Some companies stick to a “just the facts” policy; but, if you’ve agreed to serve as a reference, sticking just to facts will practically be impossible to do.
For instance, suppose a prospective employer calls and asks you how you would describe so-and-so’s interpersonal skills. How can you avoid offering your opinion as part of your response? You really can’t, and there’s nothing wrong with that – as long as what you say is an honestly held opinion. The word “honest” must seem to appear often in these blogs. Well, you’re right, it does! There is a simple reason for that. Honesty is the key to the entire process of reference checking.
Nevertheless, if job seekers were always honest to a fault, there still would be a need for reference checking because the ultimate reason for the exercise is to ensure the skills, experience, and training of the candidate match the requirements of the job. So, even in a perfectly honest world, reference checking, and the opinions it elicits, would still be an invaluable tool in the hiring process.
Just sticking to a recitation of the facts is not going to accomplish the objectives of ensuring a solid job match. Honestly held opinions are vital to effective reference checking and, as a practical matter, shouldn’t be intentionally avoided. “How do you think so-and-so will be able to handle the job of successfully carrying out task X?” The only possible way to answer that question is by offering an opinion. A reference doesn’t actually “know” the correct answer to that question – as a matter of fact. However, an opinion can be based on facts – like how well the job seeker handled the same or similar tasks in the past, but the future (of course) is an unknown. An element of opinion cannot be avoided – and doesn’t need to be if it’s an honestly held opinion.