Are you searching for a job? If so, you may be concerned about what your former employer will say to companies that ask for a reference. Of course, references play an important role in landing a new job. If a former employer is giving out false or misleading information about you, it could doom your job search.
In most states, including Alaska, employers are protected from liability for certain types of information they provide to prospective employers. However, if a former employer acts maliciously or otherwise crosses the legal line, and you lose job opportunities because of it, you may have a legal claim.
To prove defamation, the plaintiff (the person bringing the lawsuit) must show that someone made false and damaging statements about him or her. In the context of employment, defamation claims almost always involve statements the employer makes about the employee once the employment relationship ends. Typically, a former employee claims that the employer made false, negative statements about the employee’s performance to a prospective employer who called for a reference, and the prospective employer decided not to offer the employee a job (or to rescind a job offer) because of the poor reference. (To learn more about defamation claims, see Defamation Lawsuits: Do You Have a Case Against a Former Employer?
In Alaska, employers have some statutory protection against defamation lawsuits based on references. An Alaska employer may provide information on an employee's job performance to prospective employers, upon request of the employee or the prospective employer, without fear of legal liability. However, the employer must be acting in good faith to enjoy this legal immunity. If the employer knowingly or intentionally provides information that is false or misleading, or discloses information in violation of the employee's civil rights, the employer is no longer protected.
While some employees wish their former employers would keep quiet, some employees face the opposite problem: They want a former employer to provide information, but the employer isn't willing to speak up. Some employers are so fearful of defamation claims that they won't give references at all.
To remedy this situation, some states have enacted service letter laws. These laws require employers to provide former employees with certain basic information, in writing, about their employment. However, Alaska does not have a service letter law.
If you want a former employer to provide more detailed information that the law requires, you might consider signing a release: an agreement giving the employer permission to respond to prospective employers who call for a reference, and giving up your right to sue the employer for anything said as part of that process.
However, this makes sense only if you are absolutely certain that the reference will be positive. It may be worth giving up your legal right to sue in exchange for a reference that will help you land a position, but you don’t want to sign away your rights only to find that you have no recourse against a former employer who damaged your reputation and job prospects. For more information, see Getting Good Job References. For information on your legal rights during the hiring process, see Nolo's articles on Getting Hired.