What should I do if a former employer refuses to provide a reference?

December 19, 2016
What should I do if a former employer refuses to provide a reference?

Every employer is concerned about properly vetting prospective employees. Obtaining references is a vital part of the vetting process to offer insider information on a candidate's desirability.

Unfortunately, many companies have a strict policy of not providing references for former employees. In fact, some require that all reference questions are directed to the human resources department for review, at which time HR may only release job titles and the dates the employee remained on staff.

Companies often have such policies to avoid potential litigation due to defamation and libel. A company should check their relevant state laws to determine what a prospective employer can ask a current or former employer. For example, in Iowa, a company can be liable for releasing information that "violates the civil rights of a current or former employee" or information provided with "malice."

Here is what you can do to ensure you get the references you need to obtain employees that fit your organization's needs:

Ask a Manager Who Left the Company

Sometimes your job applicant's boss or bosses may have left for other companies. Usually, you should have no problem receiving a reference from one of these bosses. Just be careful to review the reference's history. For example, take a look at their LinkedIn profile to ensure they were actually a manager at the company during the time your applicant was enrolled.

Ask the Reference About Company Policy

If a reference is only providing very short answers or only responding yes” or no” to questions, don't be afraid to ask if this company has a policy on references. If the answer is no, it may be a sign that the reference had a poor experience with a particular candidate but doesn't want to provide a negative reference.

Seek Out New References

If you're running into a dead-end with a reference, it's time to ask your applicant if they have any other references. This may be from previous employers going further back into their history an academic reference or even a character reference from a volunteer organization, club or sports group. While these references aren't as strong, they can give you a fuller picture of an applicant.

Evaluate the Candidate's Overall Strength

If you're finding that you're not getting a reference from one particular company or boss, it's perhaps time to evaluate the candidate on the strength of their overall application. If they performed well during the interview process, have the required skill-set and fit your company culture, an option is to overlook the absence of one reference. Ultimately, there are a number of strategies available to you in situations where an employer refuses to provide a reference. Employ the above tips, and you should feel confident in your choice.

This communication is for informational purposes only; it is not legal, tax or accounting advice; and is not an offer to sell, buy or procure insurance.

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