Photo by Rick
A reader writes:
I just got a new job, and the company asked for and checked my references. This is weird in my business since it’s a small community in a niche market and everyone knows everyone. So you just casually ask your friends what they know of a person. But in so doing, they also told me that a couple of my references pitched THEMSELVES in some way to the person who was calling for info on me. Not for my job, per se, but for jobs relating to my presence in the new gig. I had asked all of my references to speak on my behalf beforehand (if called upon) so I was shocked by that.
I had heard that it’s possibly illegal in some cases for a past employer to comment on anything outside of yes/no answers on factual information like “did they work there from x to y dates”. May not be true outside of being sued civilly for saying something that equated to a person not getting a job.
On the first part: Although it can feel a little weird if you don’t see it coming, this is actually pretty common, especially in a tough job market. Getting a job involves networking, and giving a reference is am act of networking. I’ve had lots of people try and work the conversation to their own advantage when giving references, especially for higher-level positions. If they’re trying to get YOUR job, well…not cool. Not cool at all. For other jobs though…well, why not? As long as they’re doing no harm to you, I wouldn’t sweat it too much. I do think it would have been nice if they’d told you they were interested in working for the same company, but some people are tacky that way.
I find it interesting that they actually checked the references you gave them, especially since you’re in an industry where asking around would likely be far more productive. That might tell you something about their culture. I’m also amused that they told you this happened. That sounds a little like a guy who comes home from the bar and tells his girlfriend, “Yeah, chicks were all over me the entire night” in a misguided attempt to rattle her cage. I don’t know what the tone of the conversation was, but it’s an interesting choice.
On the second part: It’s not illegal for a past employer to give a bad references. It’s true that someone can sue you for giving a bad reference, but pretty much anyone can sue you for pretty much anything. As long as what you are saying is true and well-documented, like “We terminated him because he was tardy 67 times in one year,” you are okay*. Truth is an absolute defense. That said, it’s very expensive to defend yourself, so most companies only verify dates of employment, title, and salary. That’s also why they tell supervisors not to give references; people sometimes sue the individual who gave the reference as well as the company. It’s just not worth it to most people.
* DISCLAIMER: I am not a lawyer. I’m an ex-HR person. That’s not even close to being the same thing, because lawyers make more money and don’t go around telling you not to wear flip-flops to work. Also, only idiots take legal advice from some blog they found on the internet. If you get sued, “The internet told me it was okay” is not a good defense. So before you go around talking smack about someone you used to work with, talk to a real lawyer, okay?