While it may seem like a formality, reference checks can make or break your chance at landing a job. One question frequently asked by job seekers is "What can a past employer say about me during a reference check?"
Some job seekers assume that former employers can legally only discuss dates of employment, salary, and job title. However, that is not the case. Generally speaking, past employers have the ability to say whatever they want about you so long as what they are saying is factual and true. However, past employers must be very careful about what they say and particularly how they say it. If anything that is disclosed is out of line or untrue in any way, it could put the former employer at risk for a libel or defamation of character lawsuit. Because of this, most companies prefer to say as little as possible.
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Many employers have a policy in place that requires employees to only confirm employment and the dates of employment to avoid the possibility of a lawsuit. In fact, many companies have an automated process where someone calling in to do a reference check never actually speaks to a person to get this information. And while there are no federal laws that limit what past employers can and cannot say, it is important to note that state labor laws vary by jurisdiction, so it may helpful to check for information to see if state labor laws limit what employers can disclose about former employees.
Ultimately, the most important part of a reference check is for you to know what a former employer is going to say about you. You what to make sure that what they say matches up with what you have told them during the interview process. While unlikely, do not assume that that your former employer is not going to discuss the reason why your employment ended or your job performance. While some large companies may have a policy about disclosing information about former employees, many smaller companies do not have a policy or may not be aware of or concerned about possible legal issues. If possible, try to check with your former employer to determine what information they will give out.