It is common practice for employers who are considering a new hire to conduct reference checks on prospective candidates for the position. Obtaining information from a candidate’s former employer obviously can be a useful tool in making a good hiring decision. So why is it often so hard to get references from previous employers?
Many former employers are very reluctant to provide anything but the most basic and minimal information about their former employees. Most will take the “name, rank, and serial number” approach to reference requests. They will state only (1) whether the personal actually worked there or not, (2) if so, what the person’s job was, and (3) their dates of employment.
Unnecessary exposure to a “chatty” employer
Employers often take this approach because they are concerned about legal liability. They worry that if they give a bad reference about a former employee, they will be sued for defamation of character by that employee. They also worry that if they give a good reference about a former employee, and the employee gets hired into a new position because of it, but turns out to be a terrible worker, they will be blamed by the new employer for causing the hire of a terrible employee.
Does this really makes sense? Are employers right to be concerned about giving references? Should they really be reluctant to provide honest references about their former employees? I’ve heard from many people that they actually think it is illegal for an employer to give any information about a former employee other than “name, rank, and serial number” type of information. Is this correct?
Specific statutory protection for employers
Actually no. At least not in Ohio. In fact, the opposite is true. Ohio law explicitly protects employers from liability for giving out references on former employees – good or bad. The theory behind the law is that the flow of accurate information about employee performance should not be inhibited. That information allows employers to make good hiring decisions, and the dissemination of that information should therefore be encouraged – not discouraged.
There are two exceptions to Ohio’s law that provides for employer immunity in the giving of references. First, an employer is not immune from liability if it gives out information that it knows to be false, or that it gives out with a malicious purpose, in bad faith, or with an intent to mislead. Second, it may not engage in unlawful discrimination – on the basis of race, sex, age, etc. – in the giving of references.
But as long as the employer is not being unlawfully discriminatory, and does not knowingly or maliciously give out false information, it cannot be subject to any legal liability in the giving of references.
If you have any questions – as an employer or an employee – about how reference requests should be made or handled, be sure to contact a competent employment attorney.