How to Respond to a Reference Check Request

Responding When Prospective Employers Ask for References

Businessman reading documents at desk
Compassionate Eye Foundation/Dan Kenyon

Responding to a reference check request is a tricky business. Fear of reprisal and lawsuits keep many employers from responding at all. These recommendations will help you respond reasonably to reference checking requests while protecting the legitimate interests of your company and your current employees. See what to do.

Follow Your Company's Established Reference Check Policy

First, many companies request that managers send written reference requests to Human Resources. If the manager's reference is positive, however, you can agree to have the manager provide a verbal reference directly to an employer.

Anything that is sent in a written format should come from Human Resources, or HR staff should review the response for consistency and protecting the best interests of the company. A common reference checking format asks you to provide this information about the former employee.

  • Job title, and occasionally, job responsibilities,
  • Final salary,
  • Dates of employment,
  • Provides a checklist that asks the former employer to rank such characteristics as "teamwork" and "dependability," and
  • Asks whether the former employee is eligible for rehire by your organization.

This paperwork is best left to Human Resources—at least, ask the HR staff to review any written response you may be thinking of sending. Do not answer questions that ask you to numerically rate a former employee in any aspect of their work or work characteristics.

Numeric ratings are not comparable based on any shared meaning of the definition of the term, nor is the meaning of the numbers on a numeric scale defined on these forms. Therefore, at best, it is flawed communication. At worst, it may hurt the job prospects of your former employee.

Ensure the Employee Has a Signed Authorization on File

Secondly, check to ensure that the former employee's signature, authorizing the reference check is on the paperwork sent by the requesting company. Without the former employee's signature granting permission, you should not provide any information about the employee.

Occasionally, an exiting employee will leave a signed reference check permission form in their employment file. This will only occur if the employee has not found a new job—unusual for most employees who leave their current employment.

Respond to a Reference Check Request With a Positive Reference

If the manager can, with few reservations, recommend the former employee, in consultation with the HR staff, the manager may return the call to the inquiring employer. When responding to a phone call, the manager should make certain that the employee's signature authorizing the reference check is on file with Human Resources before returning the phone call.

When a former employee was a good employee and left your company on good terms (perhaps a spouse relocated and the distance was not commutable), you want to give the former employee assistance to find a new position.

Or, perhaps you have been used as a reference by an employee who reported to you at one time, although not most recently. If you have positive comments to make about the employee, you may respond to the potential employer with the positive comments you can contribute.

Reference Check Questions You Don't Want to Touch

Answer only the questions that you are comfortable answering if you receive a reference request phone call or document. A manager should only speak to the areas of the employee's skills and experience about which he or she has direct knowledge. There are several questions a manager should not answer:

Example Question:

Predict whether your former employee will be successful in the position for which they are being considered. (Got a crystal ball, anyone?) You can't possibly answer this question. Even if the position sounds similar, you can't predict the coworkers, the employer's culture, their relationship with customers, or the myriad of factors that help an employee succeed—or not.

Good Answer:

When the employee worked for me, in their position with my company, he or she was a strong contributor whose work was appreciated.

Example Question:

What were the employee's weaknesses?

Good Answer:

He or she had no weaknesses worth mentioning that affected their ability to perform the job capably when he or she worked for me.

Example Question:

Why did the employee leave the position in which he or she reported to you?

Good Answers:

  • He or she sought increased responsibility and to round out their knowledge of our company and products, or
  • He or she left our organization because of personal reasons that were important to them.

These are the kinds of reference check questions a potential employer will ask if you return a reference checking phone call.

Respond to a Reference Check Request: Not Positive

If the employee left your company under a cloud, whether the employee was a bad fit for their job, a non-contributing employee for other reasons, or unmanageable, refer the call or the form to Human Resources staff for a standard response.

Sometimes there are unusual circumstances surrounding an employee's leaving your company. Perhaps an employee was watching pornography on his computer—yes, he asked his HR Director to serve as one of his references. Another former employee may have threatened violence or committed a violent act while employed by your firm.

While these former employees will rarely list your company as a reference, be prepared. These calls should be sent to HR staff for the standard response.

There is a caveat here, however. Talk with your attorney before responding to any reference check about a potentially violent employee. If you fail to reveal violent behavior to a potential employer, and the former employee commits a violent act while in the employ of the new employer, your company can be liable for not revealing this information. So, check with your attorney under any unusual circumstances in which you parted ways with an employee.

When a Former Employee Asks for a Generic Reference Letter

Giving former employees a generic reference letter is not recommended as a good policy. Once a document exists, it lives forever. Prospective employees have provided HR offices copies of letters that were 10 and 20 years out of date, sometimes barely legible from multiple photocopy sessions.

After a certain period of time passes—you have no idea what kind of employee your former employee has become—unless he or she is the rare exception who stays in touch with you. And, you never know how the employee will use your letter or how your words will be interpreted by prospective employers. Adopt a policy that states that managers are never to give written, generic reference letters.

Inform the former employee that your company will be happy to provide employment confirmation from Human Resources to specific employers who inquire directly.

Final Thoughts on Responding to a Reference Check Request

Few employees set a goal of failing at work. Yet, employees do fail and companies and employees do part ways. Keep in mind when you are asked for a reference that every former employee deserves the opportunity to start over—no matter the terms on which they parted from your organization.

Perhaps the former employee was ill-suited to the position he held at your company. Your company culture may have been a complete mismatch with the employee's needs. The employee may have had a different vision for the requirements of his job from that of his boss. Maybe his personal life and marriage ​were unraveling during his tenure with your firm. 

You never know all of the details and reasons why an employee fails or moves on. It's easy with the high-performing employee that you regret losing to a better job, a family move across the country, or a dream opportunity. It's harder with the marginal performer.

Be honest or provide minimal information. Don't do crystal ball predictions of success nor provide numerical ratings and rankings for undefined terms. If necessary, provide minimal information that describes the former employee's performance. Whenever possible, give the employee a break and talk with the prospective employer.

The Bottom Line

Recent figures relating to reference checking indicated that employers are taking reference checking very seriously. As referenced on the Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM) website, accessed 6-26-19, "In a 2018 report sponsored by the National Association of Background Screeners (NABS), 95% of surveyed employers indicated that they use one or more types of employment background screening." Whenever possible, give your former employees a break—when you can do so with a good conscience.