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Use Your References Well

Employers agree that checking references is a critical part of the hiring process. Applicants with a successful work history are also eager to have their past successes communicated to potential employers. Yet the entire process often frustrates everyone.

Because of concerns over legal liabilities, many employers refuse to comment on job performance, and will only verify dates of employment, job titles and possibly salary. Yet those same employers would welcome in-depth reference information from other employers. As a result, good applicants are often unable to get the recommendations they deserve, while candidates with a negative history can go on to a new and unsuspecting employer.

The reason employers limit reference information is simple: They do not want to get sued for defamation. The hesitation exists despite recent law changes in some states that protect employers from defamation lawsuits when giving job-related, credible and non-malicious information when asked by a prospective employer.

Many labor attorneys still advise employers to verify only basic data and not answer questions on job performance, however, because there can be uncertainty in court over what is "credible evidence" or " job related."

Adding to the complexity is a recent California case that found a school district could be liable to a victim of sexual assault for giving a positive reference for a former employee and withholding negative information. If an employer gives a reference, the employer should generally give both the good and the bad.

Employers are arguably placed in a Catch-22. If they give a positive recommendation and leave out anything negative, a victim could sue them. If employers reveal negative information, however, they run the risk of being sued by a former employee for defamation.

Since employers have no obligation generally to say anything, many have adopted the approach of "no comment" when it comes to questions concerning job performance. Many will not even answer a question about whether a past employee is "eligible for rehire."

Several large employers, in fact, have deposited past employment information on a telephone service, limiting new employers to a computerized voice verifying just employment dates and job title.

Applicants still have many avenues available to communicate their past successes to employers, even if past employers will not give a reference. The key is to plan ahead and to remember the importance of promoting your own career by obtaining the materials necessary to successfully market yourself:

When leaving a job, clarify the past employer's policy on references and try to determine what will be said if a new employer calls.

It is also very important to accurately summarize the job duties and title for a previous job on a resume. Although everyone wants a resume to show them in the best light, a resume that overreaches can raise questions about honesty.

For applicants who are having difficulty finding a job and suspect that a previous employer is giving a bad reference, it may be helpful to think through the lack of success in more detail. There may be other difficulties involved, especially since firms are often hesitant to say anything negative. However, job applicants who are concerned should contact a labor lawyer to review their rights.

-Lester S. Rosen

Attorney Lester S. Rosen is president of Employment Screening Resources, a San Rafael pre-employment screening and credentials verification firm. Call him at (415) 472-7788