I get LOTS of questions about bad job references.
Commonly I’m asked things like, “Can my former employer badmouth me?”, or “Aren’t employers limited to disclosing my dates of employment, salary and job title?” Employees want to stop former employers from giving bad references. Some ask if anything can be done about it.
It’s a very sore topic. In an economy where finding a new job is an uphill battle anyway, bad references can make your chance of finding work impossible. I often wonder why former employers do it. There’s very little legitimate benefit, and lots of risk. Unless a former employer is required by law to disclose information, or unless the former employee poses a genuine threat to others, I can’t see the motives for doing so. Why kick people when they’re down? I’ve sued a number of employers for giving (unlawful) bad references about my clients, and I’m still wondering why employers ever go beyond the basics – name, dates of employment, position and salary. I define an “unlawful” bad reference as one that purposely relays false information, or that is driven by motives of illegal discrimination, harassment or retaliation.
That said, it’s a common misbelief that employers can only give your dates of employment, your job title, and your salary (or a similar set of very limited details). In fact, employers in Florida and Georgia can share factual information about you – such as the quality of your work, and your abilities, or even laws you broke – as long as it’s not false and as long as it doesn’t violate your civil rights. The Florida statute even goes a bit further, by protecting employers who provide false information as long as they didn’t do it knowingly. Both states give employers some protection against lawsuits based on disclosures about you to prospective employers. Importantly, the protections only kick in if the disclosures by your former employer were requested either by you or by a prospective employer. In other words, these protections may not apply if your former employer makes the disclosures without being asked. It can’t go looking for trouble.
Click here to go to the Florida job-reference law. Click here to go to the Georgia job-reference statute.
The flip side of these laws is that you may have a claim against a former employer who bad-mouths you if (a) the employer wasn’t asked to disclose the information, or (b) the information was false and your employer knew it, or (c) the disclosure of the information violates your civil rights. There are ways to negotiate a positive job reference, and ways to stop (or to punish a former employer for giving) unlawful bad references.
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