Remind bosses: Reference check calls go to HR

Workers often get angry when they get fired. And angry people often sue. Plenty of people are more than happy to help them—and we’re not just talking about lawyers they happen to pick out of the local phone book.

Consider this tactic: A former employee suspects that she lost out on a new job because of what managers at her old company said about her. So she hires a company that specializes in pretending to be a prospective employer that then digs for dirt. If your managers and supervisors respond by offering negative information, a lawsuit is probably coming.

That’s why the best practice is to refer all calls for reference checks to HR. Then, only provide the most basic information.

Recent case: Patricia Mascone didn’t last long after she went to work for the American Physical Society (APS). First, her supervisor recommended that her probationary period be extended because he had concerns about how well she was doing her job. When things didn’t improve, she was terminated for poor performance. The alleged problems: inability to manage her staff and use her time effectively.

She sued. In preparation for bringing her lawsuit, she hired Global Verification Services, a company that agreed to pose as a potential employer and contacted the APS for references. One of Mascone’s supervisors provided only neutral information, but another disclosed the reasons she was terminated. She added retaliation to her lawsuit.

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Fortunately for her former employer, the court concluded that the supervisor who spilled the beans did so truthfully. It tossed out her suit. (Mascone v. American Physical Society, No. 09-2158, 4th Cir., 2010)

Final note: The APS may have avoided legal trouble if the supervisor had stuck to neutral information or directed the inquiry to HR.