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Giving references: 7 tips to avoid pitfalls

We’re sure you have been asked to provide a reference for a former employee at one time or another. There is no legal obligation for you to provide a reference for an ex-employee in Canada, but most people do it as a measure of good faith to help the former employee find a new job. Being able to provide good references 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.

There can be some risks to giving references. Sharing information about a former employee needs to be done in an ethical and legal way.  You want to avoid risks such as being accused of violating someone’s privacy or discriminating against someone’s human rights. The best way to limit any risk in giving references is to set up a policy that creates a standardized reference procedure. This policy will ensure consistency and help avoid exposing you to liabilities. 

Your policy should cover:

  • Who can give references and who can’t.
  • What information should and should not be included in the reference:
    • Do not share personal employee information (family status, religion, cultural, sexual orientation etc.).
    • Do not express your feelings, share workplace stories or gossip about the former employee.
  • Limiting information to employment-related specifics:
    • Start and end date of employment
    • Position held
    • Duties and responsibilities
    • Skills and work habits
  • Keeping copies of references, both written and oral, for a suitable amount of time.

Here’s how to give a good reference:

1.    Obtain signed consent of the former employee before sharing information.
2.    Never say anything you cannot factually back up with evidence.
3.    Keep your feelings out of it. Be objective and factual. 
4.    Comments must be made in confidence to the reference checker.
5.    Don’t answer questions you are uncomfortable answering.
6.    Only answer questions you have been asked.
7.    Don’t say anything you would not say directly to the former employee.