I read an article yesterday about a writer accused of sexual harassment. So what, you are probably thinking? While articles like that are commonplace these days, what infuriated me was that the individual had been investigated multiple times for sexual harassment related misconduct. The alleged harassment occurred at numerous companies, with prominent HR departments, yet each time he was fired or left for a new job, his new employer had no idea about his past behavior. And I feel partly to blame for that.
As an employment lawyer, we advise our clients that best practices with regard to references is to establish a policy where the company simply confirms dates of employment and job title(s) held. We used to allow salary confirmation upon request of the departed employee, but that is no longer advised under California’s Fair Pay Act. So, we have inadvertently created a system where alleged harassers (and other terminated employees) get to move on and become someone else’s (client’s) problem. The primary concerns in opting not to give a substantive reference is fear of a defamation lawsuit or tortious interference with a business opportunity claim under Labor Code section 1050. There are many resources on the intricacies of these claims, so I won’t get into them here.
While there is no duty to provide a reference and saying nothing is still the most conservative course of action, I think some employers will want to be more progressive in the #metoo era and I’d like to give some guidelines on how not to sweep this under the proverbial rug.
- California employers are protected by a qualified “common interests” privilege against defamation claims as a result of giving reference checks. So long as statements are based on credible evidence and are made without malice, employer references are given a special privilege that forms the basis of a defense against defamation. California courts have regularly supported this employer privilege in the interest of public policy, which is now more prominent than ever.
- If you have an existing policy on references, be consistent in following it, or change it to something you are comfortable with.
- Designate one person to handle all references so the conduct and statements of individual managers don’t become a liability for the company.
- If you opt to provide a substantive reference, the reference should not be misleading. Don’t give a glowing reference for an employee terminated for misconduct or there could be liability for fraud or misrepresentation, plus the potential for a wrongful termination suit from the alleged harasser. The best bet is to be truthful, without providing too many unnecessary details.
- Some examples of how to give a negative reference without disclosing details include: ineligible for rehire, investigated for policy violations or was the subject of complaints by coworkers.
- While the fear (and fear of the expense) of being sued is enough to chill employers into keeping their mouths shut, and consequently perpetuating a cycle of harassment or other bad behavior, the reality is there are very few published cases on this in California, leading me to believe that while the risk is real, this isn’t likely to be a money-maker for the plaintiff’s bar.
Finally, while there is pending California legislation in the form of SB 820 that would prohibit confidentiality clauses in any sexual harassment settlement agreements, so far there are no added protections for employers providing substantive references.
The decision of how much, if any, information to provide, involves an individualized risk assessment, but I can see California’s public policy interest as a strong driving force in changing the current “no comment” practices of many employers.