There are occasions when a well-meaning reference will decline to respond to a prospective employer’s questions, citing “company policy” as the reason for not answering a job-related question. This can happen even when the job seeker has specifically asked a good friend and coworker to be a reference for him or her. “Sure, I’ll be a reference for you!” Then the call comes, and the reference declines to answer some or all of the questions, citing company policy for refusing to do so. The reference may respond to a few perfunctory questions like, “How long did you and so-and-so work together?” or “What was so-and-so’s job title during the time you and she worked together?” But once it is established that the reference really does know the candidate, the “company policy” response pops up when a more subjective question is asked like, “How would you describe so-and-so’s overall job performance?”
So, what can you, as the prospective employer do when this sort of road-block comes along? You have a couple of options, both of which require getting in touch with the applicant. First, you can explain what happened and then say something like, “I really need to talk to this particular reference. If you’re really interested in the job we need to fill, you need to call that reference and tell him/her to talk to us.” Then, it’s up to the candidate to convince the reference to respond to the prospective employer’s questions despite company policy. Second, if the reference still won’t talk to the prospective employer, the burden is still on the candidate to find an appropriate substitute reference who will!
One way to avoid this sort of problem is to make it clear to the candidate that your company will be calling the references listed and that, if the candidate feels it’s necessary, he/she should contact them and let them know that somebody from your company – or somebody who represents your company – will be calling. It should also be suggested that the candidate urge the references to be as candid and honest as they can when the call comes – and that it’s perfectly fine with the candidate for them to do so.
The problem from the candidate’s perspective is that, when references provided decline to respond to questions asked by the prospective employer, a red flag automatically goes up in the employer’s mind. Rhetorically, the employer has to be asking himself, “Since so-and-so gave me this name as a reference to contact and that person won’t talk to me, could there be something wrong with the candidate’s past job performance? Otherwise, why would he have given me the name of a reference who hides behind ‘company policy’ even though he apparently agreed to be a reference for this candidate?”
The easiest way, at least from the prospective employer’s standpoint, is to put the burden right back on the candidate to convince a reluctant reference to talk or to find another suitable reference who will!