Are you concerned about what your former employer will say to companies that call and 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.
Like most states, Minnesota provides some legal protection for employers who give information about employees 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.
References and Defamation Claims
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 Minnesota
In Minnesota, a private 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. The employee may not sue the employer for providing these types of information, upon request:
- the employee’s dates of employment
- the employee’s compensation history
- the employee’s job description and job duties
- any education and training provided by the employer, and
- any acts of violence, harassment, theft, or illegal conduct documented in the employee’s personnel records that led to the employee’s discipline or resignation, along with the employee’s written response (if any). (If the employer discloses this last type of information, it must do so in writing and send a copy to the employee’s last known address.)
If the employee gives written authorization, the employer also may not be sued for providing these types of information, in writing:
- written evaluations, along with the employee’s written response (if any)
- written warnings and other disciplinary actions that took place within five years of the employee’s authorization, along with the employee’s written response (if any), and
- written reasons for the employee’s separation from employment.
The employer must also mail these documents to the employee’s last known address
The prospective employer who receives these documents may not disclose them without the employee’s written authorization.
An employee may sue an employer who provides these types of information for defamation only if the employee can prove, by clear and convincing evidence, that:
- the information was false and defamatory, and
- the employer knew or should have known that the information was false and acted with malicious intent to injure the employee.
Minnesota 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. Minnesota law requires an employer to give the employee a written statement of the reasons for an employee's termination. The employee must request such a statement within 15 working days of the termination; the employer then has ten working days to respond in writing.
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.