How To Get Professional References

Businesses can land in legal trouble if they say the wrong thing when asked about a Just like death and taxes, lawsuits are a part of today’s society that aren’t going away any time soon. This puts HR reps in a tough position when checking a candidate’s professional references. Saying the wrong thing about an employee can lead to a lawsuit. But failing to dig into a candidate’s work history can open businesses up to hiring a less-than-sterling employee.

And in sensitive positions, such as jobs involving children, financial information, or specific licenses and certifications, the consequences of not fully vetting a candidate can be disastrous.


Why Ask For Professional References

Sadly, you can’t necessarily trust a candidate’s resume. According to the Society for Human Resource Management, a surprising number of job seekers lie about their work experience.

• 62% of resumes contain lies about a candidate’s skills62% of resumes contain lies about a candidate’s skills

• 54% contain lies about job duties or responsibilities

• 31% contain lies about dates of previous employment

Employers in every industry have to worry about lies on resumes. But some industries are worse than others. A Career Builder survey found that hiring managers in the following industries are most likely to catch a candidate lying:

• Financial Services: 73%

• Leisure and Hospitality: 71%

• Information Technology: 63%

• Health Care (More than 50 employees): 63%

• Retail: 59%


Legal Pitfalls

Many companies have strict policies forbidding HR reps from providing info on a former employee's job performance.

Many companies refuse to give either positive or negative business references. This is to protect the company from potential lawsuits. But there’s a lot of confusion about the specifics of what an HR rep is allowed to say when he or she is asked for a reference.

It goes without saying that you should consult an attorney if you have questions about employment law, either as an employer or an employee.

But broadly speaking, the law does not prohibit any truthful information about a former employee.

This means that it’s only illegal to misrepresent or outright lie about a former employee’s job performance. The law also generally protects opinions about a worker’s job performance.



However, rather than taking any risks, many companies have strict policies forbidding HR reps or management from providing any information about a former worker other than dates of employment. But these “blanket” policies have serious down sides.

For one, an inexperienced employer might assume that an HR rep’s refusal to provide a positive reference is because the worker was a bad employee. Secondly, these blanket policies deprive workers with excellent job histories of good references to use when pursuing job opportunities.


Best Practices for Getting References

So, a hiring manager can’t trust all candidates to tell the whole truth. And he or she also can’t rely on past employers to provide meaningful references, good or bad. So what’s the best way to proceed?

Hiring mangers have to get creative in order to work around these obstacles. Here are some tips on getting useful work history information, while also staying on the right side of the law.


1) Get the candidate’s permission to check references before getting started. This is an important step to protect the privacy of candidates who are currently employed. If the candidate’s current employer is blindsided by the news that the worker is looking for another job, he or she might get fired. Or if the current employer is desperate to stop the candidate from leaving, both companies could end up in a bidding war.

2) Ask for “personal business references.” If a candidate’s current or former employer refuses to provide a meaningful reference, ask the candidate for a personal reference who can also attest to his or her work experience. An example is a former co-worker who once worked closely with the candidate at a mutual employer, but who has since changed jobs.

 3) Ask a former employer about the job itself, not the candidate’s performance. Companies often bar HR reps from sharing information on a candidate’s work performance. So instead, ask the company for a rundown of the actual job that the candidate listed on his or her resume.

Ask for the full job title, a description of the job duties, and about the responsibilities associated with the position. This is a good way to catch out those 54% of candidates who either lie about or exaggerate their former job duties or responsibilities.

4) Verify all information on a resume that you can get without having to talk to a former employer. HR reps can get information directly from an educational institution regarding any degrees the candidate claims to have earned. Also confirm information on any claimed licenses or certifications directly from the organization that issues those licenses. If the information you get from these alternate sources differs from what’s on the candidate’s resume, it could be a red flag.



Sources:, Recruiting Headlines, CareerBuilder






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