Employee References – How to Tell the Truth and Avoid a Lawsuit

As a small business owner, you are likely the boss and human resources (HR) department all in one. This means the unfortunate task of firing an employee is yours. Once the dreadful termination is done, you are relieved and ready to move forward. Then, a month later, you get a call from a prospective employer asking for a reference for the employee you fired. Before you panic, decline, or say too much, know your rights.

Employee Job Performance, Skills, and Abilities

In Colorado, employers cannot be sued for providing information about former employees unless the information given is false. In many cases, you are protected from liability for certain types of information you give out, like the employee’s job performance, including work-related skills, abilities, habits, suitability for reemployment, and reasons for separation. However, you should not give any of this information out without talking to a small business lawyer about your specific situation as you could be liable for even giving out this information. There are enough bad cases and an endless number of potential circumstances that can leave you feeling vulnerable. A small business attorney will help ensure you stay compliant with Colorado state employment laws, from hiring your first employee to increasing your workforce to deciding to let someone go.

A Fortune article compares employment references to a legal hornet’s nest. Most business owners are well aware that they can be sued for defamation for badmouthing someone in a reference, but not many realize that you can be sued for giving a raving reference that does not match up to the employee’s performance in their new position. It is no wonder some employers shut down any requests for references.

Until you speak with a small business attorney, you should only answering the “who, what, and when” (i.e. job title, salary, and dates) of a former employee’s history. If you feel you need to answer more, for example because there are details that may be critical for a potential employer, speak with an attorney. What if you fired the person for frequent absence, poor performance, or grave misconduct? If you are reluctant to disclose such details, you can use a general comment like “I would really prefer not to say”.

Former Employees and Written Records

Some states have enacted service letter laws that require employers to provide former employees with basic written information about their employment – however, Colorado law does not affirmatively require it. Visit the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment for information on state labor laws that outline what employers can disclose about their former employees.

Hopefully, if you have had to fire an employee, you maintained documentation of the employee’s history with your business, particularly the details leading up to their termination. Despite your best efforts, they may blame you for their inability to obtain a new job, claiming slander or libel from your reference (or lack thereof). By speaking to a business lawyer before speaking to a potential employer, you can avoid or protect yourself from a lawsuit. Here are some precautions you can take.

Make a company reference policy. Be sure all of your employees are aware of the policy. If there are other staff members who are responsible for HR, make sure they know the policy well.
Keep it short. Do not volunteer extra or unsolicited information. It is best to keep your references short and to the point.
Provide only the facts. Keep your references as factual as possible. The truth is your best defense against defamation claims.
Designate who can give references. Select the most discrete and trustworthy employee, other than yourself, to give references. The more experience the person has with giving references, the less likely they are to say something wrong.
Create a reference request form. Include a statement about the possible disadvantages that are inherent to the reference process. This will provide you with another level of protection from liability. Requiring employees to review and fill out the form will supply you with detailed documentation as well as the right to decline a reference request if the employee did not fill out the form.

Employment Law is Complex

Employee references are just one small part of the large area of employment law. With its complex regulations and compliance requirements, employment law covers vast topics, such as contracts, hiring, and working with employees. The U.S. Department of Labor publishes an employment law guide for small businesses to develop employer policies on wages, benefits, safety and health, nondiscrimination and disclosure. For more on Colorado employment law essentials, see 7 New Business Essentials in Colorado Employment Law.

If you need help with employee references or employment law in general, <ahref=”http: www.eclewis.com=”” contact=”” “=”” target=”_blank”>contact me, Elizabeth Lewis, at the Law Office of E.C. Lewis, P.C., home of your Denver Business Lawyer. Phone: 720-258-6647. Email: elizabeth.lewis@eclewis.com


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