Job References Can Be Misleading

Employers want accurate accounts, despite neutral reference policies

Allen Smith, J.D. By Allen Smith, J.D. February 5, 2018
Job References Can Be Misleading

​A job reference may hide an awful truth—as happened, the country recently learned, when the American Red Cross gave a positive reference for a former employee who applied at Save the Children, even though the employee had been forced out of the Red Cross because of alleged harassment.

Getting references isn't a foolproof process but can nevertheless prevent some bad hires and result in great ones, according to Jay Goltz, CEO of the Goltz Group Cos. in Chicago, owner of four businesses and a former columnist for The New York Times.

While the Red Cross has apologized for the misleading reference, Save the Children relied on it to hire the former Red Cross worker in 2013. He was recently placed on leave pending an investigation.

Fond Farewell to Alleged Harasser

Gerald Anderson was a senior Red Cross official when he was forced out of the organization because of harassment allegations against him, according to a Jan. 25 ProPublica report. Anderson's attorney denies any misconduct.

When Anderson's departure was announced in 2012, the Red Cross' senior vice president for international services, a friend of Anderson's who is now the organization's general counsel, sent an e-mail to Anderson's co-workers saying that he regretted that Anderson had "decided to make a change" and expressing gratitude to him for "two decades of dedication and hard work in furthering the international mission" of the organization. At a staff meeting a few days later, the vice president said that he was upset Anderson was leaving and that, if it were up to him, Anderson would stay. Attendees at the meeting were flabbergasted that the vice president was so laudatory about a man that many knew had been accused of harassment, ProPublica noted.

The Red Cross released a statement Jan. 25 in response to the ProPublica report, asserting that, "The laudatory language used in association with Mr. Anderson's departure was inappropriate and regrettable. Moreover, we recently learned that a verbal reference given to Save the Children may also have contained similar language. As a result, we are taking appropriate disciplinary action and we have apologized to Save the Children."

Neutral Reference Policies

People conducting reference checks can be at odds with those receiving reference-check inquiries. The former often are trying to elicit as much information as possible while the latter frequently try to disclose as little as possible.

To limit legal risk for slander or negligent misrepresentation, companies often require employees to refer reference requests to HR, which in turn will confirm only dates of employment and positions held in accordance with neutral reference policies, noted Susan Corcoran, an attorney at Jackson Lewis in White Plains, N.Y.

That said—employers that fail to provide truthful information that will prevent a bad hire might be sued for negligent referral. In addition, some state laws provide employers with protection for truthful references.

Businesses seeking references often contact first-line supervisors to circumvent neutral reference policies and obtain candid information about applicants, she said, but even supervisors are often trained to direct reference inquiries to HR. "Employers will still be hanging on every word provided by the prior employer, even the neutral reference," she said.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Conducting Background Investigations and Reference Checks]

Like a Chess Game

If someone says, "It's against our policy to provide references," Goltz said, reference checkers might try adopting approaches similar to those used in games of strategy such as chess.

He recommends asking "What if it weren't against policy?" If the person is silent, say, "You sound like I do when I do not want to stick out my neck and give a bad reference," he recommended. Sometimes a reference will laugh, like he or she has been caught.

The recruiter needs to be shrewd. Goltz recalled one reference checker who asked him if the former employee got along with everyone. "Who gets along with everyone?" Goltz answered, and they both laughed. "My response was very different from saying, 'Yes,' " he noted. The prospective employer might have followed up by saying "That's concerning," in which case Goltz said he would have been silent. That would have spoken volumes, he observed.

Occasionally, a reference will say something blatantly negative about an applicant. Goltz once contacted someone who said the applicant didn't work there anymore because, "That guy was selling drugs out of the back" of the store. While the reference was simply being candid, this candidness is something Goltz doesn't always recommend.

But he thinks employers have a social responsibility to give positive references for excellent employees—something he thinks is likelier to happen at a small business than a corporation.


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