Provide a job reference at your own risk

It's your credibility at stake when providing a job reference, especially when it's for someone who was terminated with cause

Dear Bob ...

A colleague was recently terminated with cause. What he was terminated for is irrelevant, save for the fact that the termination for cause was completely warranted.

[ Also on InfoWorld: Bob has some ideas on how to mix friendship and business in "You're hiring, and a friend needs a job -- now what?" | Get sage advice on IT careers and management from Bob Lewis in InfoWorld's Advice Line newsletter. ]

With that said, via LinkedIn he is of course becoming quite active. He's been reaching out to people to ask if they would write a recommendation for him. Another colleague here stated that by doing so one could be providing ammunition for him to come back and sue for being unjustly terminated.

Is this as slippery a slope as I think it is? Or is it clear cut based on why he was terminated with cause in the first place?

- Ready to duck

Dear Ready ...

First, my disclaimer -- I'm not a professional attorney and I'm not providing legally reliable advice, beyond this: In the United States, anyone can sue anyone for just about anything. That doesn't mean they can win. They can, however, file nuisance suits to their hearts' content, and it isn't all that often that the person being sued can recover their legal costs.

There's just about nothing you can do to entirely immunize either yourself or your employer from a lawsuit. I haven't heard of anyone suing because someone else failed to provide a reference; still, I suppose even that could happen.

With that disclaimer: I'm quite skeptical that providing a private reference could be used as evidence by the terminated employee in a legal action against the terminating employer, unless the reference directly contradicts the factors cited in the termination. For example, if someone was terminated for gross incompetence as a coder, and a reference provided positive information about the individual's business analysis and interpersonal skills -- no problem.

If the reference said, "What a terrific programmer! He ate specs and churned out high-quality code faster than anyone else here," I'd advise caution, especially as you said the guy was terminated for cause. Everyone who provides a reference, whether on LinkedIn or any other channel, needs to remember that they're loaning their credibility to someone else. If things don't work out, it's their credibility that's been damaged.

One more very major factor: Private references are one thing. Most companies these days have an ironclad policy against providing anything beyond confirmation of employment. If your company has such a policy, even if someone wants to provide a positive reference for this individual, they should contact HR first to fully understand what the policy does and doesn't allow.

The policy also makes a great excuse if you don't want to explain, "I can't give you a good reference because I think you're a dolt."

- Bob

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