Despite what some job seekers think, it is not illegal for former employers to tell reference checkers that you were fired. They can say anything they want as long as it's true.
But many companies do have policies that limit what they will reveal about past employees.
Is this a good thing or a bad thing?
I was watching an episode of CBS's "60 Minutes" recently (hmmm, maybe I watch too much TV; no wait, this is "research," so it's OK). They had a shocking story about a male hospital worker who is suspected of killing more than 40 patients in several different hospitals during the past decade. He pleaded guilty to two of the murders.
That is very disturbing by itself... but what makes this story so incredibly worse is that his employers unwittingly helped him do it! This guy had been fired many times for a variety of reasons -- hoarding potentially harmful drugs, illegally administering unprescribed treatments, being negligent with patients -- and other alarming actions. He'd even been convicted of something (I can't recall the charge).
Yet he never had a problem getting another job at another hospital. Why? Because his former employers all had policies that prevented them from providing any information about past employees, other than job titles and dates of employment.
Apparently the hospital's lawyers were trying to protect them from lawsuits that could possibly result if something negative (and not proven as fact) was said about a past employee which prevented that employee from obtaining another job.
So even though references were checked, they revealed nothing about this criminal's activities. And he was passed along from one hospital to the next, allegedly killing patients in each one until he was finally caught.
This is a very extreme example of how such personnel policies are, in my opinion, doing more harm than good. This sword cuts both ways, after all. If you've done a truly exceptional job for your past employer, wouldn't you want that employer to be free to confirm your glowing accomplishments during a reference check?
Things are changing, thank goodness. According to the Society of Human Resource Management, employers are conducting more criminal checks than ever before. The need to provide a safe workplace is helping to drive this increase. Plus companies that were once worried about being sued by a former employee over a bad reference are now more concerned about being sued by an employer who wasn't warned about a bad employee!
Regardless of the threat of lawsuits (don't get me started on that), the bottom line for job seekers is that you should not assume your former employer will only provide your dates of employment and job title. If you were fired, it may be revealed. If you were an outstanding employee, it may be revealed.
If you're unsure of what your past employer's policy is, call them and find out. It's a good thing to know!
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Bonnie Lowe is author of the popular Job Interview Success System and free information-packed ezine, "Career-Life Times." Find those and other powerful career-building resources and tips at her website: http://www.best-interview-strategies.com.