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Legally, What Can Your Past Employer Say About You?

A year or two ago, I was having an interesting conversation with one of my coworkers. We were talking about the job search process and more specifically the interview process. My coworker was talking about quitting his job but was worried about what our employer would say if his prospective employer contacted them for information on his qualifications, work ethic, etc. One of our other coworkers chimed in and said, “Oh, you don’t have to worry about that. Employers are only allowed to confirm you worked there and for how long. They can’t say you were a bad worker, you quit, you were fired, etc.” I remember looking at my coworker in semi-disbelief. It didn’t make any sense to me. If that was all they were legally allowed to disclose, why even provide references? It seemed off. Well, my coworker quit and went off believing this statement to be true. I’m not sure how well his job search went, but he was certainly sent off with the wrong information. Legally, employers are allowed to say just about whatever they want to your prospective employer.

Currently, there is no law that states that employers are only allowed to confirm your employment and what your start and end dates were. If you were fired, they can disclose that information. If you quit, they can disclose that too. They can also give this prospective employer the reasons you were fired or let go. If you failed to show up to work for two days in a row and were fired because of it, they can certainly disclose that information. If you lied about something on the job, the employer can talk about that as well. If you quit and yelled out at everyone before you left, you bet your bottom dollar an employer can share that information. However, things get a bit sticky when past employers start getting into details.

Past employers can say whatever they want about you as long as it is the truth and is fact. They have to be very careful about what they say and how they say it though because the former employee can slam them with a libel case or defamation of character if what they said was out of line or untrue in any way. It is for this reason many employers simply stick to only confirming employment and the employee work dates. No company wants to deal with a lawsuit or get themselves into a potentially sticky situation, so they say very little in order to stay safe.

That doesn’t mean that they won’t say something though. It’s really up to the employer. If you worked at a large company that had an HR department, then the company probably has a written policy on how they handle reference calls. It’s important to remember that this is simply the company’s rules and not the law. If you work at a smaller company, then chances are there is no policy on how to handle this situation. That is why you should check in with your former employer about how they handle this. It’s especially important to talk about it if you were fired. Ask them what information they will disclose to other employers if they receive a reference call about you. If they intend to simply confirm your employment, it’s nice to know.

If they state that they will be quite frank with other employers and intend on giving out more information than just employment confirmation, ask them what they intend to say. Knowing ahead of time can help you prepare and you may even be able to negotiate with your former employer on what they intend to say. If communicating with your former employer is not really an option, or something you want to do, then you can have someone check your references beforehand. There are actual reference checking services that you can use or you can simply have someone you know give your past employers a call to see what they would say about you.

This may seem sneaky, but it’s a great way to see what your references will disclose about you before you go into an interview. That way, when asked why you left your past position or what your former employer would say about you, you are fully prepared. This is a good idea because it’s important that your past employer and you have the same story or reasoning. If you were fired and you say you were laid-off or that you quit, your former employer may ruin that lie for you. That’s another great reason not to lie in an interview. It will probably come back to you in a very negative way.

So, it’s safe to say that when it comes to former employers and what they can say about you, anything is fair game. Never assume that your former employers are going to stay tight-lipped about your employment there. Talk to them beforehand and be prepared to handle the situation.

IMAGE: Courtesy of ATR International

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Written by

Nicole is the Content Editor for Spark Hire and mainly writes for and edits the work for the Spark News blog. She graduated in 2010 with a BA in Journalism from DePaul University in Chicago, Illinois. She has a passion for writing, editing, and pretty much anything to do with content. In her free time she frequents the Chicago music scene and writes reviews on shows for her own personal blog. Connect with Nicole and Spark Hire on Facebook and Twitter

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