The old adage “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all” seems perfectly suited to employer-supplied references.
If an employee is fired or quits in lieu of being fired, it’s a safe bet she will look for another job. It’s also a safe bet that her prospective employer will want to know what type of employee it may be getting. Don’t be in a rush to provide more than basic information for any former employee.
Providing information beyond the employee’s position and employment dates may lead to litigation, especially if the employee doesn’t get that next job. The best approach is a blanket policy against providing additional information. That way, you can easily say you weren’t the source of adverse information.
Recent case: Florence Hicks, who is black, was fired after months of workplace problems. She left work early, forgot to clock in and out, made frequent mistakes and spent lots of time on personal calls.
Hicks then applied for a job at Target and understood she’d get the position if her former employer gave her a good reference. But the Target position never materialized, and Hicks sued her former employer, alleging defamation. She assumed she had gotten a poor reference.
But her former employer was able to show Target never contacted it, so it couldn’t have provided any information, much less negative information. The case was dismissed. (Hicks v. Medline Industries, No. 06-3217, 7th Cir., 2007)