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.
You have to be very careful with the language you use.
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.
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