I run a small business, and am interested in hiring a salesperson. However, I'm finding it hard to get any real information from applicants' former employers -- all they seem to be willing to tell me is the applicant's title and dates of employment. How can I get more information out of these people?
Pity the poor former employer who is asked to give a reference. Even employers who want to be truthful face a dilemma: If they give information that hurts the employee's chances, they could face a lawsuit for defamation. For this reason, many employers have adopted a "name, rank, and serial number" approach to giving references.
To win a defamation lawsuit, the employee has to show that the former employer lied: A reference who makes truthful statements about the employee, no matter how harmful, is not legally liable for the consequences. What's more, many states offer some legal protection for employers who give reference information to other employers. Because states want to encourage employers to be truthful and forthcoming, this type of information is often privileged. That means the employee has to show not only that the former employer lied, but also that it acted maliciously (with the intent to harm the employee), which is very hard to do.
But all of these legal protections won't help you if the former employer is unwilling to take the risk. The best way to convince a former employer to spill the beans is to remove this obstacle. Ask your applicant to sign a release authorizing the former employer to give a reference and promising not to sue over the information provided. This gives the former employer even more legal protection -- and also gives the former employee good reason to choose references carefully.