Employees do not always depart on the best of terms. When that is the case, what are your obligations in terms of disclosure when a prospective employer contacts you to check for references? Keeping negative opinions to yourself might seem like a surefire way to stay out of court. A bad reference might lead an employee to file a lawsuit, but that does not mean he or she would be successful. Theories of liability include defamation, negligent misrepresentation and negligent referral.
Particularly risk-averse employers follow a policy of only confirming employment when someone calls for a reference. This approach does not necessarily insulate you from liability, however. In workplace violence situations, for example, you might find yourself in litigation for simply providing dates of employment for an individual when you were aware of his or her tendency toward or history of violence or other misconduct.
When providing a reference, share only factual information. Hunches, gut feelings and bad vibes are not good topics for discussion. For example, if you suspected a former employee was stealing from you, but you never had conclusive proof, it is probably advisable not to mention your suspicion. The best course of action is usually providing complete and accurate information to anyone checking a reference. Some states have passed laws providing varying degrees of immunity to employers who provide honest references about former employees.
When you are asked for a reference, you should keep track of:
- which employees you were contacted about;
- who contacted you;
- the date of any conversations;
- the method of communication (phone, email, in person); and
- what you said, particularly if you provided anything more than confirmation of employment.
An experienced business law attorney can effectively advise you about providing employee references and other challenging issues you face in running your business.