries that show the date, name of employee, name of reference requestor, and name of prospective employer company. This document should be placed in the former employee’s folder and be made available upon request.
In any situation, personal or professional, always use your best judgment. Never feel like you have to divulge more information than you feel comfortable giving. Each company is different and may have a standard procedure for handling reference requests. Always consult your supervisor or Human Resources department for additional information.
Readers: What are the most difficult questions that you have been asked by a reference requestor? Have you ever had a former employee ask for a reference that you felt you should not offer?