The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA


April 5, 2013

Watercooler: How to Handle Negative References

Recent questions sent to me and to advice maven Carolyn Hax have me thinking about employer references — specifically, about keeping negative ones from demolishing your reputation.

It all started with a letter in Carolyn's column. The letter writer's mother-in-law had called the LW's former boss, extracted damaging details about the LW's termination, then spewed the news to everyone in earshot. Readers responding to the column online said the LW should sue her former boss, because companies nowadays can confirm only basic facts about a former worker, such as employment period and salary.

Not so, according to employment attorney Elaine Fitch of Kalijarvi, Chuzi, Newman & Fitch. She told me employers can share anything that is true, provided they have firsthand knowledge and a "common interest" in the matter with the person seeking the referral. It's true that many limit themselves to the basics, but that's to protect themselves against lawsuits from disgruntled ex-workers, not because it's the law. Some employers require signed referral consents for that very reason.

Because the information was true, Fitch said, suing for defamation would likely be a waste of time and money, unless the boss acted out of malice or lacked firsthand knowledge about the situation.

Granted, it was "just stupid," in Fitch's words, for the boss to give the mother-in-law that information if he knew who she was; a desire to torch someone's reputation does not qualify as an "interest" in the legal sense. But if the MIL posed as an employer, the boss probably believed she was entitled to the truth about a potential hire.

Q: In several years of temping, I've unfortunately worked closely with people who would be risky or negative references. When I do find friendly people who know my work and are willing to be references, I can't find a full-time job opening for months, so the references never get used. The person in charge at my agency said I have up to a year before they go stale. How can I explain having few references?

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