The Reference Question

Tips on Effective Referencing – Eliciting and Providing

Any time you are dealing with an unknown applicant for any position in your business, you should check references. You owe it first to yourself or your employers or partners, but you are also responsible for the welfare of your staff. Job applicants are often not able to estimate their own performance accurately, titles can be deceiving, and people lie to advance their careers. Some lie very well - something you do not want to discover after you have hired. Employees with questionable or fraudulent histories cause loss of time and money and much aggravation, yet restaurateurs continue to employ applicants without appropriate background checks.

References and the law.

You may have heard that checking references is illegal or an invasion of privacy. It is not. Nor is it illegal and actionable for an employer to give factual information regarding an employee. There is no law which allows an employee’s bad behavior to be covered up with every job change - no get out of jail free card. Freedom of expression extends to asking and giving factual information and better yet documented information."Reckless defamation" is illegal. That is spreading libel or slandering a person with the intent to gain from your statements and causing harm.

Why reference check?

  • To screen out undesirable candidates and protect your business and your employees.
  • References provide positive information about some candidates and permits you to better use their abilities.
  • References provide insight into the candidate’s critical abilities and personality by contrasting his self assessment with the opinion of his previous supervisors.
  • The time spent checking references is minor compared to the damage a truly bad employee can cause and the time and expense you will have to go to to replace him.

There are a lot of reasons for not hiring a candidate. The range from not suiting the culture of a business or lack of appropriate skill set to predatory or violent behavior. First impressions and “gut feelings” alone can be extremely misleading. Unfortunately many people in the job market are very good at conning jobs, which can give them extremely impressive employment lists. Others have no problem adjusting their background or even falsifying references or worse. The truly bad actors are in a minority, but you only need one to make your life much harder than it should be. Hiring a person with a tendency to violence, furthermore, can put your business at considerable risk.

What is it legal to ask

You can ask anything you want to, which doesn’t mean you should. Asking for instance about HIV status or religion could put you in jeopardy of a discrimination law suit and really provides no useful information. What you should ask are questions regarding the person’s effective performance, his interaction with subordinates and supervisors, his reliability, the actual nature of his position and information regarding the work environment. (one restaurant’s sous chef is another restaurant’s prep cook). You can ask about cleanliness, punctuality, honesty and focus. You can ask about drug use, if you are concerned. You shouldn't ask if the person is religious, married or a citizen, for instance, as these are areas protected by the Equal Employment Opportunity Act and may not be considered when hiring.

The first thing you want to ask and the only thing you may get from some businesses is the accuracy of the information provided you: Name, rank and serial number. What was the title? Are the dates on the resume accurate (frequently they are not). You can also ask for confirmation of statements made to you by the candidate regarding his reason for leaving or dismissal, his level of actual authority under and beyond his title. Always inquire about rehire status: “Would you rehire this person if a position arose?”

Sometimes a confirmation is all you will get from a previous employer. A few like Cheesecake factory outsource their employee records to a third party which charges for confirmation, preventing any useful interaction with previous supervisors. My philosophy is that it is up the the candidate to provide someone who will speak for him if the business will not. Most employers or supervisors, however, are at some point willing to speak to employee performance and qualifications. Many will also be very free with the employee’s work strengths and weaknesses. If the employee was a positive addition to the staff, his supervisors will wish him well and can be motivated to provide information which will help the employee succeed in his next position. You can ask what you will need to do to make the job work for the candidate, if hired, for instance.

You should never start calling references for a candidate who is currently employed, unless you receive permission. Calling anyone in the tightly knit hospitality industry regarding a potential candidate who is not ready to commit to a position may jeopardize his position.

A Few Tips on Referencing

Be prepared
  • Have your candidate pre-reference himself: "What do you think your employers would tell me about you. Explain clearly any challenge of the position to be filled. Ask what areas he needs to improve. People are surprisingly perceptive with answers which generally correspond to the statements of employers.
  • Determine your goals before you call. What do you need to know about the candidate in beyond confirmation? Have notes.
  • Prepare a list of questions, from which you can deviate as the occasion arises.
  • Inform yourself of the nature of the business and people you are calling. Determine who your best information source(s) is/are. If the applicant worked under a corporate chef, try to reach the chef and the general manager.
  • Always have the candidate’s resume with your notes in front of you. You may want to read directly from the resume. If you are not able to get a reference it may be possible to fax or email the resume for confirmation.
Ask the right person:
  • Choose and evaluate your reference source. Anyone who has working experience with the candidate and stands to gain by the candidate's employment, such as a favored purveyor, is probably a poor reference. If you know and trust a previous employer or supervisor personally, that person should be your prime source.
  • Discuss the candidate only with a qualified supervisor or employer, even though the first person to answer the phone may demand to know your purpose for calling.
  • In a large corporation a person with more authority will be more likely to provide information than a human resource secretary, whose job depends on strict adherence to policy. If you get the "name, rank and serial number" answer, call later and find a person in a more responsible position.
  • Speak with someone who actually worked with or supervised the candidate. An accountant can provide dates but may never have been in the kitchen with a culinary employee.
  • You will have asked the candidate is anyone would give him a bad reference. Knowing this, listen for voice tone. An extremely hostile "no reference" may be as much an indication of the personality of the reference giver as of the qualities of the candidate. Also listen for indications of highly political alliances.
  • Be prudent when asking your own employees about people you are considering hiring. Staff already working for you may have several agendas when speaking of a previous and future supervisor. They may also carry information back to a current employer.
  • If a firm absolutely refuses information and you are interested in the candidate, inform him that you cannot hire for this reason. An interested candidate can provide avenues for information within the group.
  • Try to find one or two sources not named by the candidate. Some very clever people put more effort into setting up a line of references than in doing their job. People who have left friends in their path are excellent staff. Some people, however, set up a path of friends as references, often pulling them along with them.
  • Make sure you know who you are talking to. There are people who very cleverly set up false references. Call references at the business rather than on cell phones.
  • Don’t share any information about your business or the candidate with anyone not qualified to answer your questions. Sometimes a bartender can actually provide great insights, but he may talk to a lot of people. If asked about whom you are calling, make it clear that your business is confidential.

The reference call:

  • Identify yourself, your restaurant and your wish to confirm employment of a previous employee when you first speak to the reference.
  • Stick to objective questions. Not putting your referencer at risk by asking for opinions is a courtesy and will provide you with more information. Objective questions range from inquiries into staff interaction to punctuality to preformance. Have a list of points you consider important ready for the call.
  • Tell the reference giver that you will understand that he wishes not to answer some questions.
  • Begin by confirming the resume. Give particular attention to dates of employment. On durations listed as “2005-2006” ask for months. You should actually require these be given you in writing.
  • Clarify inconsistencies immediately. "Then he was not the sous chef? What was his title?"
  • Before disqualifying a candidate for inaccurate resume statements, check for a reason or misunderstanding.
  • People usually give the title held on leaving a job. A person can be in a position for three years, be promoted and fail, leaving with the title of Manager but not the skills. Find out how long the candidate held the listed position.
  • Confirm statements made to you by the candidate regarding achievements, reasons for leaving, problems. Rather than asking if the person had a good food cost, confirm the individual's own claims: "He tells me that he raised your profits by 60%. Is this true?" "Jack tells me that he was terminated because you could not accommodate his request for a two week leave in December."
  • Listen for both positive and negative remarks. Divorce yourself from your initial impression. Try not to set the tone of the reference by a leading statement.
  • Take notes.
  • Rather than inquiring about weaknesses, try to discover which areas of expertise or performance you would want to work on with the candidate. Having laid groundwork for this in an interview, it is fairly easy to ask, “She says she is extremely creative but is still developing people management skills.”
  • Pick up on statements made. "It sounds as if he was you enjoyed working with him..?" "I take it that you employed an extremely large staff while he worked with you..."
  • If a candidate submits written references, it is a good idea to confirm their content with the writer. You can usually just email a copy. Forged references are rare, but they do occur.
  • If you run into someone who refuses to discuss a candidate, there is probably a reason. If all else fails, it may be possible to fax a resume for confirmation or denial.
  • Reference discussions are confidential. They should never be revealed to the candidate or discussed with people not involved in the hiring process.
  • Inquire where the candidate came from and where he went after the position and compare that with the resume.

The guilty reference conundrum

You can’t always trust what you hear. The biggest problem we have experienced in references is the nice guy with issues ranging from lack of authority to serious alcohol and drug problems. Firing a “nice guy” leaves guilt, and many employers want to help someone they had to terminate. They do it with a good reference. They employer or manager will in this case repeatedly state what a great person the employee was. Boring down on questions like “could she manager her staff” or “was he respected”/”How was the organization of the walk in and kitchen cleanliness handled” help, but the guilt factor is a problem. Our experience is that this is most often the case with “rolling stones”, applicants who relocated without a job, which is a bad sign in itself. Local references tend to be more reliable.

We have also encountered a few situations where an employer praised a difficult employee in order to reduce Workman's Compensation expenses. There is really no way to protect yourself from this, or from the "If you leave quietly we will give you a good reference" agreement occasionallly encountered, but these are dangerous practices for the person giving the reference.

International issues

Large bodies of water tend to hide many flaws. There are a number of French and Italian chefs who were waiters until they hit American soil, where they immediately became master chefs. American cooks spend a winter in an alpine hut and immediately become Top Swiss Chefs. We were surprised to see that the Executive Chef of the prestigious Plaza Athenee was an East Indian Gentleman, until the resume mailed for confirmation returned with the comment in pencil,”Mais non! He was the violin player.” Professionals trained overseas can be the exceptional, but there are enough pretenders to dictate caution in hiring.

In Europe there are some odd rules about references. Most employers provide written references, but they are trickily coded, as there are rules prohibiting negative statements. You will see phrases like “He did everything he was told to do to our fullest satisfaction,” to which you can add “but not a whit more, the lazy dolt,” or my personal favorite, “He worked consistently to the fullest of his abilities,” “We wish him all the best in the future,” as far away from here as possible.

The Internet has made international referencing much easier. Send copies of the letters of reference for confirmation, possibly with a description of the person. It’s actually easier to get confirmation by phone from overseas locations, if you are willing to deal with the time zone issues.

Giving References

This is a complex issue, and we are not attorneys. We can tell you, however, that it is legal to provide accurate references and make a few points:

  • You can legally and without liability share any facts related to employee performance, as long as it is documented. You can say, for instance, “We have documented repeated instances of late arrival,” or “He walked off the job.” If he was arrested in your employ, it is open record, and you can share it.
  • You should never share opinions regarding the person’s personal life, motivation or activities outside your business.
  • Your opinion regarding the person’s abilities and performance is not a personal but a professional opinion and can be given without fear of reprisal. “He was a hard worker but we were not satisfied with the level of the food,” is not defamation.
  • What the law does not allow is reckless defamation. There are three components to reckless defamation: The statement is untrue, it causes the individual harm, and you profit from it.
  • It is far more dangerous to give positive references for troublesome employers than to give factual information. If a violent employee you have given a good reference causes another employer damage, that employer may be able to hold you responsible.
  • You are entirely in your rights to speak highly of your valued employees. If their work ethic and skills have benefited you, they deserve it.
  • No matter how much you liked or how angry you are at the employee, references are about performance. You are safe as long as you confine your comments to that. If you cannot, then it is really better not to speak about the person.

Background Checks

We always recommend that people hiring staff who have access to private areas such as estates, private jets and homes, use a professional background checking service. These agencies check criminal, driving and credit background for fees ranging from $60 per check. There are several on-line services, where such information can be requested.

Some employers state at the beginning of an interview or in posted positions that they reserve the right to check and confirm any statements, oral or written, made in the course of the hiring process. Although the resume, itself, usually provides enough proof that the candidate is willing to have his employment history verified, you will need a signed release to have a background check executed.

These checks don’t tell you anything about the person’s skills and little about character, but the DUI information and criminal checks can weed out a few dangerous elements. The credit check, one client once told us, is not to find out who had a bankruptcy in their background, but who had a history of not playing by the rules, not keeping their financial commitments, and who might be motivated to take money from the business.