How to handle reference calls

Q: I received a telephone call from a local company. They are
asking for a reference on one of my former co-workers. I sat a few
desks away from this person but I don’t know anything about their
performance. I am not sure I am the best reference for this person.

A: You are wise to feel uncomfortable. Often an employee cannot
provide accurate information about a coworker because they don’t have
firsthand knowledge about the person’s ability to perform the tasks
required of their job.

Most employers would prefer that coworkers share reference questions
with Human Resources. Human Resources may have information that you do
not. For example, if the employee had received a written warning. If
you do not have a HR function, it is a bit more difficult. If you do
not have an HR function, it is best to share the question with your
current manager. Your manager can decide how to best handle the
question. Sometimes a manager will contact the reference and sometimes
the manager will ignore the question altogether. Companies are
reluctant to provide references because of potential legal concerns.

Before giving a co-worker’s name and contact information (or anyone’s
for that matter) is to check with the person in advance. Make sure that
the person feels comfortable providing a reference and can speak to
specific questions, accomplishments and possible development needs. A
better idea is to prepare a reference before a call is made. If a
candidate can prefer a reference, the reference can provide a more
tailored response to the caller’s inquiry.

Pattie Hunt Sinacole is a human resources expert and works for First Beacon Group in Hopkinton, an HR consulting firm. She contributes weekly to Jobs and the Boston Sunday Globe Money & Careers section.