A few weeks ago, I received a call from a placement firm checking references for a prior employee. This individual didn’t leave here on the best of terms so I had a bit of trepidation about what the recruiter would ask me and how I should answer her inquiries. Of course, the lawyers were telling us “name, rank and employment dates” as the standard response. But recent case law has found that employers who pass along their unsatisfactory employees to others with glowing recommendations and misrepresent the real facts could open themselves to liable from the new employer.
I always try to be honest with these requests, but to watch what I say with care. I am open in sharing the strengths of the individual and in offering examples of positive business contributions the individual made to the organization. When asked about the individual’s weak areas, I also try to be open, but I rarely offer examples, even when pressed.
The other thing we do here at ECI is to prepare an exit letter that states what we will say about the individual when other employers call for references. In this way, we have some documentation to use in the process and are more likely to stick with the facts of the matter when someone calls to check references.
More often than not, my own experience is that people want to do well at their work. The reason they fail is more of a mismatch issue, either with the work group to which the person is assigned, to his or her manager or to the company. Often employees expect and need certain things to do their jobs effectively and the company cannot consistently supply the things the person needs.
For example, some individuals believe that they will soon become managers, since we are a smaller employer. So, they work hard and hope they will soon be promoted. We tend to be very clear about the fact that we are a very flat organization and your promotion will probably be more like “you get to work on more complex accounts and larger projects,” but people don’t usually hear that part. Sometimes a person takes on a role in the organization, and they get stuck in that box for the whole time they are in their career with you. A lot of this has to do with a perception of the individual and people’s prior experiences which tend to color the actual assessment of the person’s real skills and capabilities…or in the alternative, the individual may have a blind spot he/she is unable to accept.
For others, they want to work independently and to provide to the client what they believe is best for them, regardless of the company’s philosophy or business approach. The problem with that one is that there is generally a history with a client and as a consulting firm, you’re probably best off in approaching the client in they way they are accustomed, rather than frequently trying new strategies or systems. Their knowledge of how you work is probably why they hired your company in the first place.
I was lucky this time. I was able to talk about the prior employee in a favorable way, because the employee does have many fine qualities and made a positive contribution to our company. If I had been the placement counselor, I think I might have asked a couple more pointed questions to see what I could find out. Silence is as strong a predictor as an in-depth answer at times.
The next time I hire, however, I am going to look into Skill Survey. This is an online application where potential employers ask the candidate to provide work references and contact information for prior employers of the candidate. Each prior employer is asked to complete an online confidential questionnaire and to rate the candidate on key work areas. The responses are all rolled up for the employee and you get to see what others have to say about the individual’s prior work experience in a nicely presented report. Apparently, the response rate is very high on this application and the information yielded is far superior to what you can get doing a phone check.
And the big advantage is I don’t have to answer those phone calls anymore.