My name is Mark Goodfield. Welcome to The Blunt Bean Counter ™, a blog that shares my thoughts on income taxes, finance and the psychology of money. I am a Chartered Professional Accountant. This blog is meant for everyone, but in particular for high net worth individuals and owners of private corporations. My posts are blunt, opinionated and even have a twist of humour/sarcasm. You've been warned. Please note the blog posts are time sensitive and subject to changes in legislation or law.

Monday, February 25, 2013

References - A No Win Situation for Past and Future Employers

I am occasionally asked to provide verbal and/or written references for friends, acquaintances and former employees, whom I respect professionally. I am also asked to provide references for ex-employees where my level of respect for their professional abilities, to be charitable, is far lower than the aforementioned. However, if I was asked for a  reference, you may not be able to distinguish the person I like, from the one I would not recommend. That is just a sad reality of today’s litigious society.

So why would you not always be able to clearly distinguish my references? Kate McNeill-Keller of McCarthy Tetrault LLP, provides the answer in her article on Post-Employment Reference Letters: -Guidelines for Employers, “Employers face a two-fold concern over providing post-employment references. First, there is the risk of a defamation suit by the former employee as a result of a negative reference. Second, there is the risk of a claim for negligent misrepresentation by the subsequent employer as a result of an inaccurate or incomplete reference. While these risks should be considered (especially in regard to the content of the reference), they are generally outweighed by the risk of refusing to provide a letter of reference".

Although Ms. McNeill-Keller’s article discusses post-employment reference letters, we have been informed by our lawyers that the same issues essentially hold for verbal reference calls.
Many employers have been counseled by their employment lawyers to keep references very vanilla and in essence, fairly nebulous. Thus, in cases where I may have let go of an employee for in part, a lack of skill; I cannot come out and say such. Often when I get off the phone after a reference enquiry, I wonder what the person on the other side is thinking. The same holds for when I call for a reference check. I know prior to the call, that in most cases, the call is a pure waste of time. However, I call because on the odd occasion you get to speak to someone who has not been appropriately advised and they tell you more than they should. Alternatively, since I know how I sound, I try and pick up from a person’s tone and lack of enthusiasm if they really were keen on the applicant or not.
Where I would like to provide a positive verbal reference, I am always somewhat pensive and tone down my enthusiasm, since I am concerned that if the person I am recommending does not work out for the new employer, for whatever reason, someone will claim I misled them.
I actually received a reference from someone I know socially that totally ignored a fatal flaw of her former employee. When our firm later let that person go, she told me she felt terrible when she got off the phone with me, but she was counseled not to say anything bad about the person.

The above discussion is a sad commentary on the state of employment references and reflects how gun-shy many employers have become in today's litigious society. My reality is that where I want to provide a positive reference, I tone down my reference for fear of being accused of overstating someone’s abilities. Where I would  provide a less than glowing reference in an unencumbered environment, I become what I call specifically vague. This is a no-win situation for the former employer and the future employer, so is there a point to references? I wonder whether social media references on professional networking sites like LinkedIn are any better, or has the usefulness of references run its course as society has become more cautious and guarded?

Bloggers Note: A reader sent me this Dilbert comic strip link on references after reading this post. Thanks to the reader.

The blogs posted on The Blunt Bean Counter provide information of a general nature. These posts should not be considered specific advice; as each reader's personal financial situation is unique and fact specific. Please contact a professional advisor prior to implementing or acting upon any of the information contained in one of the blogs.


  1. I've provided letters of reference for employees I was sad to see go. In the letter I typically indicate specific attributes that I think are important. I don't hesitate to provide glowing letters.

    On the flip side, I believe in a phone call where the less aid the better, it's easiest to simply stick to the dates and times the employee worked. If they ask any other questions and you're unwilling to say something positive, simply respond with the dates and times the employee worked there.

    When calling references, I've asked "would you hire them again?'. That can be pretty revealing. i.e. if the response to that question is 'they worked here from this date to that date" :).

    Back when I hired tech people, I also used to give them a quick quiz. Just basic skill questions, the point wasn't the answer, the point was to discuss their approach. One question I asked programmers was to sort 100 items. I got all sorts of answers on different optimized sorting techniques. One person simply did a bubble sort. When asked why, he said because at 100 items, what needed to be optimized was the time it took to write the program - and he could do that in 5 minutes. He got the job, and was the best programmer I've ever worked with.

    1. Thanks Glenn. good comments. I guess until u get sued by the new employer over the glowing reference letter you gave when the employee did not pan out u will keep providing such :)

      Just joking, but we have had so many weird and wonderful experiences with employees, we now take the safe route.

  2. I think this is essentially it. We do live in a society and people choose whom they like. The reference is essentially exactly this : recommendation not necessarily reflecting professional ability.

    However one could say that being sociable is part of most roles.

    Beauty of sites liked LinkedIn is one could see connections and surrounding. It does tell something about person as well.

    1. Thx Fin Indep.

      Linkeden has a lot of BS also. Consider the recomendations and endorsements. Often they are tit for tat, so are they real?

    2. Hi Blunt Bean Counter,

      I am not saying that they are always real. You just have an opportunity what are they, what are the people connected in.

      It provides much more information, than just simple paper recommendation. You can contact more people to get intell as well.

  3. I always thought it would make an excellent TV show - "Check Your References" where three job applicants must sit and listen to what everyone who knows them, actually thinks of them, one at a time - then employer picks winner. I know in my case for example there are some folks who would praise me and others who would denigrate me so it would all depend who they found to talk about me - all contestants would have to waive their right to sue, in advance.

    1. Hey Robert:

      That would be an interesting show. Based on some of the things I have seen in my days as an employer and employee, could be some juicy tidbits :)

  4. Even more interesting is getting references WITHIN a large company from another department. Then you know what you think of the person's current boss. It may be that a glowing reference from that boss means you know the candidate would be a terrible fit for your group, because you know the kind of employee that boss likes and you can't stand that type.

    For external references, legal said we could only state their start and finish dates and confirm that they worked here. Nothing else.

    1. Bet, never even considered interco transfers, very interesting political situation.

  5. On internal transfers, a great reference could mean the current boss can't wait to get rid of them!