The Dangers of Making a Referral


Be careful what you say.

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Years ago it was commonplace to give job referrals for employees or professional acquaintances. For example, 30 years ago when we moved from Cincinnati to Tampa, for those employees who elected to stay behind and not make the move, we openly helped them locate new jobs. We had several contacts in the systems industry and were able to help our people find work. This was not unusual at the time, but I’m afraid you do not see such practices anymore, nor do I recommend giving such referrals anymore as this has become a potentially litigious problem. For example, if you give a positive endorsement, and the worker doesn’t perform to the satisfaction of the new employer, the company may elect to sue you for misrepresenting the worker. On the other hand, if you give a negative endorsement, the individual in question may sue you over defamation of character. In other words, it’s a “lose-lose” proposition no matter what you do.

The best thing is to say as little as possible. In fact, Human Resource departments generally frown on any form of endorsement and most companies today have written policies prohibiting employees from giving referrals. However, if by chance you are put in a position to talk about someone, particularly a former employee, there are three things you are allowed to discuss as a general rule:

1. Employment verification – the specific job held by the person and the dates of their employment.

2. Verifying the person’s title or position.

3. Is the person eligible to be rehired? (Yes/No).

Do not elaborate beyond this. Do not articulate any opinion. Just stick to the facts. If pressed for additional detail, say, “I’m sorry but it is not our company’s policy to divulge any other background information on employees.” Nor should you provide anything in writing. Believe me, the person making the request, usually someone from Human Resources, will know the drill and will be surprised if you deviate from the script. The only exception might be if the company signs a waiver to hold you harmless from any comments you make. Even then I would think twice about volunteering anything.

Regrettably, such a position on referrals makes it difficult for an employer to know what they are getting in terms of a worker’s true skills and character. This forces the employer to depend upon the candidate’s resume and interview, with no way of substantiating the candidate’s claims.

Then there is the matter of making referrals on the Internet, which is popular among employment services and social networking services such as LinkedIn. These facilities provide the means to make recommendations, but again, you should exercise caution for the same reasons mentioned above. Just because it is on the Internet doesn’t mean you are somehow protected from litigation. Again, companies have formal policies for making referrals.

The biggest difference in this regard between now and thirty years ago is that although you may be better protected from law suits, companies are more inclined to buy a “pig in a polk,” thereby complicating the process of finding the right person for the right job.

Keep the Faith!