Won't you be my... reference?

Maybe you've been managing folks for a bit, and recently someone asked you to be their professional reference. You might be wondering, what can I say? What can't I say? What is the potential employer going to ask me about? Don't worry, here to help. Over the years I've been a professional reference many times, done dozens of reference checks, and asked former employers and colleagues to serve as my reference. Here's the skinny.

What can I say?

You might be surprised to know that there are no federal laws that restrict what a reference can or can't say about a former employee. However, most states have some sort of legislation in place that covers this topic. In order to avoid potential defamation suits, some employers are extremely careful about what information they'll provide and will only go so far as to confirm basic employment information (dates, title). This isn't really necessary, though.

I'd recommend doing a quick google for the state you're in and the state in which the former employee is seeking a new role. Most states have laws about what employers can say in reference checks, but in most of them as long as you're discussing factual assessments of performance, responsibilities, and their professional conduct you're protected. For example, in New York employers are protected in giving honest information about a former employee to a prospective employer.

Best practice is to get written authorization from the former employee to serve as their reference, stick to an objective evaluation of specific examples (not opinion) in the reference itself, and have documentation of any of the examples you discuss with the potential employer. An easy way to get the written authorization would be to email the former employee and say:

"Hi Sarah, I'd like to confirm that you're giving me permission to serve as your professional reference and discuss your employment and performance at our company. Please reply to confirm. Thanks, Alisha"

Ok, what might the potential employer ask me about?

Great question, glad you want to be prepared. In my experience, typical questions include the following:

  • Could you confirm the details of the candidates employment/working relationship with you?
    • Dates
    • Position/title
    • Your relationship in that role
    • Responsibilities
  • What are some of the candidates strengths?
  • What are the candidates weaknesses or areas for growth?
  • What was it like to work with the candidate?
  • Was the candidate a team player?
  • How can we best support the candidate in their new role with us?
  • Why did they leave your company?
  • Would you hire them again?

This list isn't comprehensive, but if you prepare answers to those questions, based on facts and specific examples, you'll probably be set to give a successful professional reference.

A former employee asked me to serve as a reference, but I don't think I'd be a good reference. Can I say no?

Absolutely. A tactful way to pass would be to let them know you don't think you would be the best fit as a reference, and they might want to ask another former employer because you want to set them up for success in their next opportunity.

Good luck and If you need more help with a tricky reference situation, the Poros team is always here to help!

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