It’s not unusual for an employer to check the references of a job applicant. Unfortunately, it is unusual for those references to be useful. Privacy legislation and the threat of lawsuits make many afraid to provide a complete and open evaluation of a former employee. Read about this accident and see if you agree that privacy can create a significant safety hazard.
At Airline #1, a pilot was employed as a first officer. He was reprimanded four times over two years for not following procedures. Airline #1 gave him a letter of reference stating that he had performed well.
Airline #2 hired the pilot as a captain and then demoted him to first officer for repeatedly violating standard operating procedures (SOPs).
Airline #3 also hired the pilot as a captain and then demoted him to first officer because of “… weak systems knowledge, pre-flight planning shortcuts, fixation on minor problems, dwelling on errors, narrow attention span, and poor decision making.”* After three years, Airline #3 refused to renew his pilot proficiency check because he was unsatisfactory in crew coordination, crew resource management, and adherence to procedures. This refusal meant that the pilot could no longer fly for this airline. Airline #3 later “… provided the captain with a letter of reference stating that he had been employed as a captain for three and one-half years, that he was extremely knowledgeable about the aircraft he flew, and that, at times, he operated the aircraft in accordance with the SOPs.”*
The pilot started work as a captain for Airline #4 on May 8th, 2006. He was killed in a crash on January 7th, 2007. His copilot (who had far less experience) received minor injuries and their two passengers were seriously injured. Failing to follow procedures and poor crew resource management were cited in the list of causes and contributing factors.
Airline #4 had not attempted to check the pilot’s references, but it turns out that wouldn’t have mattered. The first three airlines told the Transportation Safety Board they would not have provided any negative information about the pilot to any prospective employers that asked them. They were concerned about breaking federal and provincial privacy laws, and being sued. They were even reluctant to divulge this information to the investigators. What’s probably worse than refusing to provide negative information is that, “In fact, the letters of reference the companies provided portrayed a substantially different perspective of the captain than did their training records.”*
As noted in the accident report, the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board identified this as a safety issue in 1988. This eventually led to a new law, the Pilot Records Improvement Act of 1996. This safety hazard remains for everyone else, employers, employees, and the public, too.