I get many questions about bad job references.
Can my former employer badmouth me? Can my old boss talk bad about me? 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.
I define an “unlawful” bad reference for this post as one that purposely relays false information, or is driven by motives of illegal discrimination, harassment or retaliation.
It’s a very sore topic. In an economy where finding a new job is an uphill battle anyway, reference checks are routine and bad references can really hurt. I often wonder why former employers do it. There is very little benefit to the previous employer, and lots of risk. Unless your old employer is required by law to disclose information – law enforcement agencies and healthcare employers sometimes have a legal obligation to report details of the separation, why do it? Why reach out and punish someone who’s trying to put the past behind them and find a way to earning a living?
I’ve sued employers for giving unlawful bad references about my clients. In each of those cases, the employer had no legal obligation to say anything. It was just a case of a malicious boss or supervisor who saw the reference check as a chance to take another shot at the former employee.
The general rule in Florida and Georgia is that a prior employer can in fact share information about you – the quality of your work, 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 protects employers who provide false information as long as they didn’t knowingly do it. So both Florida and Georgia give employers some protection against lawsuits about negative or so-called bad references. But the protections only kick in if the disclosures by your former employer were requested either by you or by a prospective employer. So your former company may not have protection if it made 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.
Bottom line? 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. Ask a lawyer who represents employees if you have a claim or not. And if you’re in the process of losing your job, ask your company if they’ll agree to give you a positive job reference as part of the terms of your separation. If they won’t do that, ask if they’ll at least agree not to say anything derogatory, perhaps by limiting any information they disclose to your name, dates of employment, position(s) held and rate(s) of pay.
If you think you’re getting a bad reference, one way to find out is to use one of the many reference-checking services available online. Search carefully, as they differ in quality and services. Most employee-rights lawyers can also tell you what to look for in a reference-checking service. It can make a difference if you decide to file a bad-reference lawsuit against a former employer.
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