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What can former employers say about former employees?

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“Sorry, we do not disclose information on past or present employees.” That was the response I got when I called a couple organizations to inquire about former employees. Another professional colleague had the same experience and wanted to know if it was industry standard. The question is, what can former employers say about former employees? If this question is taken literally, the answer is “anything”. I am not aware of any law that restricts employers or anyone for that matter, from speaking anything that is factual about past employees.

Some companies have internal policies – not laws, that bar their employees from disclosing information on past employees. This may be because of laws regarding defamation. However, if the former employer shares his/her honest opinion about the former employee in question or states reliable facts about the person, there is nothing the former employee can do about it.

For example, if an employee was terminated for stealing, quit without giving the required notice or was tardy, the former employer can state the reason or condition that led to the separation. In the case where an employer may be reluctant to share details, he/she can paint a clear picture by saying “if given the opportunity, I will not rehire that person”, that will tell the prospective employer the whole story.

Another question is, who does the “no comment” policy help? In my opinion, this policy can work as a double-edged sword. For the employee who left under difficult circumstance, he/she would be pleased that the company will not disclose the condition of the separation with a prospective employer. However, for the employee who had been exemplary this “no comment policy” may act as a barrier to his/her progress.

I am turned off by the “no comment”. I will not hire a prospective employee even after an exceptional interview, if I cannot get feedback from the former employer. Therefore, companies that control what can be said about employees by policy may become stumbling blocks in good employees’ path to progression. There’s a saying “if you don’t have anything good to say – say nothing.” Are prospective employers to believe that is the message former employers are sending?

Today we looked at silent former employers. Next week we will look at employers who discolour the truth and whether former employees could control what is said.

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