Giving quality references to former employees

Most employers have been asked to provide references for a former employee at one time or another. Oftentimes providing this reference is done as a measure of good faith to help the former employee find alternative employment.

As a business owner, it is important for you to be aware of some best practices when sharing information about former employees.

There is no legal obligation for an employer to provide a reference for an ex-employee in Canada; however, employers will often do so for several reasons. These reasons can include:

  • Staying on the good side of a past productive employee,
  • Rewarding an employee that did good work and grew out of their job,
  • It is the “right thing” to do,
  • It was part of a termination agreement.

Often, an unwillingness to provide a reference creates suspicion on the former employee. Employers generally should be willing to provide a reference that captures the employee’s past duties and responsibilities.  

There can be risks to giving references.  The best way to limit your risk is to set up a policy that creates a standardized reference procedure. This policy will ensure consistency and help avoid liability. Make sure your policy covers who can give references and prohibits others from doing so and details what information should and should not be included in the reference.  A good practice is to limit all information provided to employment-related specifics that can be backed up with factual evidence such as a written employee evaluation. This can include information such as dates worked, duties performed, employee qualifications, strengths, areas for improvement and a rating of the job performance.   

Ensure you keep copies of references both written and oral for a suitable amount of time.  Legally it is not necessary to notify or obtain an individuals’ consent when giving or seeking employment references, however; CFIB recommends you always obtain the signed consent of former employees when sharing information about his or her past employment. This also applies to collecting information about candidates when asking for references on employment history, academic performance and volunteer activities.

Here are some best practices for giving references: 

  • Never say anything you cannot factually back up with evidence.
  • Comments must always be made without malice.
  • Comments must be made in confidence to the reference checker.
  • If you are asked a question that you cannot answer or feel uncomfortable answering decline answering the question.
  • Only answer questions that have been asked.
  • Don’t say anything that you have not said or would not feel comfortable saying directly to the former employee.
  • Avoid using your feelings, be objective.

Being able to provide good references is a helpful tool that will not only help your former employees move onto their next position, but it can also help you ask for and recognize a quality reference when searching for your next employee.