When offering references for former employees, companies are discovering that the less said, the better.
Former employees who asked for a good word are increasingly suing bosses over bad references--and that makes companies reluctant to give them. In one recent case, an employee who was called a "sociopath" by his former supervisor sued for malicious slander and won nearly $2 million.
"They are a thing of the past," said outplacement consultant James E. Challenger, who noted that most companies are answering requests for references merely with dates of employment and titles. "There are very few major companies that will give out a reference. The legal department said they can't do it."
About a third of all slander and libel verdicts are decisions in cases targeting employers, according to Jury Verdict Research Inc.--a trend that has caused widespread fear of lawsuits in personnel departments. Chicago-based Challenger, Gray & Christmas reports that 75% of employers are not checking references because they consider the non-answers they're likely to get a waste of time.
"No matter what you say, if it does get back to an ex-employee, they can interpret it as slander," said David J. Bowman, a human-resources consultant in Beverly Hills.
Challenger said informal "networking" references are now more useful. Someone in the company who has a friend in the prospective employee's former workplace can get information.
"If I'm calling a friend, I know a friend is telling the truth," Challenger said. "No one will know I called that person because we're friends."
In addition, the job interview itself plays a more important role. "People tend to hire on their own intuition," Challenger said. "They have always done that, but now more than ever."
And those interviews are getting tougher, because with references now a black hole on job applications, first impressions are more critical. Some companies are even hiring private detectives to take up the slack.
Written references offer a job seeker no escape. "They're dangerous," Challenger said. "It's like raising a red flag." He said many potential employers view a letter of recommendation that arrives with a resume as an indication that the employee was terminated.
But giving the name of someone who will provide a good reference doesn't do much good, either. "If you're a smart hiring company, you don't call that reference," Challenger said, noting that no one is going to hand out the name of a boss likely to say nasty things.
Challenger's recommendation for job seekers? Tell why you're the best person for the job and do it aggressively. "You can't come on too strong," he said, especially with so much riding on the interview.
And beware--if you have ever sued an employer, even for justifiable reasons, it can leave an indelible blot on your employment history. You are usually up against equals for a job, Challenger said, adding: Why would a company want to gamble with someone who may be litigious? "People destroy their careers" with lawsuits, he said.
Companies, on the other hand, can harm themselves by not having a formal plan on what can be said to an ex-employee's prospective boss. Stonewalling on references may keep a company out of court, but a makeshift policy of hemming and hawing on the telephone might not be good enough if everyone who might be contacted is not informed of company policy. An experienced recruiter, he warns, might get through to former colleagues of the prospective employee.
"As an employer, you are going to find out who the ex-boss is and who the boss' boss is and you're going to call those people," Bowman said.
His suggestion: An exiting employee should negotiate with his or her employer on what information will be released, and come up with a "statement that is not unfair . . . and that both parties recognize as true."
If there is any animosity, the negotiation could require a third party. "An independent, outside consultant can play ombudsman," he said.
David Barrett, an executive recruiter at Russell Reynolds Associates in Los Angeles, recommends that job seekers just be honest with prospective employers. "If there was something you did wrong," he said, "that's going to come out."