How to give & receive work references

Do you check references, or would you just as soon skip this task? Regardless of the size of your restaurant and the number of employees you have, references can make the difference between hiring a reliable and honest employee and hiring someone you can't depend on or steals you blind. I've talked to dozens of owners and managers in the restaurant business who are afraid to check references because of what they might learn. They would rather hire a "warm body," or look the other way and hope for the best.

This article is about how to check a reference when you need information about a potential new hire, as well as how to give a reference when you're contacted by someone who is interested in hiring one of your former employees.

Let's get started with a three-step process to help you build rapport during the reference-checking process:

  1. Identify yourself, your business and reason for calling. If the reference hesitates, offer your telephone number and suggest that he or she call you back to verify your identity. The reference usually has no way of knowing if you are who you say you are.
  2. Confirm the information provided by the applicant, including dates of employment, job title and responsibilities, reasons for leaving and wage or salary history. Ease into the conversation by asking questions that can be answered with a simple "yes" or "no" before moving onto more probing questions.
  3. Once the reference seems willing to volunteer additional information, shift to more difficult questions. Dig deeper and learn as much as you can about your prospective new employee. Keep in mind that your primary job is to determine the applicant's weaknesses. Once you know where someone is weak, you will know whether or not they can handle the job and fit in.
  4. Handle reluctant references with tact and skill

There are times when references don't want to tell you much of anything. Don't give up. Most references will warm up to you and give you the information you need. It's the applicants' responsibility to see to it that their references are willing to talk to you. Assume that references will share valuable information with you; approach them positively and professionally.

Use these steps as a guide in speaking with reluctant or cautious references:

  1. If possible, try to find out something in advance about the person that you're about to contact. You may share common interests. One way to get this information is to ask the applicant to tell you something interesting about each of the references they have given you.
  2. Once you connect, be upbeat and friendly. This encourages references to be more candid. Quickly get to the point of your call or meeting and be mindful of their time.
  3. Say something positive about the applicant. Former employers often like to know that others recognize people who once worked for them as competent.
  4. Keep your questions neutral so that you don't offend or lead the reference. For example, try a question like this: "We've all been criticized by our superiors from time to time. Can you tell me about a time when the applicant was criticized by you or his or her supervisor?" The answer to this question will help you determine the applicant's response to criticism. People who can't accept constructive criticism often become problem employees.
  5. Know what to ask. Think about your job requirements before you decide what questions to ask. You'll want to ask questions that help you gain the information you need to verify facts, as well as confirm your own opinions concerning the applicants. By the time you start checking references, you definitely have opinions concerning the person or people you've interviewed.

In addition, if you employ teens with limited work experience, speak to their teachers, coaches, club advisors and guidance counselors. Ask them some of the same questions you would ask references. If you have any doubt as to whether or not to ask a question, don't ask.

Checking references can be time-consuming and challenging. However, references can be invaluable in helping you make a sound and defensible hiring decision.

Now let's discuss what you can do when you are contacted and are asked to give a reference for a former employee. What's the best way to handle the inquiry? How much should you say? Giving a reference for a good employee is easy, but what if the employee was a lousy worker? Would you be tempted to "tell all" and potentially prevent that individual from ever finding employment again?

The best way to learn about a prospective new employee is by conducting a thorough interview. The second best way is by checking references. Employers will contact you to verify experience and former employment. In addition, they will hope to gain information about a variety of concerns such as how well the applicants performed, attendance record, how well they work with other employees, and if they possess any special skills or talents.

In providing references, your best bet is to follow a set of guidelines regarding what kind of information to release to reference-checkers and who has the authority to provide this kind of information. You don't need a long, complicated policy, but some basic instructions can be very useful. Here are some guidelines for providing references:

  1. Be sure it's clear as to who can furnish references and who cannot. Many businesses prefer to have only one or two people (usually a supervisor, manager, or owner) authorized to respond to reference requests. This helps provide consistency in what is said and avoids potential problems later.
  2. Make sure those who are authorized to provide references are thoroughly aware of your policy on providing (or not providing) references. Written guidelines, even a minimum set, about the content of references can help to avoid confusion.
  3. Ask all new employees to sign an acknowledgement of your reference policy; keep this in their permanent personnel file in case there are questions or issues later.
  4. Keep written notes on all information released, whether orally or in writing in response to reference requests.
  5. Assure that departing employees are aware of your reference policy. If your business policy is to provide accurate and truthful information (favorable and unfavorable) to valid reference requests, advise the employee accordingly. An employee who realizes that unfavorable information may be part of a future reference may choose not to list you as a reference and that's fine. It takes you out of the position of having to give an honest, but bad, reference concerning someone that was not a good worker.
  6. Ask departing employees to sign a consent form for release of information at the time they leave your business. It simply makes good business sense to do this.

How to give out information

It can be difficult to answer questions regarding former employees. How much should you say and how should it be said? It's easy to give a reference for a good employee, but what about the troublemaker, the habitual absentee, alcoholic, or worker who can't seem to follow directions?

Here are some points to consider when giving references:

  1. Avoid generalizations. Instead of "He/she was a great employee," give a specific example. "He/she was very customer-focused."
  2. Provide factual data. If the question involves a person's attendance record, try, "He missed five days of work during the past six months." Suppose the question involved the employee's accuracy in taking orders. Instead of, "She was pretty accurate most of the time," say, "Her records show a 97 percent rate of accuracy in order-taking."
  3. Don't include negative or personal remarks. If you had an intense dislike for the former employee, it may be best to ask someone else to respond to the reference request unless you're sure you can be neutral in your comments. Don't include remarks such as, "I thought he was a little weird; his friends who hung out here sure were," or, "She ate like a horse whenever free food was available."
  4. Realize that the information you provide may not remain confidential. Unfortunately, some prospective employers share the information they receive with the rejected applicants. Don't say anything you might regret.
  5. Include a positive. Find something positive (but truthful) to include in your reference. Even if you had to terminate someone's employment with your business (maybe due to poor job performance), this doesn't mean he or she has no redeeming qualities. The former employee may have been a hard worker, but simply in the wrong kind of work.

Gathering and giving references is one of the many jobs that you accepted when you became an owner or manager. Even minimum wage employees should be checked out. If they don't have any references, this may be a "red flag warning." More than one owner or manager has been tricked into making a poor hiring decision by a slick individual who simply had "no references."

When you're contacted and are asked to give a reference, be honest, but cautious. You don't want to find yourself in legal hot water because of something you or someone who works for you said that was taken out of context. Look for the brightest and the best, but don't forget to check them out before putting them on your payroll.