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Letters of Reference

Job references – how do you find work without one?  Employers know the best way to predict performance is past conduct.  References are fundamental to the hiring process. 

Recently – the Superior Court of Justice gave direction on the obligation to give references in Papp v. Stokes et. al.

After being terminated from his employment Adam Papp asked his former employer for a reference.  While Ernest Stokes agreed to verify his work and speak to potential employers there was no discussion of what he would say.  When Dr. Stokes was contacted for a verbal reference he let them know he “not pleased” with the quality of Mr. Papp’s work; he did not get along well in a team setting and did not get on  “greatly” with co-workers.  When asked whether he would rehire Mr. Papp responded an enthusiastic “no way!”

At trial Dr. Stokes advised he had no animosity toward Mr. Papp but felt an obligation to answer the questions honestly.  He was surprised the telephone inquiry wasn’t more focused on technical qualifications which he was able to provide some positive feedback about.

Mr. Papp sued his former employer for $800,000 alleging defamation;  he lost.  While Dr. Stokes reference was defamatory his words were substantially true.  Furthermore, the statements attracted “qualified privilege” and as such – so long as they were made without malice they were not actionable.

Employers’ are not obliged to give positive references.  Before requesting a reference you need to be clear on what will be said.  Employee’s are well advised to write their own reference and use this as the basis for discussion.  References need to address the information a new employer will want to know when deciding to hire.  This includes,

  • What the position held was.
  • The employee’s technical skills.
  • The employee’s strengths and weaknesses.
  • How the employee’s got along with other’s within the organization including clients and team members.
  • The employee’s commitment to the business.
  • Why the employee left and would they be rehired.

When employment ends as a consequence of dismissal – the negotiation of a reference is made more difficult.  While there is always something positive to say about someone, consideration must be paid to the sort of reference a former employer is prepared to provide.  Will this be helpful?  In my experience it’s better to rely on objective performance appraisal or letters of appreciation given during employment then a reluctant reference.