References – Part II

A few weeks ago I wrote about references, how to prepare your reference list so that you’re ready. In this post I want to talk about serving as a reference for someone else.

If someone asks you to serve as a reference for them, before you say yes ask yourself, “Can I talk positively about this person’s work experience, professional skills and/or personality? Would what I honestly think about this person help them to secure a new job?” Unless you can emphatically say yes to these questions, politely decline to be a reference.

Serving as a reference is often a balancing act. Most people have some things they did well and some things they need to work on. You want to be able to give as much of the good information as you can while only providing the less-good information when required. You may choose to quality parts of your reference with words like generally, usually, or sometimes. That way you leave room between the lines that this person might not be perfect.

In my mind, the most important thing about being a reference is honesty. No one will benefit from you giving false information about another person. Let’s say Bob has horrible attendance – maybe you even fired him for it. Then someone calls for a reference check on Bob and asks about his attendance. Being honest may keep Bob from getting the job, but lying about Bob’s attendance may not help him either. Possibly he gets the job and then gets fired again for attendance. Nobody wins in that situation.

From your employer’s perspective (if you and the job seeker worked together – especially if you were the supervisor) what is critical is that what you say is consistent with the employees’ personnel record. There is no law that prohibits you from giving negative feedback during a reference check. The problems come in if the negative information you provide is not supported by the records. Back to Bob and his horrible attendance. Let’s presume that Bob had horrible attendance and you fired him for it. Then a recruiter calls and asks about Bob’s attendance. You reply honestly and that ultimately you fired him because of it. You were honest – so no problems, right?

The problem comes when what you said is not consistent with the file. Maybe Bob was an exempt employee who did not fill out a time sheet. There is no written record of his poor attendance. You didn’t really write him up for attendance – you just talked to him a few times and then when you were fed up you fired him. In his last performance appraisal you checked “satisfactory” on the attendance line because you didn’t want to get into it at the time – and he had been doing better the few weeks before the review. Now we have a situation where the facts – his attendance was horrible and you fired him for it – disagree with the formal record. If Bob were to file a defamation charge, you (and your company) would not be able to defend your comments.

Serving as a reference is important and if you can do so in a manner that can help someone get a new job, I encourage you to do so. But, be honest with yourself and the recruiter and follow your mother’s advice, “If you can’t say something nice about someone, don’t say anything at all.”


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