Reference: Telling it like it is without risking legal action

You can give more than name, rank, serial number

These days, a lot of HR managers say giving a reference is a lot like throwing a sharp-edged boomerang.

Give out too much information, and you risk a lawsuit coming back at you by the ex-employee. Give out too little, and you risk hurting the former employee's chances because the person on the other end of the phone thinks something's fishy.

The result: When asked for references, may companies give neutral replies or a lot of "yes" and "no" answers, and hope nothing comes back to haunt them.

Edward Andler, who runs Certified Reference Checking, has seen that scenario thousands of times in 40 years in HR business. In his new book, however, he says it doesn't have to be that way. With a couple of key steps, companies can stop running scared when asked for references.

Here are the common-sense steps Andler has used and recommends:

  1. A legally binding release
  2. The first step comes well before you're even asked for a reference - the day the employee leaves your company. That's when to ask the employee for a signed release saying:

    • it's OK for you to give out employment and performance information, or

    • that the employee doesn't want such information given out.

    Sample release language:

    "We do not discuss, orally or in writing, an individual's work performance, reason for leaving, or any other confidential information.

    However, we divulge such information if you sign this form below indicating that you want us to provide the information to prospective employers. If you do not sign, we will inform prospective employers that you do not want us to divulge the confidential information."

    The language above the departing employee's signature block:

    "I authorize XYX Co. to release confidential information, negative or positive, to prospective employers. I release XYZ Co. and its employees from any liability for providing such information." 

    If the employee signs, the straitjacket in off, and you can discuss performance issues. If the employee refuses to sign, you can just tell inquiring employers that the former employee has limited you to the basis name, rank and serial number, and that's the end of it.

  3. The performance appraisal

So, let's say the employee gives you the signed OK to talk to prospective employers. What type of information should you release?

How about something the employee has already signed off on - the most-recent performance appraisal.

Consider: In most companies, the employee acknowledges and agrees to what's in the appraisal. That removes the debate about the accuracy and extend of the information you give out.

So it has the two elements that are essential for keeping you out of hot water:

  1. the employee's agreement to release it, and
  2. the employee's acknowledgement that it's accurate.

Using the performance-appraisal technique provides you with a subtle advantage when you're seeking references, too.

Several studies show that HR managers are more likely to give honest reference information to companies that have a reputation for honoring the Golden rule of "do unto others…"

Note: This method of giving references also provides you with more ammunition for convincing managers that your company's performance appraisals should be comprehensive and no-the-mark.

Info: "The Complete reference Checking Handbook," by Edward Andler. ISBN 0814407447