WorkZone: Negative references can hurt job seekers, employers

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The national unemployment rate has slowly started to decline, but competition for job openings remains fierce. With an unfavorable ratio of jobs-to-job seekers, it’s crucial to be able to stand apart from the crowd, and a good reference could be the difference between landing a job and being turned down.

Despite some fairly straightforward guidelines about what companies should and shouldn’t say about a former employee, Jeff Shane, executive vice president of Michigan-based reference check firm Allison & Taylor Inc., said the number of negative references being given is surprising.

His firm conducts reference checks on behalf of job seekers worried about what a former employer might say. Usually the firm is hired after the job seeker has been hunting for some time and had a few promising leads that ended abruptly when it came down to checking references.

“Prospective employees will go through that second and third interview, and are a whisper away from getting the job, when the trail goes suddenly cold,” Mr. Shane said. “It can indicate a bad apple in the reference barrel.”

Pennsylvania has a reference-checking immunity statute that protects an employer from civil liability in most cases, said Mark Phillis, a shareholder with Pittsburgh-based labor and employment law firm Littler Mendelson. That statute sets a pretty high standard for suing, he said, and tends to favor the employer.

The safest course of action for companies, though, is to confirm only dates of employment and job titles when providing a reference, which has become standard practice at many businesses.

Under the Pennsylvania statute, in order to seek recourse for a bad reference, a former employee would have to prove that the reference provided false or misleading information, or that it disclosed protected information such as a disability.

“It presumes [the former employer] is acting in good faith,” Mr. Phillis said.

Where companies run into problems is when they set a reference check policy but don’t adhere to it consistently, he added. He’s seen cases where a person not picked for a job will seek to prove a former employer somehow retaliated by giving a bad reference.

“They’ll say, ‘This employer doesn’t give references but in this instance they did,’ which could show an ulterior motive,” Mr. Phillis said.

Also, he advised avoiding answering the question, “Would you re-hire this person?”

The dates-and-title-only reference approach does have the downside of employers not being able to sing the praises of a good former employee, but Mr. Phillis said it’s too much of a risk for an employer to offer anything more than the basics in a reference.

Mr. Shane said there is some recourse for a person who thinks he or she has a reference that could jeopardize future employment possibilities. If his firm tests a reference and finds that improper or negative information was revealed, the client can choose to send a “cease-and-desist” letter to the former employer. That takes care of the problem 99 percent of the time, he said.

“Most people would never imagine the sheer amount of negative commentary,” Mr. Shane said. “It only takes one in this tough job market.”

Kim Lyons: or 412-263-1241.

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