Are you searching for a job in Kentucky? If so, you may 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.
Kentucky, like most states, provides legal protection for employers who provide certain kinds of information to prospective employers who ask for a reference. However, if a former employer lies, acts maliciously or otherwise crosses the legal line, and you lose job opportunities because of it, you may have a legal claim.
How References Can Lead to Defamation Claims
In a defamation lawsuit, 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 Kentucky
Kentucky employers are 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. The employer may provide information on the employee’s:
- job performance
- professional conduct, or
- performance evaluation.
However, the employer can lose this immunity – and be subject to a defamation lawsuit – if it provides the information:
- knowing that it was false
- with reckless disregard as to whether it was true or false, or
- with the intent to mislead the potential employer.
The employer may also be subject to legal action if providing the information is an illegal discriminatory practice under Kentucky law.
Getting a Reference
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. However, Kentucky doesn’t have a service letter law.
If you want a former employer to provide a detailed reference, 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.