Job Referrals

Q. I was just asked to give a reference for a former employee. I want to give the prospective employer as much information as possible, but I'm afraid of bad-mouthing my former hire.

A. Many employers consider giving references a nightmare for this very reason. Let's try and make some order of the different considerations involved.

While it is generally strictly forbidden to reveal negative information about a person, there is an exception in the case where someone has a legitimate need for the information. An obvious example would be a prospective employer.

But this doesn't necessarily mean that you can be completely open. There are two important limitations on this permission:

  1. You can only reveal what is essential for the other employer to hear;
  2. You may not reveal something if it will cause undeserved damage to the subject.

The first rule tells us that if your old employee Joe is looking for a job as a housepainter, you can tell the new boss that he's afraid of heights, but you can't inform him that he was a slow typist. When in doubt, remember: "silence is golden."

The second rule is particularly problematic because once we have revealed information, we have no control over where it goes. For instance, if I tell a prospective employer that Joe has a criminal record, he may legitimately use this information to avoid giving him a highly sensitive job. But he may also decide to reveal this information to the newspapers, causing Joe undeserved humiliation.

An additional reason for caution is that sometimes people pose as prospective employers in order to get former bosses or educators to lower their guard and reveal sensitive information that they use improperly.

The following guidelines emerge:

  1. Try to get the permission of the person you are giving a reference for.
  2. Be absolutely sure that the caller is a bona fide prospective employer. Ask exactly what kind of job the person has applied for, so that you can censor any information which is irrelevant for that purpose. Specify that your comments are confidential.
  3. Use functional descriptions so as to reveal the absolute minimum amount of negative information. If Joe has acrophobia, just say he may not be suitable for work at high elevations. If he has a criminal record, say that you can't recommend him for highly sensitive jobs.

Nowadays there are formidable legal problems surrounding references. Some employers have been sued by former employees for slander; subsequent employers have sued others because they recommended someone for an unsuitable post and their incompetence caused damage. You may want to consult a lawyer.

These guidelines should help you strike a balance between your desire to help other employers make informed decisions, and your desire to save your former employee undeserved hardship or humiliation.

SOURCE: Chafetz Chaim chapter 10.