What to Do If Your Former Employer Badmouths You

If an employer gives a false and damaging reference, you might have a defamation claim.

By , J.D. University of Missouri School of Law
Updated 3/17/2023

Question: Can a former employer badmouth you?

I was laid off from my last job when the company decided to downsize. I received a severance package, and the paperwork said that the company would follow its standard reference policy of giving out only my dates of employment, positions held at the company, and compensation.

I'm looking for a new job, but every time I get to the stage of the hiring process where they check my references, I get turned down. A recruiter told me that my former manager is badmouthing me, telling everyone who calls that he thinks I have a poor attitude and no respect for authority. Can he violate the company's own policy? Is there anything I can do to stop this?


From a legal standpoint, you have a few potential claims that might be available to you. They include:

  • defamation
  • tortious interference with employment, or
  • a claim based on a state anti-blacklisting law.

And if you're not interested in pursuing a case in court, there are steps you can take to try to stop your former manager's behavior.


To prove a defamation claim, you would have to show that your former employer made false statements of fact about you, with malice, and that you were harmed as a result.

Based on the facts you've related, it sounds like you would face a couple of potential problems in making a defamation claim:

  • Statements of opinion can't be defamatory. A false factual statement -- that you stole from the company or failed a drug test, for example -- can provide a foundation for a defamation claim. However, a statement of opinion, which really can't be proven true or false, isn't enough to prove defamation. It sounds like your manager is giving his opinion, as negative as it may be.
  • Many states protect employers giving references from defamation claims. A number of states recognize a privilege between employers asking for a reference and employers giving one. This privilege protects the employer giving the reference from legal action, unless that employer acts with malice. Although states define malice differently, it generally means that the employer must have known the statement was false and/or intended to mislead the prospective employer. In your situation, your manager may well believe those negative things about you, even if you disagree.

Tortious Interference With Employment

Depending on the laws in your state, you might also have a claim for tortious interference with employment. In states that allow this claim, you'd generally have to show that:

  • you had an existing or prospective employment relationship;
  • a third party intended to and did interfere with the relationship; and
  • the third party caused the your termination.

State Anti-Blacklisting Laws

If a former employer is trying to sabotage your efforts to find new employment, you might be able to file a claim based on your state's anti-blacklisting law.

These statutes define blacklisting in different ways. Some prohibit only the maintaining of an actual blacklist, while others bar employers from making false statements or taking other steps to stop an employee from getting a job.

Unlike defamation claims, these statutes generally don't require you to prove you suffered actual harm (such as failing to get a job) as a result of the blacklisting.

How to Stop Your Former Employer From Sabotaging a New Job

If you're not interested in going to court, there may be a practical way to shut this manager up. Contact your former employer's human resources department or the person who signed your severance paperwork.

Explain that your former manager is going beyond the company's policy and giving out negative information that is harming your job search. Ask the company to immediately put a stop to this behavior and enforce its standard reference policy.

Even if you would have trouble ultimately winning a defamation claim, your former employer doesn't want to take its chances in court. Companies adopt limited reference policies like this precisely to avoid defamation claims.

Unless there is a broad conspiracy at your former employer to prevent you from ever working again, a brief letter should put an end to this problem. After all, your former employer's goal should be to see you working -- not continuing to collect unemployment (which is charged against its account).

What to Do If Your Former Employer Is Lying About Termination

If your former employer is falsely claiming you were fired, or exaggerating the reasons for which you were fired, you can pursue one of the legal claims described above. You can also ask an attorney to draft a "cease and desist" letter and send it to your former company. This will put your former employer on notice that you're taking its lies seriously.

Above all, you should discuss the matter with a knowledgeable employment attorney in your area, who can advise you on the best way to proceed.

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