JOB FAIR TAB -- References not always readily given

By Julie N. Lynem

San Francisco Chronicle

If you're one of the thousands of laid-off workers lucky enough to have a job interview, chances are you'll be asked for a few references. But when that prospective employer calls, don't expect your old employer to say much.

While employers are eager to get information on job candidates, they're not so willing to return the favor for their exiting employees. And those that do give references often reveal little more than job titles, dates of employment and salary history.

Fearing lawsuits from disgruntled employees, employers have clammed up, resorting to name, rank and serial number policies that could hurt good workers trying to move ahead and companies trying to prevent hiring bad apples, legal and employment experts say.


In fact, the employees who stand to benefit most from this trend often have the most to hide, said Wendy Bliss, an attorney, human resources consultant and author of "Legal, Effective References: How to Give and Get Them."

The silence on the part of some employers makes for a frustrating hiring process.

Fear of legal action

"Because employers are so scared that they'll be sued if they say something negative, I have to risk ending up with a dud employee that I might have to turn around and fire," said an HR director, who asked to remain anonymous.

Employers are cautious for a reason, said Markita D. Cooper, a professor at San Francisco's Golden Gate University School of Law. Since the mid-1980s, several workers have sued their former companies, saying the employer provided incorrect, incomplete or misleading information about them.

Some employers also have been sued for not disclosing information that could have raised red flags about an employee's misbehavior or propensity for violence.

Lawsuits aren't prevalent

But lawsuits aren't as prevalent as workplace conventional wisdom would have employers believe. Only 1 percent of respondents to the reference-checking survey said their organizations had defamation claims brought against them as a result of providing information about former employees.


Cooper says reference policies will change only when companies become aware that the benefits of providing references far outweigh the risk of being sued.

"I think we need to change people's perceptions about what the dilemma is," she said. "I think the risk is small enough that it's OK to run that risk."

Some employers aren't willing to take any chances.

Wirestone, a digital professional services firm in Emeryville asks departing employees to sign a release giving the company permission to provide additional information. Wirestone also asks prospective employees to sign a release authorizing the company to seek more in-depth information.

"We always like to get prior approval," said Rick Berry, corporate director of human services. "That way they know we're doing it and everything is above board."

Paul Barada, founder of Barada Associates, an Indiana reference-checking firm, said employers can't go wrong if they're honest.

"Truth is an absolute defense," Barada said. "If a candidate was fired for stealing and a potential employer calls and asks if you would you hire the guy again, say no, he stole from us. That's fine as long as it's true."

Companies often lose sight of what a reference check is all about, Barada said. Many firms zero in on credit and criminal background checks when they should be probing for information that will give them a better understanding of a candidate's strengths and weaknesses.


"The focus of real reference checking is not looking for dirt," he said. "It's a matter of evaluating whether a candidate's experience, training and skills fit the job."

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