Giving a great reference to get rid of a staff member

Ridding yourself of a problem staff member by giving a false reference is plain wrong for so many reasons. You can’t make the problem someone else’s.

man crossing his fingers

Some years ago we hired a new staff member who seemed like quite the catch – great education with all of the right courses called out to us when we scanned her resume. She had some relevant experience that indicated that she could learn our role quite quickly. As a group we were enthusiastic about what she could add to the team, and we moved her hiring process along rapidly. Even so, we followed all of our normal steps including having her meet with a group for a fit interview and with the team that she would be joining. We checked her references with the main ones coming back with glowing commentary. Everyone ratified the early assessment, and we moved rapidly to an offer that she quickly accepted. She had a normal wrap-up process at her then-employer, and we welcomed her into the company and onto the team.

The unfolding of events

At first everything seemed to be going well. It was clear that she had great mental capability and could learn quickly. Additionally, she had a pleasant way of interacting with the team, and people enjoyed working with her. Everyone was very pleased that she had joined us and was ramping up well to make a strong contribution. Then we started to hear about some odd things from a variety of her colleagues. To make a long story short, the hire was a mistake, and nothing was going to make it work on either side.

A short time later, I was at a social function at a friend’s home when a woman who I didn’t really know came directly over to me and engaged in a one-way conversation. She started off by saying how delighted her company had been when the woman in question had announced her resignation. They had endured a difficult relationship, trying multiple strategies to make things work. Of course, nothing had, and they were at a breaking point with her. With the smallest of prompting on my part, she revealed the same pattern of behavior that was indeed troubling us.

Stunned to hear these comments

To say that I was stunned to hear these comments would be an understatement. I had performed the reference check myself with the head of the woman’s then-current employer, and it had been glowing. In fact, I found him unrestrained in his effusive commentary about the woman’s performance and capabilities. Now, for me to hear that the company had been strategizing about how to remove her from the company was completely contrary to the reference commentary.

As a matter of process, we never kept reference notes from preemployment calls. When we made an offer to an individual, that person started with an empty personal file – the proverbial blank slate – so I didn’t have any documentary proof of the reference conversation. But I carried the contents of the call in my near-term memory, and there was no mistaking the enthusiastic endorsement of the individual and her considerable capabilities.

Taking care of number 1

Face-to-face the woman at the party didn’t try to hide that the company had done what it could in order to ensure that the woman got the job with us, even going so far as saying that because we were a larger organization, they thought that we could handle having her on our team while they, as a smaller organization, could not.

Truthful references make the world go round

Perhaps I simply have better employment law awareness and training. Or maybe I live by the expression Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Whatever the reason, I would never misrepresent a person’s abilities and performance in a reference call. Truthful references make the world go round. I need to provide a truthful reference so that I can be confident that I will get truthful references. The giving and getting may not balance out perfectly, but through time we all need to rely on the honest input and reflection of others as we make important hiring decisions.

There is an important legal overlay to be considered as well. Exaggerated and overly positive references open up the giver to potential lawsuits in many jurisdictions around the world. Often job offers are contingent on positive references. While I didn’t take any legal action, there are cases where people have claimed that they have been duped and they have won significant settlements from negligent reference givers. Harsh and unjustifiably negative references similarly open up the giver to potential lawsuits from the person in question.

The bottom line is giving a reference is serious business – nothing to be trifled with. Issues and potential quagmires are everywhere. Getting good advice from people services professionals and lawyers in advance of giving a potentially troublesome reference is important. In no situation is it ever acceptable to fake a good reference to get rid of a problem staff member. Your problems cannot be made someone else’s through a false reference.

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Nancy Knowlton
Nancy Knowlton is co-founder and CEO of Nureva Inc. and previously the co-founder and CEO of SMART Technologies. She writes about education, entrepreneurship, business management, technology, innovation and other passions.