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Make sure all reference queries go to HR

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Employees who are having trouble at work often look for other jobs. If those new positions don’t come through, the most paranoid employees may suspect their current employer said something that interfered with their ability to get the new jobs.

That may not seem logical (after all, the current employer presumably would be happy to see them accept another position), but frustrated employees may grasp at anything to explain their employment problems.

Let your supervisors know they should be careful about handling job reference queries involving poorly performing employees. Ideally, they should refer the inquiry to HR. As the following case shows, it’s best to let the potential new employer reach his or her own conclusions about the worker.

Recent case:
Vanda McCauley, who is black, worked as a compensation analyst for Stanford University. She consistently got poor reviews, including admonitions to get along better with her co-workers and improve her job skills. She applied for a job at another Stanford department. When the person doing the hiring called McCauley’s department to figure out a salary range based on her current job, she was told she should check McCauley’s references.

Those reference checks proved less than helpful, because everyone McCauley listed said they hadn’t worked with her recently. McCauley didn’t get the job.

She subsequently quit and sued.

Her allegations included the accusation that her supervisors must have been biased against black people and thus given her a negative reference.

The court said there was no indication any such thing had happened. It concluded McCauley missed getting the job because the hiring department didn’t get very positive responses from the references she provided—not because of anything anyone in her present department might or might not have said. (McCauley v. Stanford University, No. 07-1784, ND CA, 2009)

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