If you are looking for a job in Montana, you might be concerned about what your former employer will say to companies that ask for a reference. References often 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.
Most states give employers immunity from defamation lawsuits -- that is, the employer is not subject to legal liability and cannot be sued -- for information they provide to prospective employers, as long as the employer speaks honestly and doesn't go beyond the specific types of information laid out in the statute. (To learn more about defamation claims, see Defamation Lawsuits: Do You Have a Case Against a Former Employer?) Montana doesn't offer this kind of protection in an explicit way, as explained below.
Generally speaking, an employee must show all of the following to win a defamation claim based on a reference:
As noted above, most states give employers immunity (which means the employer cannot be sued) for providing certain reference information, such as dates of employment, performance evaluations, job duties, and so on. As long as the employer doesn’t knowingly provide false and damaging information about the employee, the laws of most states protects the employer from lawsuits.
Montana law is a bit different. It states that employers may provide a truthful statement of the reasons an employee was discharged. However, the law doesn’t explicitly state that employers who provide only this limited information cannot be sued for defamation. Also, it creates criminal liability for employers who provide this information if they have ignored an employee’s request for the same information. In other words, if an employer doesn’t respond to an employee’s request to provide a written statement of the reasons why the employee was discharged, the employer may not provide that information to anyone else. Employers who violate this law are guilty of a misdemeanor.
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.
Montana is one of a handful of states that has a service letter law. If an employee requests it, the employer must give the employee a written statement of the reasons for the employee's discharge. An employer that does not provide this information on request to the employee may not provide it to anyone else, including a prospective employer, as explained above.
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.