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By Tricia Goss

Guidelines for providing employee references

When someone resigns from your organization, you still have a responsibility for the former employee's file. One reason to maintain it is so that you can provide accurate information when other potential employers contact your business for a reference.

Providing truthful details about a past staff member is important, but there is more to consider than just the facts in a file. Offering the wrong type of information is poor form that could result in a defamation lawsuit against your company. Ensuring that your internal policies meet state or federal laws and adhering to them in every situation will prevent any unwanted legal attention.

Start with the exit

Preclude reference checks for a less-than-stellar former employee during your exit interview. Informing someone who is fired or leaves on bad terms that you will not be able to provide a positive reference will prevent most people from including the company in a list of references.

Get it in writing

Determining that a person on the phone is really who they claim to be can be a challenge. Avoid giving information to bill collectors, former spouses or identity thieves by requiring written requests for references. Consider creating a release and authorization form that includes the applicant's signature to avert potential liability.

Pick a point person

Directing all reference checks to a specific staff member (typically an HR employee or office manager) will help maintain consistency and eliminate unnecessarily providing duplicate information. Record all references provided in the employee's file. If requesting written authorization, keep the original document in the file, as well.

Keep it short

When a business does contact you for a reference, provide only basic information. Checking your state labor laws to determine what you may disclose is essential. In most cases, fundamental details such as dates of employment, the job description and the candidate's reason for leaving your employment are adequate. In addition, avoid volunteering extra information. Even if your state laws and internal policy allow you to provide several details, simply answer the questions asked.

If you can't say anything nice …

Expressing favorable remarks on an outstanding former employee who left on good terms is perfectly acceptable, but avoid building up someone whose performance was unsatisfactory. Even if the former employee was likable and sympathetic, fabricating skills or experience could result in legal action from an employer who hires the poor worker based on your statement.

Don't get too personal

Never offer your personal opinion or any details that a former employee could consider slanderous. If your state statutes permit you to offer information regarding job performance, qualifications or rehire eligibility, only provide facts for which you can easily provide documentation if required.

Consider how you phrase statements, as well. For instance, saying that you fired a former employee for drug use could be considered inflammatory. Instead, explain that the person in question failed a drug test on a specific date and therefore you terminated the employee according to your company policy.

By adhering to local laws, implementing an internal policy and maintaining proper documentation, you can ensure that the references you provide are helpful and legal.

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