Missouri Law on References

Employers in Missouri can't be sued for defamation for providing certain reference information.

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Are you out of work in Missouri? If so, you might be concerned about what your former employer will say to potential employers that call asking for a reference. References can make the difference between landing a new job and receiving a rejection letter. If a former employer is giving out false or misleading information about you, it could doom your job search. 

Like most states, Missouri provides legal protection for employers who provide certain kinds of information to prospective employers who ask for a reference. As long as the employer acts in good faith and doesn’t go beyond what the law allows, the employer can’t be sued for defamation. 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.

Defamation Claims Based on References

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 nearly always focus on 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?)

Reference Laws in Missouri

A Missouri employer is immune from liability (that is, the employer may not be sued) for providing certain types of information about a current or former employee, upon the request of the employee or a prospective employer.

An employer may respond, in writing, to a written request for information about an employee from a person or entity the employer reasonably believes to be a prospective employer. The employer has legal immunity – that is, the employer may not be sued by the employee – for providing information about:

  • the nature, character, and duration of work provided by the employee, and
  • the reasons (if any) for the employee’s termination.

However, the employer loses this immunity (and can, therefore, be sued for defamation) if the employee can prove that the information provided was false, and the employer either knew it was false or provided it with reckless disregard for whether it was true or false.

An employer who provides a written reference must sent a copy of it to the employee’s last known address. The employee can also request a copy for up to one year after the date of the letter.  

Missouri Service Letter Law

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 under any circumstances.

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.

Missouri is one of a handful of states that has a service letter law. The law applies only to employers with at least seven employees, and to employees who have at least 90 days of service with the employer. If an employee who quits or is discharged requests one within a year, the employer must provide a service letter providing the information set out above: the employee’s nature, character, and duration of work, and the reasons for the employee’s termination, if any. When requesting the letter, the employee must specifically refer to the statute that requires employers to provide it, Missouri Revised Statute 290.140. The employer must provide the letter within 45 days after receiving the employee’s request.

Getting a Reference

If you want a former employer to provide more information than required by the service letter law, 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.

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