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Open season on references... finally

Plus we reveal some of the most common questions to ask when phoning a reference
Name, rank and serial number

By Todd Humber

Name, rank and serial number. According to movie lore, that’s all you’re supposed to utter if captured as a prisoner of war.

But many organizations also adopted that credo when it came to something far less dramatic: The reference check. For decades, there has been a debate about how HR professionals and managers should answer questions about past employees.

Some employment lawyers have been vocal in their opinion that there is almost zero risk in providing an honest assessment, while others have proffered risk averse strategies that say no information should be shared other than confirming job titles and employment dates.

Back in 2003, in one of my first articles written for Canadian HR Reporter, I dove deep into the issue of reference checks.

“More and more HR professionals are being frustrated in their efforts to get information on candidates as organizations adjust policies for fear of the legal ramifications of giving a bad reference,” I wrote.

Janice Stubbs, who at the time was HR managers for the Town of Orangeville in Ontario, said she was having issues getting reference information from previous employers about 30 per cent of the time. She called it “unfortunate if employers can’t get information if there is someone you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy as an employee.”

Isn’t that the entire purpose of a reference check? I’ve conducted my fair share of reference checks over the years, and I need exactly zero fingers to count the number of times I’ve heard a negative reference: It just hasn’t happened.

But I’d need the appendages of an octopus to recount the number of glowing references I’ve heard. Most bosses and HR departments are happy to share the good news, but clam up when it comes to the bad. So you don’t exactly need to be a recruiting guru to figure out the name, rank and serial number is a thinly disguised plea: “Do not hire this person. You will regret it.”

That lack of consistency is exactly why we need to abandon the bare minimum reference. The reference checker doesn’t know if they are being stonewalled because of a well-crafted and universally adhered-to corporate policy, or because the candidate is a total disaster. They will naturally assume the latter.

But now, finally, those who advocate providing honest references have the courts on their side. As Sarah Dobson outlines on the cover of the upcoming May 29 issue of Canadian HR Reporterproviding a negative reference does not translate to liability for the previous employer.

Adam Papp applied for a position with the Yukon government. He asked his former employer, Ernest Stokes, to provide a reference, and Stokes agreed. Stokes knew Papp had the technical abilities to do the job, and was prepared to say so.

But technical qualifications, in this era of sound HR, are but one piece of the puzzle. Check out the honesty that came from Stokes when prodded for information about Papp. How was the quality of the work? “We were not that pleased.” Did he get along in a team setting? “Not well. He has a chip.” Did he develop good working relationships? “Did not see any evidence.” Would you rehire this worker? “No way.”

That’s blunt, and refreshing, honesty in a reference check. And let’s be frank: That’s the entire point of the background check, to uncover unseen issues that might lead to problems down the road. The Yukon government pulled the job offer, and Papp sued his former employer for nearly $800,000 in damages.

The employment law geek in me finds this case fascinating, because there is no question those remarks by Stokes were defamatory and no question they led to Papp not getting the job. So why did Papp lose the case?

One simple answer: The statements were “substantially true.” It helped that Stoke took the time to talk to other employees about Papp’s performance, and documenting these conversations helps. Here’s something else you may not have considered – the words published in the context of a reference check fall within the range of qualified privilege. That’s not carte blanche to unjustly trash a former employee you don’t like, but make truthful comments without malice and you’re on pretty firm ground.

Questions to ask

When it comes to HR, we all know consistency is critical. But while that’s well known within the walls of human resources, that knowledge sometimes gets lost in translation on its journey to the line manager’s desk.

Many hiring managers are left to their own devices to select candidates, conduct interviews and even, in some cases, do the background checks. Over the years, we’ve asked the types of questions HR professionals recommend when probing references. Here’s a sampling for your, well,  reference:

•Describe the position held.

•What was the candidate’s length of service?

•Relationship of the reference to the candidate (supervisor, co-worker, colleague or direct report) and how long they worked together.

•Describe the candidate’s technical skills related to this role.

•What was the candidate’s biggest strength?

•What was the candidate’s biggest weakness?

•Describe the candidate’s commitment to the business.

•Was the candidate punctual?

•Was the candidate clean, tidy and professional?

•Was the candidate pleasant and professional in her conduct and mannerisms?

•Did the candidate get along with peers and subordinates?

•Description of candidate’s past performance.

•Why did the candidate leave the organization?

•Would you rehire this person?

•What advice would you give a prospective employer about this candidate?

© Copyright Canadian HR Reporter, Thomson Reuters Canada Limited. All rights reserved.

Todd Humber

Todd Humber is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management. Follow him on Twitter @ToddHumber
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