Reference Checks: What Does A Neutral Reference Really Mean?

Hiring a new employee can be a large investment for an organization. To hire successfully, you want to make sure all of the bases are covered. The interview may have gone well, and the background check came back clear. Overall, the potential candidate looks perfect on paper. The final test he has to pass is the reference check. When calling a reference, companies are looking for affirmation that the potential candidate will be a good fit in the organization. So, what happens when you get a neutral reference?

First, let’s define neutral reference. A neutral reference is when an employer only verifies the former employee’s dates of employment and job title. No more, no less. As we all know, this isn’t always ideal for companies that are hiring. When companies find their ideal candidate, they always want a good reference. A good reference is when a former employer gives a great review and you know that you are making the right choice in hiring this person. When a former employer says they were upset to see the employee go, new companies know it’s the time to snag that candidate.

Of course there are those situations when companies will only give neutral references.  Two primary reasons include:

1. There’s plenty more to say, but it’s nothing good, so they give a neutral response. Employees may fear that giving negative comments about previous workers will get them in trouble in their position. One way to try to avoid this scenario is to ask a direct question such as, “What position would you never put this person in within your company?” Their answer should speak volumes and help break the ice.

2. It’s company policy to give a neutral response.  There are various reasons for these company policies. For example, there are some state labor codes that pose liabilities to employers if they give misleading statements about the former employee. Even if the employer is telling the truth, there can be disputes about what is ‘truthful’, often leading to lawsuits. When calling on a reference, make sure to ask if the minimal information given is due to company policy. Usually you will get a “yes” or “no” answer, which will give you a better idea of why nobody is talking.

Neutral references can be tricky, and certainly complicate the hiring process, especially when you have the ideal candidate in mind. For more information on sorting through neutral references, contact one of our recruiters today.

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