Q: My boss recently told me that she gave a bad reference for a former employee, who also happens to be a recent immigrant. She seemed to enjoy the putdown. How do I make sure she does not do the same to me?
Advice for the Employer – by Tana Turner
Reference checking is usually the last stage of the hiring process. Some companies use reference checks to confirm the hiring decision while some conduct reference checks on all the job candidates they interview and use it in their decision-making process. However it is used, reference checks help organizations reduce legal liability for negligent hiring.
Reference checks can validate the information provided by the candidate (e.g. the candidate’s current or last position, job roles and responsibilities) and check the candidate’s past job performance, skills, strengths and weaknesses. Organizations should not ask questions about a job candidate’s personality or character, as responses can be highly subjective and unrelated to the candidate’s ability to do the job. They should also be careful not to ask questions that could lead to a discussion of any of the human rights protected grounds, such as place of origin, family care responsibilities, disability, etc.
Organizations should also check more than one reference because a reference may provide a poor reference because of personality conflicts or other issues unrelated to their skills and abilities to do the job. Checking three references also provides a more complete perspective of the job candidate.
Organizations should not ask questions about a job candidate’s personality or character, as responses can be highly subjective and unrelated to the candidate’s ability to do the job. – Tana Turner
Newcomers may need to provide out-of-country references or references from volunteer positions. While time zones and language differences may create challenges to checking out-of-country references, employers committed to hiring the best person for the job should make the effort to contact these references.
If the references speak another language, the hiring manager can ask a colleague, someone from a community organization, or an external interpreter to conduct the reference check.
In addition, it is important for employers to understand the cultural context of the newcomer’s country or region. For example, some cultures stress teamwork rather than independent work, so the candidate’s reference may not be able to assess how well the person works independently.
Conducting reference checks for newcomers may be more time consuming but it helps the organization hire the best person for the job, while avoiding potential discrimination against newcomers.
Tana Turner is Principal of Turner Consulting Group Inc., an equity, diversity and inclusion consultancy firm in Toronto.
Advice to the Employee – by Fo Niemi
If you’re concerned about your manager giving negative or incorrect references about yourself, there are several ways to address this situation:
- Have an open discussion with your manager regarding your work performance during which you can delicately raise the question as to whether eventually, if you seek employment elsewhere, he or she will provide you with a reference. If your manager hesitates, you may want to explore the source of this hesitation. If you see more reluctance, don’t push the discussion, as it would be more positive to return to this issue at a later date
- Get a reference in writing. This will give you a good idea of your manager’s opinions and a written letter of reference can stand the test of time (and a change of heart at a later date from your manager)
- Have a trusted friend pose as a “reference checker” and contact your former manager. If, by doing so, you realize your former manager is not giving you a positive reference, you may want to contact another supervisor and request a more balanced reference from the company
- Ask a former colleague instead of your manager
- Ask former colleagues what your manager says about you. This kind of information gathering is particularly important if you suspect that your manager may give you a negative reference despite what he or she promises you. Based on what you hear, you can develop strategies and ways to either go around these references, or find someone else in the company to provide you with more balanced references.
If you learn that your former manager is giving you references that are incorrect, biased or even defamatory, you may want to write a formal letter to request that the manager provide only objective and correct references about your work and that he or she refrains from comments that may tarnish your personal and professional reputation.
Get a reference in writing. A written letter of reference can stand the test of time and a change of heart at a later date. – Fo Niemi
If the references are from your immediate supervisor, you may want to write to a senior manager, or even the president of the company, to request that corrections be made. Always use a professional, polite and constructive tone.
If a future employer insists on a reference from your last manager, and you do not believe that the latter can provide a positive reference, you may want to be frank with the future employer and explain, without going into too much detail, why it would not be feasible to do so, but that you can provide references from other former employers.
Fo Niemi is the executive director of the Center for Research-Action on Race Relations (CRARR), a Montreal-based civil rights organization.
The Big Picture – by Hamlin Grange
References are a useful source of information for any prospective employer and an essential part of the recruitment process. However, references can damage a person’s career, especially if they give an inaccurate impression of a person’s ability to do the job.
Employers need to be aware of the power they hold to harm an employee’s professional reputation when they issue a reference that is uncharitable at best and inaccurate at worst.
Employers need to be aware of the power they hold to harm an employee’s professional reputation when they issue a reference that is uncharitable at best and inaccurate at worst. – Hamlin Grange
A supervisor who boasts about giving a former employee a bad reference is lacking leadership skills. She or he may even be deliberately using the potential of a bad reference as a way of intimidating current employees or to get even with a former employee.
Either way, this is a poor management style and may even be contravening not only the company’s management standards, but potentially other labour and human rights laws.
Ironically, many HR directors say they get very little insight from references. And references are usually used only to supplement what the prospective employee may have said in the interview.
According to one survey, three in five employers (62 per cent) said that when they contacted a reference listed on an application, the reference didn’t have good things to say about the candidate.
The survey also found that 69 per cent of employers said they have changed their minds about a candidate after speaking with a reference; 47 per cent they had a less favourable opinion and only 23 per cent had a more favourable opinion.
Often, many former employers are uncertain about what they can or cannot say because they have a legal requirement to be fair and accurate so they often just confirm that the person worked for them and say very little more.
However, refusing to provide a letter of reference may constitute an act of bad faith on the part of the employer, especially in cases where the employer has promised that a letter of reference would be provided or if an employer withholds a letter of reference as a negotiating tool in exchange for acceptance of a severance package.
Hamlin Grange is President of DiversiPro Inc. He is a diversity, inclusion and intercultural development trainer and consultant.
Adjusting to a new workplace is often a challenge for new immigrants. This column, People@Work, is intended to help new Canadians navigate occupational challenges and provide advice on how to integrate into the Canadian workplace. Have a workplace dilemma? Send us your questions for our expert panel to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please note that their responses should not be considered to be legal advice.
Hamlin Grange is the principal consultant with DiversiPro as well as a diversity and inclusion strategist.