What to say when asked about former employees

July 17, 2019

One solo practicioner mulls over what she should or shouldn’t say when sought for a reference check.

Editor’s Note: Physicians Practice’s blog features contributions from members of the medical community. The expressed opinions are that of the writers and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Physicians Practice or its publisher.

Since opening my own practice almost 10 years ago, I have had few changes in staffing. I have had employees leave on their own accord, and I have had to let a couple go. Some had jobs lined up before they left, and I believe they have all gone on to other workplaces.

Now, I have been told that I must be careful about what I say about former employees when potential new employers call for a reference. I have heard that there is a risk of litigation if an employer says something negative, which then causes someone to be rejected.

I suppose the easy way out would be to just say positive things, such as “She did her job well,” “He was punctual,” “Everybody loved her,” or “She is missed.” But unless those things are true, isn’t it wrong for me to lie to the new employer? If someone was inept, late or obnoxious doesn’t the potential employer deserve to know? After all, that’s why they contacted me in the first place.

Perhaps I should be noncommittal.  I could say things like, “He performed his duties satisfactorily,” “There were no negative reviews,” or “There is nothing of concern in her work history.”

Or I could get a little creative and let the potential employer read between the lines. I could say “When she showed up for work, she accomplished the tasks that were given to her,” meaning “She was absent a lot.” Or, “He was very open to constructive criticism,” which could mean, “He was constantly making mistakes, and we had to keep correcting him.” Or, “When a task was important to him, he did it very well,” meaning “He picked and chose what work he would do.”

In our very litigious society, we walk on eggshells every day. We do our best not to offend. This is unfortunate, because sometimes the truth is unpleasant. And in a service-oriented business such as medicine, proper staffing is essential both for patient and physician satisfaction. It would be nice to know the truth about a prospective employee without the prior boss having to worry about getting sued.

Melissa Young, MD, FACE, FACP, is sole owner and solo practitioner at Mid Atlantic Diabetes and Endocrinology Associates, LLC. As such, she is both actively involved in patient care and practice management while also raising two kids and a dog in suburban New Jersey.