Former employees may ask you to put the best face, and possibly an unrealistic face, on their employment record, in exchange for releasing any lawsuit claims against you. But don't enter into an agreement that requires you to bend the truth or just plain outright lie about an ex-employee's performance. As the following case shows, you'll be held to any questionable agreements you make with ex-employees.
Instead, if you sign a waiver or severance agreement with an employee, include a provision saying that you'll provide only a neutral letter of reference.
Recent case: After a dispute, Texas A&M University fired clarinet instructor Grant Lawson. Lawson sued forbut ended up settling his case in return for cash and the university's written promise that prospective employers would be told that he was an assistant professor.
(In truth, Lawson wasn't an assistant professor. But he successfully argued that ?if he weren't fired, he could have finished his doctorate on time, making him eligible for an assistant professor post.)
When a potential employer did call, Texas A&M's personnel director said Lawson was not an assistant professor. Lawson wasn't hired for that job, so he sued for breach of contract.
Texas A&M argued that the "assistant professor clause" was unenforceable because it violated public policy, requiring the university to lie and withhold the truth from the public.
Result: Lawson won. The appeals court said that while courts can declare a contract void because it calls for an illegal act, a contract "that could have been performed in a legal manner will not be declared void because it may have been performed in an illegal manner," the court said. (Texas A & M University-Kingsville v. Lawson, No. 03-03-00129-CV, Texas Ct. App., 2004)
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