If you left a job on less-than-friendly terms with your boss or if they fired you, then you’re understandably worried about what they’ll say when potential employers with whom you’re interviewing call them for a reference or employment verification. Even someone you worked for a few years back could prevent you from getting a job if they give a company reason to be concerned about hiring you.
Some companies have a policy of not providing anything beyond basic verification information like start and end dates and position(s) held. That’s in no small part because they’re afraid of lawsuits or other retaliation by angry former employees.
What does California law say?
Here in California, companies are legally prohibited from seeking information about a person’s salary history. Under the law, “An employer shall not rely on the salary history information of an applicant for employment as a factor in determining whether to offer employment to an applicant or what salary to offer an applicant.”
However, companies are free to ask a former employer what they think about you. So, can a former employer say something negative? Essentially, they can if it’s truthful and not done to harm you.
California law treats these communications between employers as privileged – and therefore protected from defamation suits. However, the law specifies that the information must be “based upon credible evidence, made without malice.”
This protection applies, however, only when a prospective employer has reached out to a former (or current) one. If your former employer finds out that you’ve interviewed with another company and calls to “warn” them about you, then you might have the basis for legal action.
Companies also cannot breach certain legal contracts they have with former employees. For example, if you’ve entered into a mutual non-disparagement agreement with a former employer, then they may risk being sued if they give a potential employer negative information about you.
The belief that a former employer is preventing you from getting a job can be frightening. It may be worthwhile to reach out to them to see if you can reach an agreement to let you move. As noted, if they’re saying something that they know is untrue or at least have no evidence to back up, and they are preventing you from working, then it may be wise to seek legal guidance.