Why Neutral References Don’t Work

You want to protect your business, so you listened to your attorney and you implemented a policy of only “neutral” references. That is, you only confirm dates of service and title. This is a great policy, and the one recommended by many attorneys.

In fact, last week, I asked six labor and employment attorneys their opinion and all six said that should be your general policy, especially for bad employees. (They all had exceptions, as well, and you should especially note Donna Ballman’s point that you don’t want to keep your former employees unemployed.) As Jon Hyman said, if simply confirming dates and titles sends the message that this employee was terrible, why risk a lawsuit by giving details?

Absolutely. I totally agree. Except when it comes to people who worked for me. You want a reference on one of my former employees, I’m going to tell you exactly what I think. And, furthermore, since I don’t work for that company any more, there’s not any policy that is going to hold me back. I mean, what can they do? Fire me?

To keep reading about my dislike of neutral references, click here: Why Neutral References Don’t Work

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7 thoughts on “Why Neutral References Don’t Work

  1. I asked people wanting to know to please call me back and leave a message asking me to phone them if I would re-hire the person, and ignore their call if I wouldn’t re-hire the person.

    1. I think that’s sleazy. What if you call me and I don’t get your voicemail? Or I forget to call you back? Or I’m on vacation for 2 weeks and by the time I get back, you’ve already rejected the candidate? Then not only do you lose a perfectly great candidate, but that person gets screwed over.

      Treating a not returned phone call as a bad reference is not nice.

  2. “You ask for references when you hire.”

    Thank you, Suzanne, this drives me up the wall as well. I have always found it to be very hypocritical of companies that demand references, yet, don’t give references themselves. And, I think it says a lot about a company’s culture and ethics if they engage in this double standard.

    The companies that I have worked for that have just such a double standard also had other questionable methods of conducting business.

    I wish that I had more nerve to ask them if they give references when I interview for a position without the fear of not being offered the job because I dared to ask such a question.

  3. What a GREAT article! Thank You! It is always best to give information about a previous employee, just make sure that information is FACT based, and not someone’s opinion.

    Many employers don’t realize that due to Employment Indemnification Laws, if there is derogatory information in the employee’s file, they are obligated to share that information with the person asking for references. If they DON’T share, they can be held liable as well. All states have their own version of the law so it’s important to check with your local government. But this is Alaska’s:
    Sec. 09.65.160. Immunity for good faith disclosures of job performance information.

    An employer who discloses information about the job performance of an employee or former employee to a prospective employer of the employee or former employee at the request of the prospective employer or the employee or former employee is presumed to be acting in good faith and, unless lack of good faith is shown by a preponderance of the evidence, may not be held liable for the disclosure or its consequences. For purposes of this section, the presumption of good faith is rebutted upon a showing that the employer or former employer

    (1) recklessly, knowingly, or with a malicious purpose disclosed false or deliberately misleading information; or

    (2) disclosed information in violation of a civil right of the employee or former employee that is protected under AS 18.80 or under comparable federal law. (http://www.legis.state.ak.us/basis/folioproxy.asp?url=http://wwwjnu01.legis.state.ak.us/cgi-bin/folioisa.dll/stattx05/query=*/doc/{@3112})

    1. I don’t think (and I could be wrong) that those things apply for things like, “John was always whiny.” But more so for, “John stole things.”

      Am I right or off base?

  4. Suzanne, great article. Thanks for all of the info. What can an employee do if their old company’s policy is neutral references only and it’s hurting their new job prospects? As you know, my husband recently lost a job over the neutral references only policy. Any tips on what he can do to maximize his chances of this not hurting him next time? Thanks so much.

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