Reference Check Response

A reader writes…

Dear Anita,
I was recently asked to respond to a reference check for a former employee.  How much information am I obligated to provide?

Dear, “Contacted,”

Providing a reference for a former employee may seem simple enough, but depending on the situation, things can get slippery.  You need to make sure you’re protecting the best interests of your company – with so many lawsuits out there… a lot of managers avoid reference checks like the plague!

Consider the following:

  1. Consult with your Human Resources Department to see if a company policy is in place.  If your reference is positive, you can certainly provide a verbal response. 
  2. A standard reference check asks for the following information (job seekers… pay attention!):
    Confirmation of:
    – Job title
    – Final salary or hourly wage
    – Dates of employment
    – Job responsibilities
    -Occasionally, you may be asked about certain characteristics such as “reliability,” “working with others,” etc.
  3. Sometimes, you’ll be asked to provide a reference for an employee who worked for you so long ago that you don’t remember specific employment dates, wages, etc.  For these reasons (and more), I recommend that you leave this process to your HR Department – they are more equipped to deliver accurate answers. 
  4. If you choose to provide a written recommendation, I also advise that you pass it by HR for a quick review before sending.  A written letter of recommendation can go a long way for someone looking for a new job.  Here’s the rub… a written letter of recommendation can also be a little risky… particularly if it’s generic.   When something is written, it can exist forever (and be photocopied multiple times).  What was once a professional looking letter – signed by you – later becomes a faded mess.  Lord knows what kind of employee your former employee has become over time.  You also won’t have any idea how your letter is being used.
  5. If you receive a reference request for a former employee who left on bad terms… defer to HR.  You should NEVER feel obligated to respond to questions you are uncomfortable answering.

As you can see by my list above, Human Resources is precisely that… a resource to assist you with these types of situations. Utilize them to help protect yourself and your company.

A note to job seekers…  Most (if not all) potential employers will ask for employment references.  Be prepared to provide this information and know that it WILL be checked (either with a former supervisor or – more likely – with your former HR Department.)

Hope this helps!

Avoid Nervous Laughter

A reader writes…

When I get nervous…  I tend to laugh a LOT.  I’m so afraid I’m going to lose it in the middle of an interview.  Any suggestions?

Dear, “Sir Laughs-A-Lot,”

I’m glad to see you’re such a happy person, but seriously… do you honestly think you’ll fall out of your chair cracking up in the middle of an interview – all on account of nerves?  A nervous giggle every now and then is one thing, but getting hysterical is another.

Now, unless you’re applying to be an audience stand-in at a comedy show, I suggest you get this habit under control.  Do plenty of preparation in advance to help gain confidence and composure.  Here are a few key reminders to get you  ready:

  1. Research the company.  Check their website, study their products and/or services, look them up on LinkedIn, check for company blogs, Google articles, etc.
  2. Research the specific position – KNOW what you’re applying for and be ready to answer questions pertaining to the role. You are guaranteed to be out of the running if you don’t appear to know what position you’ve applied for.
  3. Dress your best.  The better you look, the better you feel…  and the less likely you’ll get the urge to fidget (which, in turn, may result in a few chuckles!)
  4. Rehearse typical interview questions with a friend or family member.  You can find several online (here are a few sample questions  to get you started):
  • Tell me about yourself.
  • Why did you apply to this position?
  • What are your short-term goals? Long-term goals?
  • What motivates you?
  • Why are you changing fields?
  • How do you define success?
  • How well do you work under pressure?
  • What is your greatest strength? Greatest weakness?
  • What are your most important accomplishments thus far in your career?
  • Could you have done more/better in your last/present job?
  • What do you know about our company and our industry?
  • In what way do you feel you can make the biggest contribution to this firm?
  • What suggestions have you offered former employers that were actually adopted?
  • What did you like best about your last/present job?
  • Give a specific example of your:
    • Creativity
    • Adaptability
    • Analytical skills
    • Innovative abilities
    • Leadership skills
  • What direct supervisory experience have you had?
  • How do you interact with subordinates?
  • How do you motivate people?
  • How did you get along with your last boss?
  • How would you describe the “ideal” boss?

None of these questions seem like “knee-slappers” to me.
 I think you’ll do fine and wish you the best of luck!


Office Gossip

A reader writes…

I am so sick and tired of the office gossip that goes on at my company!  It’s unbearable, and people are becoming plain MEAN!  What do you suggest?

Dear “Gossip Girl,”

I know what you mean… listening to a bunch of co-workers talk trash about others is about as low as it gets. You’re at work to do a job.  Now, unless you work at TMZ or some place where “gossip” is welcomed, there’s no need to gab about everyone and everything that passes by.

Excessive gossip is so annoying; I don’t even want to spend much time on the subject.  So here you have a few simple solutions to try:

  1. File a complaint to your supervisor or to HR. 
  2. Wear headphones (if, for example, you sit in a nearby cubicle or office)
  3. Don’t feed into it.  If brought into a “gossipy” conversation… ignore or change the subject.
  4. Arm yourself with facts – don’t fall victim to hearsay.
  5. Get back to work.

OK readers, let’s hear it….  Do you tend to tell tall tales at work, just to stir up the pot?  (Don’t be shy… we know you’re out there!)


Personal Personnel

A reader writes…

One of my direct reports brings all of her personal issues to work. Specifically, she’s been very open with me about problems she’s having with her spouse.  I feel empathetic (and appreciate the fact that she’s comfortable telling me things).  At the same time, however, I’m her boss and am (honestly) more concerned about the fact that deadlines are slipping and work isn’t getting done.  I’m to the point I want to let her go… but feel a little guilty (knowing everything she has going on in her personal life).   What would you do, Anita?

Dear, “Boss,”

Having an open relationship with your staff is key to bonding, establishing rapport, and just plain getting to know the people on your team.  Over time, most people tend to reveal personal matters with co-workers (and even direct supervisors); it helps us feel connected… human.

When personal drama becomes overbearing in the workplace, however, a line must be drawn. You, as the boss, must clearly establish the fact that it’s one thing to share personal info (if desired)… but it must NOT compromise your performance on the job.  I, personally, have a very low tolerance for missed deadlines – and I’ve made that very clear with my team over the years.  Certainly things come up… but to give someone the “get out of jail for free card” simply because they can’t keep it together at work is not a good idea.  In other words, you can’t continue to make exceptions for one employee. I’ve been in a similar situation before.  One of my employees had a sister who had been hospitalized, he was up all night dealing with girlfriend issues, and to boot… he was struggling with payments.  I felt sorry for the guy and tried to be supportive.  After weeks of absences, poor work quality, and his sloppy demeanor around the office, I had to pull the plug.  As much as I wanted to say, “I know you’re going through a tough time right now and hate to complicate things even more….,”  I didn’t.

Instead, I brought him into my office, closed the door, and based the entire discussion on the job at hand.  I had plenty of reasons to justify the termination.  I knew this would only make matters worse for him – but as cruel as it sounds… business is business, and if you can’t perform your job and meet expectations, you’re out.

I think you should set all guilt aside and go with your gut.  You are ultimately accountable for your team and should have all “A” players.  Anyone that cannot carry their weight (regardless of their personal situation) needs to be shown the door.

P.S. Always remember as you have personal discussions with your employees that YOU are the boss. You should neither solicit personal information from your staff members nor reveal too much of your own personal information. You have a responsibility to keep the discussion appropriate and you want to make sure you don’t open yourself up to any liability of the former employee claiming you sought non-work-related information as a basis for your termination.

Readers, does this seem shrewd?  Or do you disagree with my advice to “Boss?”
Do tell…!

Gaps in Employment

A reader writes…

I’ve been out of work for a long time now.  How do I handle the question in interviews about my gaps in employment? When asked, “What have you been doing all this time?”  My answer is, “Looking for WORK!”  I appreciate any suggestions.

Dear, “Gaps,”

The dreaded question “What have you been doing all this time?” is bound to come up – whether you’ve been out of work for 2 months or 2 years!  I will say, however, that due to the nature of today’s labor market, most recruiters and hiring managers are more understanding and compassionate. They realize that lengthy gaps in employment are a harsh reality these days.

The key is to be honest about your situation and “practice” an answer to this inevitable question in advance. Don’t sound like you’re reading from a script… but definitely have an idea of what you’re going to say.

Here are a few suggestions:

  • Share what you’ve done to look for work. This reveals your resourcefulness and determination.
  • Be open about how you have handled the stressful process of looking for a job.  We all know it is  a challenge, but what did you do to cope?  What have you learned? A common interview question is, “How do you handle stress?” Or “Tell me how you operate under pressure.”  Your answers (though not related to stress on a job) are equally relevant and valid. 
  • Highlight any skills you obtained during your unemployment period — aside from patience and perseverance, that is.  Did you learn any new software programs? Did you brush up on a second language? What about your ability to network?  All of these attributes build character but also reveal a lot about your abilities (and what you can contribute to a new position).
  • I’ve said this before, but I’ll say it again… feature any volunteer work. You may be able to provide letters of recommendation and apply new skills and experiences to a job.  Here’s a link to a previous article I wrote on this subject:

In conclusion, when asked about your employment gaps, don’t get defensive… get determined.  Looking for a job is like a full-time job in itself.  The steps you’ve taken say a lot about you and your work ethic.

I have complete confidence. You WILL get through this!



Anita Clew's blog posts are intended for general guidance and should never be taken as legal advice. In all instances where harassment, inequity, or unfair treatment is believed to be present, please consult your HR Department or legal representation.
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