Would you hire this man?
Charles Cullen kept getting hired and fired until his murder arrest. Why job references say too little.
At many American companies, managers face gag orders that make prisoners of war look positively chatty. Forget "name, rank, and serial number." When someone asks for references on a potential hire, these bosses are supposed to reveal only job titles and dates of employment.Skip to next paragraph
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Never mind that the employee pilfered office supplies, harassed the receptionist, or threatened co-workers. In the lawsuit-phobic world of corporate America, caution keeps many lips zipped tight, everywhere from the factory floor to the human-resources office.
But a chorus of legal experts and employment consultants is calling for a return to the days when job references flowed more freely and managers didn't need to break rules to criticize - or compliment - an employee. "I do see why employers are very cautious, but the policies put a lot of wackos out there in the workplace because people don't share information," says Peggy Garrity, a Santa Monica, Calif., attorney who represents employees.
While reliable numbers are hard to come by, it appears that about 70 to 80 percent of American companies forbid employees from giving out extensive references, says J.H. Verkerke, professor of law at the University of Virginia.
Currently stirring the pot is the case of Charles Cullen, a New Jersey nurse who has admitted killing as many as 40 patients with lethal drug injections.
During his 16-year career, four hospitals and one nursing home fired him, another hospital suspended him, and another questioned him about a patient's suspicious death. But Mr. Cullen kept getting new nursing jobs until late last year, when Somerset Medical Center in Somerville, N.J., looked into questionable lab results involving patients under his care. Authorities arrested him in December and charged him with murder. Several of the facilities now face lawsuits from relatives of the murdered patients. But late last month, officials in Pennsylvania cleared five medical facilities there of ethical violations, saying that they did launch limited background checks and reported suspicious deaths.
The demise of job references began about two decades ago as companies began to worry about defamation lawsuits if they gave poor references. "That's the fundamental issue, from an employer's perspective," said Scott Silverman, a Los Angeles employment attorney who represents companies. "If they have something bad to say, they're better off not saying anything at all. I don't think you can get into trouble if you say nothing."
Indeed, saying nothing usually inoculates employers from lawsuits compared to, say, varnishing the truth. In some cases, managers have been hauled into court because they gave positive references without revealing an employee's history of violence or inappropriate sexual behavior.
In a landmark 1997 state supreme court case in California, a school district lost a suit after providing glowing recommendations for Robert Gadams, an administrator who had a history of harassing girls and was forced to resign.