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Career Strategies for Librarians
To Whom It May Concern: A Guide for Giving Employment References
by Tiffany Eatman Allen

Many of us are familiar with the process of checking references for a potential employee.  As a
supervisor, you know that this is part of the hiring process.  But you also know that when an employee is
ready to leave, you may be contacted to speak on his or her behalf.  Getting and giving references are
both essential to the employment process, and each is fraught with difficult questions, conversations,
and legal issues. This article is intended to help you think about the challenges of giving an employment
reference and prepare for the conversation.

Why Give an Employment Reference, and a Quick Overview of Legal Considerations

The purpose of conducting an employment reference “is to obtain information related to the skills,
strengths, weaknesses and overall performance of the job seeker in order to make a more informed
hiring decision.”1 However, in a recent survey by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM),
three out of four respondents indicated that while they do provide employment references, many reported
that the information they provide consists only of employment dates and position.2   

This reluctance of employers to provide information and the time involved in checking references are
reasons given by employers as to why they don’t check references.3 Additionally, many have argued that
giving out additional information may put the company or organization in a dangerous position, at risk of
a lawsuit filed by the former employee claiming discrimination, defamation, or retaliation. In a recent
article for HR Magazine, Brad Saxton, professor at the University of Wyoming College of Law, states the
argument succinctly: “Employers have really good reasons, given the current law, not to give
references…A lot of employers don’t see benefits for themselves.”4 In that same article, Jo Tucker, an
employment attorney in Irvine, California, presents the argument in even more specific terms: “The risk
of a defamation lawsuit is greater than the risk of not giving information.  You’re putting yourself at risk for
the benefit of another company, maybe even a competitor.”5

On the flip side, others argue that the free flow of job-related information in the reference-checking
process is essential to good business practice.  Edward Andler, a nationally recognized authority on
reference checking and author of The Complete Reference Checking Handbook, argues that employers
often want all the information they can get on prospective employees, but won’t give out anything
regarding their own former employees.6 Essentially, he says, “withholding information rewards poor
performers and penalizes good ones.  It allows bad employees to pass unchallenged from one
employer to the next, while tossing good ones into the same pot as everyone else with no reward for
their diligence.”7 Additionally—and perhaps a more compelling argument for institutions— the employer
has an obligation to protect employees and those it serves: “Employers have a duty to protect their
employees, customers, clients, and visitors from injury caused by employees the employer knows, or
should have known, pose a risk to others…If employers breach this duty, they may be liable for damages
under the tort of negligent hiring.”8

“Recognizing employers’ predicament, 32 states so far have enacted statutes offering protection from
liability for employers who give references in good faith.”9 For example, New York State Law “protects a
current or former employer when they provide truthful information (i.e., facts, not opinions) about an
employee’s job performance to someone who is in the position to make an employment decision
regarding that employee.”10 It is essential that you know your state’s legal protections, as well as the
policies and practices of your institution, before proceeding with the employment reference.

Given the legal considerations surrounding employment references, why would you want to participate in
this process? In very simple terms, by providing an employment reference for a current or former
employee you make a valuable contribution to the hiring process.  If you were recruiting an individual, you
would expect the same professional courtesy from another employer.  Also, in many cases you have a
personal connection to the individual for whom you are serving as a reference, and you are committed to
his or her professional success.

How to Prepare

("To begin, in what capacity and for how long have you known the candidate?")

In many cases, you will be contacted in advance regarding an employment reference.  If you are not,
however, and you are expected to answer questions at the first point of contact, it would be wise to ask to
schedule an appointment, even if it’s for later that same day.  First, you can take time to pull together your
information regarding the candidate. Second, and perhaps more importantly, it will give you an
opportunity to get a name and phone number so you can verify that this is a legitimate request for
information.

To organize your materials and thoughts about the candidate, it would be helpful to have, in advance, a
copy of the candidate’s cover letter and resume, and a copy of the position announcement for which the
candidate has applied.  And while you will generally be asked to speak in broad terms about the
candidate, having specific examples of a candidate’s projects, group work, and accomplishments will
provide a nice context for your comments regarding the candidate’s strengths and weaknesses.  
“Although by definition a recommendation letter will always be positive, recommenders serve their
students and academia best by writing a letter in which praise is measured and exacting [and] where
superlatives are backed up by examples.”11

When You Are Asked (or Not) in Advance

("Please describe the candidate’s interpersonal skills.")

Most of the above advice is predicated on the assumption that the employee has asked, in advance, for
your permission to be listed as an employment reference, which we all know is best practice, and yet
somehow isn’t 100 percent guaranteed.  So, if you find yourself surprised by a reference call, what
should you do?  First of all, if this is someone you hold a high opinion of, you may want to keep your
surprise to yourself.  Even if you think this may have been an oversight by a truly exceptional employee,
the potential employer—who may not have even met the candidate yet—wouldn’t be impressed by this
omission, and may read into it more than just oversight (such as disorganization, overconfidence,
disrespect, etc.).  You would be wise to ask to make an appointment, contact the individual for the
materials listed above, and take some time to pull everything together.  If this is someone you don’t hold
in high esteem, or can’t remember at all, you should probably decline to speak on his or her behalf.  
(More on that in the section below…)

Type of Reference Checking (Phone, Letter)

("Please describe the candidate’s communication skills.")

Reference checking can come in many forms, including telephone calls, written letters of reference, and
email messages.  Each format has its own advantages and disadvantages.  Some prefer telephone
calls because it can be more comfortable to speak freely than to compose a letter.  However, on a
telephone call you’ll need to be aware of your tone of voice, pauses when speaking (which to some
could indicate hesitation or concern, when all you were really doing was taking a breath!), and other
verbal communication issues.  You will also be speaking “on the fly” because rarely do you know the
questions in advance.  Letters of reference, however, as asynchronous communication, give you time to
carefully consider the questions, your word choice, etc., but are also somewhat limited in that there is no
way for the potential employer to check for errors or clarify responses, and the writer’s bias or
carelessness may be a factor in how the letter is received and interpreted.12

Giving Negative Feedback, and How and Why to Decline Serving as a Reference

("If you had a position similar to this one, would you hire the candidate?")

Part of serving as a reference is to give a complete and honest assessment of the individual and his or
her fit for the position.  If you are asked to comment about a candidate’s weaknesses (or, stated more
positively, opportunities for growth), there are a few strategies that will allow you to be honest while also
not letting those observations dominate the conversation.  First, make sure all of your feedback is job-
related, documented and observed first-hand. Offer your observations in response to being asked; don’t
just volunteer a weakness unless it’s something you feel could interfere with the candidate’s ability to do
the job.  If you are asked directly about specific weaknesses, be open and affirmative13 in your response
and avoid highly negative comments.  It’s especially important to talk with the employee in advance
about any areas of concern or weaknesses you may have observed—nothing you say in the reference
should be a surprise to the employee.

There are occasions when you truly cannot serve as a reference, perhaps because you don’t have the
time, you don’t have anything positive to say, or too much time has passed and you just can’t remember
anything about the employee.  In those cases, while it may be tempting to accept and then give a
mediocre reference, it is definitely more honest, and in the best interest of the former employee, to
decline.  One way to refuse gracefully is to make it about what’s best for the employee—for example, by
suggesting that “your limited support…doesn’t match the weight of the opportunity…and your neutral or
unsupportive letter might only do…unintentional harm.”14

Tips and Questions

("Is there anything else you would like to tell us about the candidate?")

Below are just a few tips to consider, and questions you may be asked, when you agree to serve as a
reference:

Be ready to state the facts: a person’s name, dates of employment, title of position, relation to you (co-
worker, direct report, etc.), type of work, and specific duties or assignments.  It’s always better to be able
to talk about specific projects, tasks, etc.
Also be ready to talk about a candidate’s strengths and weaknesses.  Again, if you can think of specifics
to illustrate your point, that’s always great.  And if you talk about a weakness, if possible, talk about how
the candidate overcame the weakness, or took steps to compensate.
In addition to fact, be prepared to talk about the “soft skills”—interpersonal and communication skills are
asked about most often.
Be sure to respond on time.  If you are asked to provide a written statement by a certain date, be sure to
meet the deadline, or to request additional time.  Your missed deadline could reflect poorly on the
individual’s candidacy.
Limit your feedback to job-related information.  Even if you have personal knowledge of the candidate, it
is not your information to share.  Stick only to his or her ability to meet the requirements of the advertised
position.
For your own records, keep the name and contact information of the person requesting the reference, as
well as notes on the type of questions asked.
Common questions include:
How do you know the candidate and for how long?
Can you please describe the type of work the candidate performed while employed with you?
How well does the candidate work with other employees, students, customers and/or patrons?
Please describe the candidate’s technical skills.
What three qualities first come to mind when you think of this candidate?
If you had a vacancy similar to this one, would you hire this candidate?  Why or why not?
Is there anything else you would like to tell us about this candidate?
Conclusion

In summary, there are a dozen or more reasons why giving a reference is hard, but there are also very
strong and very compelling reasons to participate, most important of which may be that you would hope
an employer would do the same for you if you were in the position to hire.  Honesty and communication
are fundamental to good hiring practices, and good hiring practices are fundamental to the success of
an organization.  

References

Bahls, Jane Easter.  "Available Upon Request? – Focus on Recruitment – legal aspects of employment
references."  HR Magazine (January 1999).  

"Guide to Giving Employment References," Johnson School, Cornell University.  

Schall, Joe.  "The Ethics of Writing Recommendation Letters."  Academe (May/June 2006, vol. 92, issue
3).  

Woska, William J.  "Legal Issues for HR Professionals: Reference Checking/Background
Investigations." Public Personnel Management (Spring 2007, vol. 36, issue 1).  

Notes
Guide to Giving Employment References, Johnson School, Cornell University
Available Upon Request? – Focus on Recruitment – Legal Aspects of Employment References
Legal Issues for HR Professionals: Reference Checking/Background Investigations
Available Upon Request?
Available Upon Request?
Available Upon Request?
Available Upon Request?
Legal Issues for HR Professionals
Available Upon Request?
Guide to Giving Employment References
The Ethics of Writing Recommendation Letters
The Ethics of Writing Recommendation Letters
The Ethics of Writing Recommendation Letters
The Ethics of Writing Recommendation Letters
About the Author:

Tiffany Eatman Allen is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, with a BA in
Psychology and Political Science, and a Masters of Library Science.  She has worked in technical
services in an academic library and a small corporate library, and currently serves as Personnel
Librarian at UNC Chapel Hill.

Article published Nov 2007

Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in LIScareer articles are those of their respective authors and do not
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