Reference Checks

Occasionally, we encounter HR people who make statements like, “Employers aren’t allowed to disclose anything except job titles and dates of employment of former employees.”

Regardless of which side of the employment fence you happen to be on, there is still a pervasive notion that employers aren’t allowed to disclose much of anything about former employees.  Well, on the face of it, that statement is false.  A company may elect not to disclose more information by adopting a policy that forbids disclosing anything but job titles and employment dates.  But there’s no hard and fast “rule,” external to the company, that applies to every employer, under all circumstances, and at all times.

For companies who do have a no-comment policy, it’s likely that their legal departments have advised them to adopt it.  Why?  Because of the perceived fears that if employees are free to say anything else, the company will be putting itself at risk of being sued for defamation.  The assumption is that employees are more likely than not to intentionally, or unintentionally, lie about a former employee, which is absurd—particularly if the job seeker is the one who has asked a co-worker to serve as a reference and the co-worker has agreed to do so.

I have actually talked to HR people unwilling to even confirm that the candidate ever worked at their company at all!  Its one thing to be cautious, it’s quite another for HR people to be afraid of their own shadows.  Now, my question is what possible harm could result from merely confirming the candidate’s job title and dates of employment?  Unless the person in the HR department intentionally lies about the candidate in some way, absolutely none!  Assuming the candidate being checked told the truth about where he worked, how long he was there, and what his job title was, where’s the potential harm to the former employer for saying so?

In my view, it’s a gross disservice to those good former employees who are working hard to find other employment.