Let’s not cower from references (Editorial)

Editor's Notes
John Hobel
Americans often seem a litigious lot. Canadians haven’t been too smug about it lest a similar lawsuit mentality take root here. But it looks like fear of litigation has already come to HR’s reference-giving policies.

There’s a fear of saying something too negative, scuttling a person’s chances of being hired, and then facing a lawsuit from the former employee for damages. There’s also the risk of being too positive, covering up a person’s deficiencies, and then facing a lawsuit from the disgruntled new employer that relied on your reference.

Employment lawyers, looking to spare clients unpleasantness in court, are advising caution when giving references and adherence to templates that spell out duties — known as name-rank-and-serial-number policies — but avoid much more. This can also include refusing to allow a former employee’s manager to speak with a reference-checker, offering instead a standardized letter of employment.

The cover story in the Guide to Recruitment & Staffing, included with this issue, takes a look at how this runs up against advice from recruiters, and attempts by HR departments, to thoroughly check references.

The problem is that an HR department guarding itself when giving references while pursuing them on the intake side comes off as wanting its cake and eating it too. And what if everyone is playing the same game?

References will become a precious commodity. Inevitably some firms will buck the trend, but references won’t come cheap.

Perhaps references will be sold (revenue generation for the HR dept.) and the money put aside to fight lawsuits. Or consortiums will form to trade references. “We’ll give ’em, if you do, but not to those reference-horders outside the consortium.”

Members of the consortium will have an edge wooing job candidates. Recruiters will sell a firm’s openness to give references as part of the employment package, important as any perk.

Employee fraud investigators will open new divisions to serve the reference-gathering market by tracking down former employees’ managers and obtaining clandestine references.

And while managers will be hesitant to hand references over, even for cash, for fear of retribution and dismissal (and they know how hard it is to get a reference), they will be feeling the pressure to give references from another front — their networking peers. And that’s the reality that also flies in the face of the entire notion of HR creating strict reference policies.

Professions can be like small clubs. Take for example software engineers in a mid-size city who know each other from conferences, schools and other networking opportunities. They’ll be familiar with each others’ firms and will pick up the phone to casually check a job candidate with a colleague at the company in question. That’s how at lot of reference checking goes, and HR has nothing to do with it.

Besides, if you only give template references and block managers from speaking, we may just get employees suing because name, rank and serial number only got them thrown out of contention when the other candidate’s firm was co-operative.

Here’s hoping the next candidate I want to hire comes with a reference.

John Hobel is managing editor of Canadian HR Reporter. He can be contacted at [email protected].

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