What Can You Say During a Reference Check?

Bob Rosner
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Posted: Jul 08, 2009 12:01 AM

YOUR RANT: Can you get sued by a former employee for what you say during a reference check?

911 REPAIR: In a land of hungry lawyers, lawsuits are always lurking just around the corner. So yes, you do need to be careful about what you say about a former employee. Which reminds me of an e-mail that I received when I first started writing this column. A guy wrote to me saying that he had a big disagreement with his boss. He'd done the right thing with a client but had still gotten into trouble over it. He described himself as being "dead right."

Like that guy, you can also be dead right in the reference that you give a former employee. I'm not saying that your only option is to remain mute, but you do need to be smart about what you do say. I've listed four questions you can answer during a reference check and stay out of trouble. For more information, check out "The Manager's Guide to HR" by Max Muller, or consult with your lawyer (Amacom, 2009).

-- Did the applicant work for you? According to Mr. Muller, some lawyers caution to wait to answer any questions until there is a signed consent form from the former employee. But he says that you should be fine answering the following questions. Starting with, "Yes, the applicant did work for our company." But be careful not to elaborate. We're not just talking name, rank and serial number, but close. Answer the question directly and don't drone on, because that's when many people get into trouble.

-- What were the applicant's dates of employment? Dates of employment seem so safe. Yet, many job applicants manage to trip on this question. I've talked to many hiring managers who really focus on the dates of employment as an indication of how truthful the applicant is. So you really want to be sure that you have the correct dates because however innocuous it sounds, the applicant might not get hired for a discrepancy here.

-- What was the applicant's job title or general job duties? Again, this seems like a no-brainer, but it is very important for you to get it right. Freelancing with your answer can get you in trouble, so you probably want to work off the job description or performance-review documentation. Have the employee's personnel file in easy reach, if possible.

-- What was the ex-employee's salary? The advice here is to not volunteer information, but it's usually fine to confirm or deny the amount of money that the person calling you says the applicant claimed to earn while working for your company. You can confirm or deny, but again, watch the editorial commentary.

What you can say during a reference check for a former employee is just one more example of how tough it is to be a leader today. Hopefully these tips will help you to keep things right on and live to tell the tale.

WORKPLACE911 EXECUTIVE POINTS

Reference questions you can answer safely:

-- Did the applicant work for you?

-- What were the applicant's dates of employment?

-- What was the applicant's job title or general job duties?

-- What was the ex-employee's salary?

LIST OF THE WEEK

from Challenger

Challenges facing companies after layoffs, according to HR pros:

-- 54 percent consider employee engagement the biggest challenge they face

-- 23 percent say it is easing anxiety over the possibility of additional layoffs

-- 15 percent said maintaining the quality and quantity of work

THOUGHT OF THE WEEK

"A lot of fellows nowadays have a B.A., M.D., or Ph.D. Unfortunately, they don't have a J.O.B." -- Antoine "Fats" Domino