Reference Checks


One of the silly things that sometimes happen when references are being checked is the person you’ve asked to be a reference will decline to talk to the prospective employer citing possible legal “problems.”  Let’s consider for a minute the nature of the risk that is scaring references into closed-mouth silence.

More often than not, someone in the Legal Department has told everyone not to talk about a former employee because of the perceived risk that the company might be sued.  The first question that must be asked is “Sued by whom?”  If you’re the candidate seeking employment and you’ve asked one of your friends and coworkers to be a reference for you – adding that all you would like him to do is give honest answers to any questions a prospective employer might ask, who’s likely to sue whom?  You, the job seeker, are the only one who’s likely to sue; and the only basis upon which you could do that is if your friend and coworker, whom you personally asked to be a reference for you, intentionally and maliciously lies about you and, as a result, you don’t get the job you’re seeking!

What are the chances that you’re going to sue the person you personally asked to be a reference?  Slim to none, perhaps?  Even more basically, what are the chances that your friend/coworker is going to lie about you?  If you even remotely thought that the person you asked to be a reference would lie about you to a prospective employer, why would you have asked that person to be a reference for you in the first place?  The point is, you wouldn’t!  So, the risk the company Legal Department fears most is practically non-existent.  (The only other possibility is you’re a terrible judge of character when it comes to choosing references!)

So, who else could sue the former employer?  There’s only one other party who could sue the company for which you worked – the company that subsequently hires you – but only if the references you supplied provide false information about you!  That’s why, incidentally, you don’t want your references to lie for you and say you’re good at tasks you’ve never done before!  A reference is never doing you a favor by saying, for instance, you’re good at analytical spectroscopy when you’ve never heard the term before and have no idea what it means.

Therefore, as a practical matter, there’s really not much of a risk to a previous employer that results from allowing current employees to serve as references for former employees – particularly when the former employee is the one asking friends and former coworkers to serve as references.  And that’s also why, from both perspectives, honesty still remains the best policy.