You are a manager and you are faced with a difficult employee, non performer or even a bully in the workplace. This person then leaves your organisation and you feel relieved. You get a phone call from another company who are considering hiring this ‘difficult’ employee and ask you for a reference check over the phone.
Do you –
a) Tell the truth and say how difficult this person was, or that they just didn’t perform or even say they exhibited bullying behaviour
b) Hint at the above but don’t really go so far as to state it directly, but throw in commendations as well
c) Give a glowing reference

Time and time again I have seen managers respond like c). They don’t want reprisals, they are pleased to get rid of that employee and so they don’t see it as necessary, to tell the truth.

Aren’t we then just passing on our problem to someone else. What happens if this person is a workplace bully? We know what destruction can be caused, we know the cost to a workplace – why do we ignore it?

I think many managers, especially in smaller organisations, avoid conflict and a difficult reference check can be seen as a form of conflict. They have to ‘tell it like it is’ and for many people, this is hard to do.

I believe that in order to be able to call yourself a ‘manager’ you need to understand the basic management principles, you need to be able to be firm but fair, consistent and approachable. Above all, you need to know how to ‘manage’ staff and that includes dealing with conflict, dealing with difficult employees and dealing with reference checks that also may be difficult.

What about that big question that is often asked – “would you hire this person again”. Why do so many managers say “Yes” when they mean “NO!”

I wonder how much we really can rely on reference checks – how can we get to the truth, how can we make sure our businesses don’t employ bullies or difficult staff.

Good reference checks, good interviewing techniques will help. Asking behavioural questions, asking for clarification if there is any doubt and asking for examples to help clarify – all this will help.

Identify and state what the issues were with that employee, and suggest to the prospective new employer what skill development would help this person succeed in a new environment.

Above all, we should be clear that if we are going to be asked to be a referee and give a reference check, we will be giving honest feedback.