Ambiguous answers may prompt retaliation charge

It’s true: If you can’t say anything nice, sometimes it’s best not to say anything at all. It’s especially true if an employee has quit and filed a discrimination lawsuit. You could land in court if someone in your company makes confusing, ambiguous or misleading statements that cost the former employee a job offer.

Recent case: Gustavo Gonima, an immigrant from Colombia, quit his job as a maintenance worker after enduring what he considered national-origin harassment by his co-workers. He filed a discrimination lawsuit. Gonima alleged that co-workers called him names, suggested all Colombians were “animals” or “gorillas” and demeaned all immigrants.

Before quitting, Gonima received a reference letter from the transportation manager at work and gave it to a prospective employer. The reference-writer was not Gonima’s supervisor but did know him and his work. When management was called about Gonima’s reference, someone in HR gave a very ambiguous answer, suggesting that Gonima had falsified the reference letter or his application. He didn’t get the job.

The court concluded that misleading statements about Gonima’s references could amount to retaliation for complaining about a hostile environment, and it ordered a trial. (Gonima v. Manatee County School Board, No. 8:05-CV- 00512, MD FL, 2007)

Final note: Stick with the standard reference-check answer: name, position and dates of employment.