June 4, 2018

What Can You Say About a Former Employee?

By Paul Bieber

Tough question. This was raised by Chuck Knickerbocker after last week’s blog. A very tough question indeed. A person you don’t know calls you and says that John Doe, who used to work at your company, has applied to work and starts to ask you questions about Mr. Doe. What do you do?

There are so many variables here this blog could become a book.

If John was a great employee and left you because his family moved to another part of the country, say all the good things you can. Easy so far.

What if John was a fair-to-poor employee? Do you say that to someone who is only a voice on the phone? You should not. Respond only with the dates John worked for you, his job description and salary history and say that it is your company policy not to respond on the phone to any other questions. If you say something negative about John’s performance and he doesn’t get the new job, and the prospective employer tells John he didn’t get the job because of what you said, you are opening yourself to a defamation of character lawsuit, which you will have a hard time winning, after huge legal bills have been paid. There have been cases where you have fired a John Doe and he has a friend call you on a taped line to ask questions that you answer negatively. Three weeks later you get the suit. And you will lose.

So another employer calls about John. Ask them to send you their questions in an email or letter. Check out the company. Do they have a website? Would they be hiring someone with Joe’s background? Are you speaking with a personnel director or officer of the company? If not, throw away the letter. If they are legitimate, respond with the basics and answer only the questions that are about job performance and not about personality. Answer in generalities. “Joe worked in our installation department.” Not, “He was the least efficient guy you have ever seen.”

What if Joe leaves you to work across town with a competitor? And you know the competitor and he calls you. Tell your competitor that Joe did work for you and he left of his own accord. But what if you fired Joe? You can say he was terminated. Again, don’t get into details.

A common question that is asked is, “Is Joe eligible for rehire?” If Joe gave you four weeks’ notice and moved cross-country, it is easy to answer yes to this question. But if Joe is a weak worker, it is better to say, “I’m not sure; it would depend on the circumstances.”

Uh oh, the shoe just came to the other foot. You are thinking about hiring Sam who used to work at your competitor across town. You call and get the same run-around that you give out. Don’t be upset. Our litigious society has created this and you certainly don’t want to get caught up in it.

How to figure this out is simple. Would answering any question prevent Joe from getting this job? And if it’s the case, don’t say another word.

Lastly, if you have a personnel department or office manager, in no circumstances should they ever give any information other than the basics. Ever. Tell your foremen that someday they may get a call about any employee, current or past. If so, advise your foremen to refer the caller to your personnel department or to you.