Human Resources News & Insights

References: Managers air their unvarnished opinions of former workers

Think nobody gives references on ex-employees anymore? Think again. Some managers are brutally honest in their assessment of former colleagues.

Suzanne Lucas of MoneyWatch recently asked reference-checking consultant Allison & Taylor for examples of real-life references they’ve gathered from ex-employers.

They’re not pretty. Here’s a sampling:

Responses to questions regarding performance evaluations (references were asked to rank skills on a scale from 1 — inadequate — to 5 — outstanding):

  • Oral communications: “Can I give a negative number … -1”?
  • Financial skills: “Well, that’s why our company had a major layoff — left her in charge of finances!”
  • Technical skills: “Is zero in your rating scale?”
  • Productivity: “Is there a rating less than inadequate?”
  • Employee relations: “There was a lot of he said/she said happening with other employees. And other than her leaving, nothing else has changed. We haven’t had any problems since then, so we know she was the source of the problem.”

On ex-employees’ strengths and weaknesses:

  • “I can’t think of any strengths, only weaknesses.”
  • “I’m sure there must be some strengths but nothing jumps out at me.”
  • “Weaknesses seem to stick in my mind … I’d have to really think about any strengths.”
  • “I’d rather not comment – you can take that however you want.”

On the circumstances surrounding the employee’s departure:

  • “She was fired.”
  • “I fired him! He and his buddy had some illegal things going.”
  • “She had been written up and she walked out on work … because she was upset.”
  • “It was a rather delicate and awkward situation. You should call her other past employers. I made the mistake of not doing that.”

So do these examples mean you can tell managers to go ahead and say whatever it is that jumps into their mind when a reference checker comes a’calling?

Uh, no. Certainly, if there was egregious employee conduct that caused the employee’s departure, you need to make that clear to a prospective employer — indeed, if you don’t alert the new employer to a potentially dangerous situation, you could face some legal liability down the road.

But unless there’s something about the employee’s departure you absolutely have to disclose, it’s best to keep comments to a minimum. For many firms, that comes down to a simple confirmation of position held and dates of employment.



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