Following HR policy on not giving references?

Over a year ago, the organization I work for hired an attorney who, by all accounts, was a good employee for six months before he left to go take care of his sick mother on the other coast. Management tried to convince him to stay on as an employee and just take a leave, but he decided to give notice and maybe consider applying again once he was back in town. When he returned to the area, he decided to look for work elsewhere, and used me and our boss as references. (I’m not part of management, but I’m a senior attorney who has some manager-like oversight and could speak to the quality of his work.) I gave him a good reference, but apparently our boss pulled the old “per HR policy I can only confirm this individual worked here from X to Y dates and can’t comment on his performance.” This was interpreted negatively, and my colleague didn’t get the job.

I heard about it from my colleague, who had been told this by his prospective employer, and I asked my boss about it. My boss initially confirmed that this was what he had done, although he had nothing negative to say about the guy; my boss said he’s just a “rule-follower” and that’s what he’d been told by HR. I shared with him my perception, which was that every organization had this policy on the books, but it was only really applied to bad employees; good employees still got references. My boss acknowledged this and then kind of walked back what he had said earlier, indicating he had told the prospective new employer that my colleague was eligible for rehire and would be an asset to their organization. I’m not sure if I believe that, given what he said at first.

Anyway, my colleague definitely should have asked first before using our boss as a reference; he acknowledged as much. (I anticipated when he left that he probably wouldn’t come back and offered to be a reference.) But given that I’ve now confirmed with our boss that there were no performance issues and we’d still take him back in a heartbeat, I’m really bothered by what my boss did.

What do you guys think? Am I right that this rule is really just a fig leaf to avoid getting sued for bad references, and refusing to give a reference for a good employee is a dick move? Or was it justified, or at least understandable? FWIW, I later learned that my boss’s boss recently gave a favorable reference to another former co-worker of mine; I’m not sure whether my boss knows that.

I agree that it is a widespread policy. My belief is that it is wholly intended to prevent lawsuits and nothing more. After all, that’s 90% of the mission of an HR department in the first place.

I had to fire a secretary once long ago. It took two years of memos sent to her and HR about her unacceptable performance before they finally relented and fired her. And then she had the audacity to list me as a reference for a new job. When her prospective employer called me, I said basically that I’m only allowed to confirm that she worked here, but that unofficially and don’t even think of quoting me on this, DO NOT hire her under any circumstances. He said “thank you very much” and quickly hung up.

I was under the impression that the “I can only confirm that they worked here” thing was for employees that should have been fired but quit first. If I was calling references I would not be impressed.

At my former company, it was pounded into us to never give a reference on pain of your job. So, people generally wouldn’t even give coworkers as references, knowing they couldn’t/wouldn’t say anything.

At my last really big company, the only references given are from a 3rd party that confirms employment dates. As part of the severance agreement. I agreed not to reapply. Obviously they’ll fill my previous job with a 21 year old.

I do have references from people I’ve worked with that are no longer at the company that I can give if a new company insists on it and we’re at the offer stage.

That’s not the case at all. It is quite common for a company to have policies in place limiting the amount of information that can be given out for a reference check. My company requires a document signed by the former employee authorizing us to release their dates of employment and job title. Even if they authorize the release of more information, we only release the dates of employment and their job title.

And it’s true that one of the reasons we do this is to mitigate risk in regards to litigation. I get a few calls each year from irate former employees who want to know what the hell we’re telling their prospective employers. I can tell them the same thing our lawyer would tell a judge, we have a policy in place that dictates what information we give out.

I specialize in compliance and it’s only about 80% of my job. But for those in HR who handle recruitment, benefits, compensation, etc., etc. preventing the company from being sued is only about 30% of it.

No, because if a company had that policy, they would be indirectly giving a bad reference to that class of employees, which undercuts the goal of avoiding litigation.

Even if you’re giving what you think to be a strong reference, it doesn’t mean that the referee won’t feel like he has a legitimate gripe against you if he doesn’t get the job. “Yeah, Joe was a great employee – hard worker, team player, always friendly and respectful with his coworkers. Took him a little while to get up to speed on his job duties, but once he did he executed them well above and beyond our high expectations.” What part of that do you think a rejected job applicant is going to focus on?

What I meant, and what I assume sitchensis meant, was not that the policy allowed positive references, but rather that the policy was routinely violated for good employees. But either way, does it really put the employer at risk? What would be the basis of such a lawsuit? You can’t claim defamation based on someone refusing to talk about you.

Is it still true that the same companies that have policies against giving references still absolutely require new hires to provide references?

Good point! In my case, yes.

IANAL, but if the company regularly allowed good references then a time worked reference could be considered negative. I’ve never heard of lawsuits around this, but it is possible.
My company had this exact policy, and I think everyone followed it. The closest time I came to violating it was a reference for someone I knew well given to someone I also knew well. I basically said I can’t give a reference because of policy but I’d really like to.
I think HR did say if we would rehire someone, but I’m not positive.

When I retired I offered references for my former colleagues because I was no longer governed by the rule, and some took me up on it.

Well Hell, Sucks to be you guys.

When I worked at Taco Bell we were only allowed to confirm employment, the dates they were employed and if they were eligible to be rehired or not. We were stymied at first at how to convey more, then we hit on tones of voice. Worked like a charm.

As a side note, because I had worked there for so long I usually got tapped to do them. Turns out it was not uncommon for people to decide turnover is so rapid in fast food that they would blatantly lie bout working for us and the position. There was dead silence on more than one occasion when I said no one by Name had EVER worked at our store and definitely not as a shift or assistant manager.

Another oddity of US personnel recruiting. I have obtained reference checks from a lot of people when recruiting, and have provided plenty of references when staff that I have worked with moved on. I have never heard of an occasion where someone couldn’t give a work reference due to HR rules. I think in Australia, refusal to even discuss their employment would probably mean that they killed someone.

We are not allowed to, in any way, link our employer to personal references. I recall someone, years ago, using our letterhead on a personal reference provided as a character witness statement to a court. They were reprimanded for that.


I’ve worked at several large companies where the blanket policy was only to confirm employment and hire/leaving dates. Failure to conform to this would result in termination. I actually saw a long-term upper manager fired for failure to follow this policy (he gave a former subordinate a good reference).

Of course, that made it more difficult to be hired by someone else if you left for any reason. And at least one company itself viewed that result from another company - calling for a reference for a prospective new hire and getting just confirmation of employment - as a negative despite having that very policy. Hypocritical, if you ask me, but no one ever did.

And neither can you claim it based on someone telling the truth about you ( you’d have to at least allege that it wasn’t the truth). The person wouldn’t be basing their claim on the fact that you refused to talk about them - they would be basing their claim on the fact that by not giving them a good reference, you were implicitly giving them a undeserved poor suing you either for defamation or some form of discrimination ( you give the members of group A good references , but only gave dates of employment for me because I belong to Group B. Now, the person probably won’t win, but neither would they win in a suit where the former employer gave a truthfully poor reference and said that former employee was repeatedly late or failed to meet deadlines. If your company always only provides title and dates of employment, it’s a lot harder to find a lawyer who will take that case rather than one where you treat people differently by giving more details regarding some people than others.

Nope. My employer doesn’t give out references and doesn’t require them.

Of course, individual hiring managers may request references anyway.

Different companies are more or less aggressive about enforcing the “no references” rule. At my current company we have such a rule, but it’s not aggressively enforced. If a co-worker asked me if they could use me as a reference, and I loved their work, I would say “yes”. But I’d only give an oral reference, and it would be clear it was from me, and not from the company, even so.

If I didn’t love their work, or if I were approached for a reference from an employer without being contacted first, I would fall back on “it’s company policy”. Yeah, even if I loved their work, I wouldn’t give out a reference if they didn’t contact me and ask me to, first. I mean, how do I even know the request is legit? And if someone were a fine, solid worker but I didn’t love their work, I’d just as soon not be the one who said something that was taken the wrong way and read as a negative when I didn’t intend it as such.

Years ago, at another company, that did not have such a rule, I was asked to give a reference for a mediocre employee. My company was going belly-up, and we were all looking for work, and I was his manager, so it would have been really awkward to say “no”. But giving the reference was crazy awkward. I mean, the guy was fine, and I would likely hire him again if it was him vs. some similar-on-paper unknowns. But I really struggled with what to say, and how to answer some pointed questions. I don’t want to do that again.

You really need to check with people before listing them as references.

IIRC, every company I’ve worked for has had this as HR policy, and you have to sign a document that you understand and will follow this policy. And it seems generally understood in my industry (high tech) that you’re not going to get references from anyone still working where you’ve previously worked. That’s why it’s a good idea to stay in touch with people who leave the company you’re working for - because they’re free to say anything they want about you.

And good god, NEVER list a person as a reference until you’ve checked with them first. And if they show any hesitancy whatsoever, thank them & move on - that just may mean they’re thinking they might not be comfortable giving you the glowing reference you’re counting on.