Wisconsin Reference Laws

Learn when Wisconsin employers can be sued for defamation over references.

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Are you looking for a job in Wisconsin? During your search, you may be asked to provide the names of former employers who are willing to act as a reference. A good reference can make the difference between getting a job offer and getting a rejection letter. If a former employer is giving out false or misleading information about you, your job search might not be successful.

Wisconsin, like most other states, provides some legal protections for employers who give references. 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 Wisconsin

Wisconsin employers have some statutory protection against defamation lawsuits based on references. Employers may not be sued for defamation (in legal terms, they are “immune” from liability) if they provide reference information to a prospective employer, at the request of the prospective employer or the employee. The employer may provide information about the employee’s job performance and qualifications, including any statement that the employer and employee have negotiated as part of a settlement or agreement to end the employment relationship.

An employer who provides this information is presumed, legally, to be acting in good faith. This means that the employee may not sue for defamation unless the employee can prove, by clear and convincing evidence, that the employer provided the information:

  • knowing that it was false
  • with a malicious purpose, or
  • in violation of state law prohibiting discrimination.

Getting a Reference

Although some employees wish their former employers would keep their mouths shut, some employees face the opposite problem: They want a former employer to provide information, but the employer isn't willing to do so. 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, Wisconsin 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, you should consider this only if you are absolutely certain that the reference will be positive. It may be a good idea to give 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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