Human Resources News & Insights

Reference checking: 4 ‘what if’ scenarios and how to handle ’em

The reference-checking process can be a challenge for HR — prospective employers are supposed to get as much info as possible about a potential employee, while former companies are told to say as little as possible. What’s HR to do?

Here are four “what if” scenarios HR pros might run into on both sides of the reference-checking process and how to handle them, courtesy of James Holland of Fisher & Phillips LLP:

  1. What if the prospective employer asks, “Is the former employee eligible for rehire?” If you’re asked this question, your best bet is to say your firm doesn’t provide that type of information.
    At the same time, if you’re checking references, you should always ask this question — not all former employers are trained to be as tight-lipped as you.
  2. What if the former employee wasn’t a good fit but was still talented? Tread carefully, says Holland. You can give a positive reference, but it’s likely the other HR pro may ask about shortcomings — which, if you discuss, could put you at risk for a defamation lawsuit.
    Better bet: If you do want to give a positive reference, put it in writing — and say nothing more.
  3. What if the former employee was actually a bad worker? Easy: Just give the former employees’ name, rank and serial number and nothing more.
    But if you really want to steer a fellow HR manager away from hiring your former employee without risking a lawsuit, you could say something like, “Are there any other applicants you’re considering?”
  4. What if you can’t get any information out of a prospective employer about a potential candidate? One tip: Contact the former employee’s supervisor.
    Most companies direct all reference requests to one source, but again, not all firms will be as on top of reference protocol as you, so you may get lucky every once in a while.

More often than not, Holland concludes, your best bet is to stick to a “name, rank and serial number-only” policy, especially with employees who were terminated.

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