Job References Can Spell Danger

By: Randy Dotinga

Former Washington Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee knew he was in big trouble when he asked questions in French to the woman sitting in front of him. Janet Cooke couldn’t answer. She didn’t know how to parle en francais, or in Italian or Portuguese for that matter, her resume be damned, according to Bradlee’s memoir, “A Good Life: Newspapering and Other Adventures.”

And that wasn’t all. Her degree from Vassar? Bogus. A stint at the Sorbonne? Bunk.

Cooke went on to infamy as the reporter who faked not only her foreign language skills but also a Pulitzer Prize-winning series. More than two decades later, her story still haunts newspaper bosses from the newsroom to the pressroom.

The possibility of a hiring disaster “always crosses your mind,” said Dan Meyers, projects editor at The Denver Post. “You’re always looking at a resume for red flags.”

But how can you prevent being hornswoggled when many newspapers forbid their bosses from saying a peep about a current or former employee? Just do two things: Dig deep and listen close.

“It’s a reporting exercise,” said Sharon Rosenhause, managing editor of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale, who makes a point to go beyond an applicant’s listed references.

Checking into someone’s past wasn’t always this difficult, of course. Back in the old days when The Washington Post took Cooke at her word, many bosses were more than happy to praise or smear an employee. But corporate lawyers began to worry about reference calls after several applicants successfully sued their former employers for dissing them, said Steven Abraham, a professor of business management at the State University of New York at Oswego. “Companies started saying, ‘We want to cover ourselves and we don’t want to risk anything. All we’ll give out is dates of work, positions held, and maybe salary.'”

But there’s no reason to worry, he said. “In order for me to sue a former employer for defamation because of a bad reference, I have to prove the reference was untrue, it damaged me, and it was made with malice,” Abraham said. “I have to go pretty far.”

Regardless of whether the legal risks are real, many newspapers are skittish about opening themselves up to legal challenges by harkening back to yesteryear. That’s where the detective work comes in.

First, hit the Internet. Rosenhause checks out reporter applicants by searching for their names online and looking at databases for corrections.

Then, tap into your network of connections. “We all know that when people give references, there’s a lot of self-selection going on,” Rosenhause said. “You or somebody else might know somebody who worked at that newspaper who’s not a reference.”

And if you finally reach someone, pay attention. Somebody may be sending you a message on the sly.

Plenty of bosses are still brutally honest, of course. Rosenhause gives full reports about employees to people she knows, and she says the prospect of lawsuits doesn’t scare her a bit. “I’ve never worried about that,” she said. “I don’t think it’s an issue.”

Another editor, who declined to be named, has a similar up-front policy to avoid foisting a bad journalist on another newspaper. “But most people I know are more cautious and have ways of telegraphing disapproval of a candidate without saying so outright,” the editor said. “They give dramatic pauses when asked about basic things such as: ‘Is this person usually accurate?’ Or they’ll hem and haw when asked if they would hire this person back.”

Others get messages across by being circumspect. Meyers, of The Denver Post, admits violating his company’s gag order to rave about top-notch employees. “But if I wasn’t a fan, I’d really keep it to name, rank, and serial number,” he said.

A short and curt answer isn’t always a sign of an applicant with a past, however. While he’s not afraid of a lawsuit, (Riverside, Calif.) Press-Enterprise Marketing Director Joe Frederickson sticks to the facts when he gets reference calls. “I do not put myself in the place of being judgmental,” he said. “It’s the prudent thing to do.”

Changes in employment law may be on the horizon. Several states are considering bills that would give immunity to employers who provide references, said Abraham, the business professor. For now, he thinks companies should encourage honesty to improve the quality of the job pool as a whole.

But Steve Peltin, a Seattle employment attorney, still tells his clients to clam up when callers ask questions. “When you’re on the business end of a lawsuit,” he said, “the fact that you’re making society better isn’t a lot of comfort.”

COMING NEXT WEEK: Sure, it’s fun to visit newspaper job fairs and pick up free stuff from recruiter booths. But does anybody actually get jobs at these things?

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