Job Applicant Insights: To Divulge or to Not Divulge

Trigger warning: Employment lawyers scroll on. I am going to utter heresy.


You’re called by someone you know, another lawyer. A former employee of your firm has applied for a job with theirs. This is news to you. The caller wants some insights into the applicant.


We all know what the textbook answer is. Without permission, you only share the bare facts confirming previous employment.


Simple, right?


Not at all. The reality is that most of us live in relatively small worlds, at least our professional worlds. Accordingly, calls of this sort are not surprising. Perhaps it’s unfair to ambush someone with this kind of inquiry, but it happens.


If your former employee was a dolt who you fired for good reason, the bare information is exactly what you provide. The caller will instantly get the message.


If the former employee is someone who was great, and for whom you can give an unqualified recommendation, you just say it. Rules be damned.


However, most former employees were neither superstars nor pieces of whatever. The person had some real virtues, but also some genuine weaknesses or problems.


If you give the bare facts response, just as with the bad former employee, that’s essentially a thumbs down. He or she won’t get the job. You’d be hurting your former employee, which is not right or fair.


One the other hand, you don’t want to mislead the colleague who has contacted you. In the end, that’s not fair to the applicant either. Their issues will likely rear their head soon enough.


Yeah, when those calls happen, you have to think on your feet (or in your desk chair) quickly and carefully. What and how much you share is a hard call. As doctors would say, the analysis is multifactorial.


When you’re an employer or supervisor, you often end up in gray zones. The right answer is neither easy, nor clear. Deal with it.