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One of my mother’s oft repeated lines, reflective of her status as a true Southern Lady, was, “If you can’t say anything good about a person, don’t say anything at all.”  Hardly her original line but it is certainly a standard of conduct worthy of practice. 

There is a variation to this standard in the recruiting industry.  When giving a reference, recruiters would prefer that executives adopt this rule:  If you can’t say any good about a former employee, don’t lie.

I know of cases where exasperated executives, so happy are they to be rid of a troublesome or poor performing hospital executive or manager, that they have given remarkably favorable references.  Perhaps a sense of guilt led them to do what they thought was a good deed.  “I didn’t want to hurt his career,” one CEO said.  I guess that CEO did not think about the next CEO who would have to deal with his now departed employee’s problems.

We do that a lot in healthcare – say nice things to an unsuspecting future employer about a candidate.   Truth is we need to stop this. Giving a good reference when the former employee’s performance has been less than stellar is not doing anyone any favors, especially to the person who was sacked.

Verifying the performance of a potential employee is one of the age-old struggles of talent acquisition.  Recruiters are seeking good information to avoid a costly hiring mistake.    Companies that erect Chinese Walls to protect themselves against a lawsuit for a bad reference do not help the process even though these “walls” rarely prevent an enterprising researcher or recruiter from trying to dig out the truth.

If you feel compelled to support a former employee who did not succeed in your organization, then find those traits  that you liked and politely decline to answer each question regarding performance in which your response might be negative. 

This might be equivalent to “damning by faint praise” but at least you have done the right thing.  

© 2010 John Gregory Self


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