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Giving Employee References

Kim Rutherford

Giving references for former employees is a tricky and often a legally charged process. It is especially difficult if the request is for an unsatisfactory employee. Many companies have gone back and forth on reference policies – should companies have a “no reference policy”, a “reference with authorization policy” or a standard “basic information” policy?

Consider a policy that provides employee references, even if it is on a basic level. This approach will help your company comply with any related state laws and regulations, as well as allow former employees to move forward with their careers -- some potential employers will not hire a candidate if a reference refuses information. Here are some guidelines to follow when providing reference information on former employees.

Your first step should be to implement a formal, consistent policy for handling reference checks. It’s helpful to allocate the authority to give information regarding references to a few select people in the organization – typically within the Human Resources function. The following tips will further help you to develop and implement an employee reference policy.

Prior to responding to a reference check:

Formalize a policy for handling employee references that speaks to:

o What type of information can be provided
o The type of request required
o The people authorized to give out this information

Distribute the policy to all employees

Confirm that all employees are given concise information on their reason for termination

Require exiting employees to provide written permission to respond to a reference check. This is the easiest way to fully implement a clear and legal reference policy

Do not provide blank reference letters to departing employees

When responding to a reference check:

Ask the requesting party if he/she has the former employee’s permission to contact your company

If the request is made by telephone, verify the caller’s identity by returning the call (it is preferable if the number can be located in a directory rather than provided by the caller)

Return written reference requests in envelopes marked “confidential”

Make it a point to only provide reference checks to properly authorized parties – those in the human resources department, prospective supervisors, etc.

A brief response is important. Provide information on the employee’s dates of employment, salary range, if the employee was part-time or full-time and the job description. Keep any comments you make strictly job-related

Provide only fact-based information with the proper documentation to back up your statements

Don’t volunteer additional information if it is not requested

Don’t provide misleading or presumptuous information.

Keep in mind that you should always provide the same type and amount of information for former employees, regardless of level. Additionally, it’s often helpful to keep a written record of all reference checks, both written and telephone.

Although the reference process is often daunting, a professional and consistent policy will help your company provide the necessary information about former employees. Be sure to review your state and local regulations regarding reference checks, as there are many local nuances that might apply to your company.


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