Beware of that feedback-Hindustan Times

Priyank applies for a job. The company’s hiring manager, who knows his current boss, calls him to get feedback on Priyank and in an informal chat discloses Priyank’s interest in the new job profile (which eventually Priyank doesn’t get.)

Sarthak lands a job at a multinational company. He wants to eject from his existing organisation as soon as possible. He is, however, asked to serve a three-month notice period or pay an amount equivalent to his salary for that duration to the company. A minor tussle ensues. Sarthak exits without serving any notice period. The organisation responds with negative feedback to the HR official of Sarthak’s new company when he calls for a check. However, since Sarthak had already cautioned his new boss about the issue, the negative response could not do any damage.

Normally, recruiting employers in India get in touch with a candidate’s past employer, not the current one. So, in Priyank’s case, is it okay for the hiring manager to talk about the applicant with his current boss? What if the boss and the employee are not on the best of terms and the former spikes the latter’s candidature? If the applicant discovers this – if at all – is there anything he/she can do about it, particularly when his boss gave negative feedback? In Sarthak’s example, who is on a weaker wicket? Both examples raise questions of ethics, of what’s acceptable and what’s not.

Experts say that companies should not check with an applicant’s present employer without his/her explicit permission.

Karnika Seth, partner of a law firm, Seth Associates, says it’s a “safer thing” to take an applicant’s written go-ahead for seeking feedback, including that from his/her current employer or boss. “Some companies understand the (applicant’s) right to privacy. Usually companies in the United States take written consent and the practice is coming to India,” says Seth.

Ganesh Chella, founder, Totus Consulting and founder member, Executive and Business Coaching Foundation India, says that talking to the current supervisor without the employee’s permission is a no-no. Even when they do have a candidate’s consent, employers should avoid current bosses for certain reasons.

It’s a crowded and competitive marketplace. Candidates now face amplified scrutiny. With most employees’ resumes on job portals, employers know that people are forever scouting for opportunities in the job market. This raises questions of trust and credibility. “So, what’s his commitment? (As employers are aware that employees’ resumes are on job portals), confidentiality is no longer a big deal. Today, if someone wants to sack an employee, he would tell him, ‘You resign and I’ll give you a good reference.’ So, I (a hiring manager) can’t even trust the references given by you. Therefore, one must speak to somebody else,” elaborates Chella.

Further, let’s look at the informal discussion about the applicant between the two bosses. Sunil Tyagi, partner, Zeus Law Associates, says it’s out of the purview of Indian law. So, will the applicant have to suffer due to any unhelpful feedback passed on by his team leader? If an employer gave an adverse response, the lawyers say it’s hard to prove it defamed the individual.

“It may be an honest opinion but it can be defamatory,” says Seth, adding, “There’s a thin line between the two.” According to Tyagi, “The boss has not given a written statement and even otherwise, it can be termed his ‘personal opinion’. However, if there’s some written material (like email), a person can file a case but it’s very difficult to prove defamation.”

In Sarthak’s case, there are additional problems. “It depends on the circumstances,” Seth explains, adding there would be multiple factors to take into account. The terms and conditions of the employment contract need to be kept in view. If the employee breached the contract, then his case is not strong, says Seth.

Ultimately, all of it boils down to adhering to professional canons and maintaining integrity. “There are some fundamental ethics,” says Chella. One is to give due notice to the company you are leaving. “When rules are broken, all rules of the game are changed. The new company allowed the employee to break rules and turned a blind eye to it,” says Chella.

For the bosses

  • Do not treat a candidate’s decision to leave as a personal insult to you. Understand his need. See if the person is making the right decision. In a rapidly changing world, trying to retain an employee will usually not work, especially after the person has made up his mind. Rather, gracefully, engage in a coaching conversation to ensure that the person is well prepared.
  • If the employee’s prospective employer calls for a reference check, give your honest, objective and balanced feedback. Say what the person can do and what the person may need help in doing. If you mislead, it is a reflection on your professional credibility. Share with the person what you would normally share with the employee. Suggest how the employer can work to his best ability.

Rahat Bano