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Small business

If you haven't got anything nice to say ...

September 21, 2012
Reference.

Should you give a reference for an employee that didn't impress?

The best thing about some ex-employees is the ‘ex’ part. Some of them are just so time-consuming, so energy draining, so frustrating, that it’s a blessing to receive their resignation letter. But what do you do when you eventually answer a call from a recruiter seeking a reference? Should you tell the truth?

Charmine Härtel is a Professor of Human Resource Management at the University of Queensland. She told me the first step is to establish whether you previously agreed to be a referee. 

“If an employee asks a manager for a reference and the manager says yes, the assumption is that it’s going to be a good reference,” she says. “It’s inappropriate to say yes and then give a bad reference.”

There are cases, though, of managers not providing consent, and yet the employee puts forward the manager’s name on a job application regardless. When that occurs, Professor Härtel suggests it’s important to ask the recruiter how they obtained your details. Then, if you feel comfortable, it’s OK to provide a reference on the condition it’s honest.

“But you have to be very careful with the language you use,” she warns. “If you use anything personal, like ‘the person was crap’ or ‘the person had a bad attitude’ or ‘nobody liked that person’, that’s very dangerous territory to go into. You have to look at the behaviours.”

What she’s referring to is the difference between a verb and an adjective. When giving someone a reference – even a great employee – it’s important to stick with describing their behaviour (the verbs) rather than any judgement you have about them personally (the adjectives).

You can say, for example, that someone came in late once a week, but not that he’s tardy. And you can say that someone’s productivity was below the team average, but not that she’s lazy. And you can say that someone was involved in conflict situations with three colleagues, but not that he’s aggressive.

Sometimes the employee hasn’t even resigned. Still sitting within the team, not doing much, maybe causing some angst. He's not incompetent enough to be fired but he is sub-par enough to want him out. Then one day you glance in the direction of his computer and notice he’s browsing a jobs notice board …

It’s so tempting to provide his prospective employers with a dazzling reference in the hope they’ll take him away. It’s the forbidden fruit of making him someone else’s problem. Sure, it’s probably unethical, but isn’t that a small sacrifice in the pursuit of replacing one employee for another who might just be better?

Bad idea, according to Professor Härtel.

“It’s problematic not to be truthful,” she advises. “When employers give an untruthful reference because they want to get rid of a person, their reputation is at stake. One must be very careful about that. This is a small country; most of these are small networks.”

The other thing to consider is that an employee’s weakness in one job might be a strength in another. That’s why Professor Härtel suggests a referee should avoid providing an opinion on whether an employee is suited to the job for which he's applying. Instead, just talk about the specific behaviours he would bring to the role, and let the recruiter draw her own conclusions.

All of these complexities – what to say, how to say it, of whom it should be said – explains why many organisations have given up on references altogether. Managers are instructed to simply confirm an employee’s start date, job title, and end date. That’s it.

But that’s not really fair on those who work hard and perform well; the ones who deserve to have their efforts recognised. Even after they’ve left the organisation. 

Would you ever give a bad reference? Or an untruthful one? Leave a comment.

twitter Follow James Adonis on Twitter  @jamesadonis

25 comments so far

  • References are useful if stuctured as a casual chat but too many are run-through as compliance activities by uninterested recruiters who lack the experience to assess what's actually being said, or not said as the case may be. I have also found that employers are most reluctant to give referees on themselves, as in I'm applying for a job and I ask the hiring manager for the name and phone number of the person who did the job previously and also of two other direct reports. That has never gone down well..

    Commenter
    Alasdair
    Location
    Adelaide
    Date and time
    September 21, 2012, 10:37AM
  • What a brilliant idea Alisdair. I've worked in jobs which turned out not to match the glowing desciption of the hiring manager. There are however other ways to achieve this.

    Search facebook or Linkedin or even google for the employer's name to find current employees and get a contact. Visit the pub around the corner from the office at 6pm on a Friday and ask around.

    Even if you can't get the info you need, at worst you only need to stick around in the job for a year now.

    Commenter
    Spike
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    September 21, 2012, 12:51PM
    • Very good tips. Thanks Spike.

      Commenter
      Alasdair
      Location
      Adelaide
      Date and time
      September 21, 2012, 6:32PM
  • Occasionally I was asked to provide a reference. Every time, I could give a very positive reference because that was my assessment of the person. I can't recall ever having been asked to provide a reference for an under-performing employee - presumably because they knew I would have refused. And I was only contacted by another organization for further discussion of a reference I had provided.

    Commenter
    bazza4.0
    Location
    Date and time
    September 21, 2012, 2:02PM
  • "It’s so tempting to provide his prospective employers with a dazzling reference in the hope they’ll take him away"

    This is public service 101. The unions make it impossible to fire anyone,so all the bad ones get fantastic referneces when they resign so they get snapped up really quick by some other poor sucker.

    Commenter
    Scoby
    Location
    Date and time
    September 21, 2012, 3:02PM
  • "this is a small country"

    Are you sure?

    "It’s inappropriate to say yes and then give a bad reference.”

    Says who? In my experience most reference checks are very black and white. They're typically extremely positive, or extremely negative. But having said that most of the the subjects are open to interpretation. What one person may consider a bad reference, another may not. I think the key point is that the referee ought to be honest, and free to express their opinion as they see fit.

    "Sometimes the employee hasn’t even resigned."

    Sometimes? Quite often. Perhaps in the majority of cases. And it's a very delicate situation, which I would say deserves more attention within an article like this.

    Any manager that doesn't bother to perform thorough reference checks deserve poor employees.

    Commenter
    davedrastic
    Location
    Date and time
    September 21, 2012, 7:28PM
    • Hi davedrastic - "the referee ought to be honest, and free to express their opinion as they see fit" ... Honest yes, but opinions are subjective, To build a good team you need people with skills and attitiude that are different to your own and opinions can differ. Trashing someone's reputation can lead you into very hot water. As 'your' employer I would get you some training or be concerned you could leave me exposed to litigation.

      Commenter
      Simon
      Location
      Brisbane
      Date and time
      September 23, 2012, 12:51PM
    • @Simon

      Yes litigation is an issue. That's why there are major organisations that refuse to give reference checks to anyone. Hardly fair is it.

      I'm simply stating that in my opinion the laws are not justified.

      Commenter
      davedrastic
      Location
      Date and time
      October 08, 2012, 9:40PM
  • This article is rather presumptuous. For every employee out there who may have been a bit average there's just as many shocking employers as well.

    Unfortunately there seems to be an inherent assumption that if an employee leaves a job on bad terms that it must have been their fault as opposed to the employees.

    Commenter
    Banquo2000
    Location
    Melbourne
    Date and time
    September 21, 2012, 8:40PM
  • Bosses who refuse to give references for long term employees who were not fired are pricks.
    Do they think just because some person made them a manager some people should be the gatekeepers of employment versus poverty, and the deciders of your finanical future?
    This is such an ignorant mean elitist attitude.

    I was working in a professional environment for ten years for some less that reputable people and as a result of this problem of referrees i cannot get any job whatsoever, even an entry level job with half the previous salary. If i did not move back in with my parents i would have literally been living on the street because of those pricks by now. My ex employer literally called me a slut, witch and clapped as i walked out the door QUITTING - all for no valid reason. They then slandered me to everyone in town. They did this out of petty revenge, and for their own amusement, nothing more. I don't expect a glowing reference but what i do expect is a brief acknowledgement of the achievements and tasks i performed which reflects the positive performance reviews i got.

    The very fact that you suggest this course of action of refusing a reference to me announces that you have;
    a. not worked in the real world or looked for a job for some time; clearly you have been writing these articles since i have been unemployed for the last 3 1/2 years.
    b. one of those private school ass kissing theorists who knows nothing about life.
    c. a basic violator of human rights. aka the right to fair employment.
    Managers are not messiahs. Half the time they are just people with more longevity in the industry.
    Grow some moral decency and a backbone.

    Commenter
    Ali-bye
    Location
    Date and time
    September 21, 2012, 8:52PM

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