It is typical in the job search for the hiring organization to request references and we’ve discussed previously how to prepare your references to be most helpful in your search. What if the situation is reversed and you receive a call from an employer seeking a reference on a former colleague or employee?
Be aware of your company policy: In many companies the correct response is to direct the caller to the HR department to verify dates of employment. Since this is not helpful for most hiring managers, you can adhere to the policy or offer to speak off the record. Only consider speaking informally to the hiring manager if you have good things to say about the candidate.
Be prepared: Hopefully the candidate requested permission to list you as a reference in advance and verified your contact information. This is perfect opportunity to learn more about the position they have applied to and the skills critical for success.
In the moment: If you receive a call unexpectedly asking for a reference on someone you haven’t heard from in years, it is reasonable to ask for a moment to collect your thoughts. You may want to refer this caller to HR. If you worked closely with the person several years ago you can discuss that experience but you are in no position to be truly helpful since you don’t know anything about the job they have applied for or the skills necessary for success.
“If you can’t say something nice…” – Remember when Mom advised you that “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”? It is important to be truthful but stick to the questions you are asked. Don’t volunteer negative information. Answer what is asked without going into extensive detail. If the individual was terminated or had significant performance issues, it is best to refer the call to HR.
Be professional – Be sure to wish the hiring manager the best of luck with the process. Be careful to explain in what capacity you worked with this person and at what organization. Be polite. If you receive a voicemail, all back promptly. Hiring managers are anxious to get through the steps to bring someone on board so a quick response is greatly appreciated.
If the candidate did their best through the interview process, you are acting as validation to the hiring managers impressions.