When you apply for a job, the hiring manager is likely to contact at least one former employer. Although the purpose of the call is usually to verify your application information, it's not unusual for other topics to come up — which can be good or bad for you, depending on how you left the relationship. To avoid being caught off guard, it's important to understand what your past employers can legally disclose.
Laws and Company Policy
The issue of disclosure is complicated, particularly since the federal government does not regulate what a former employer can disclose about a past employee. Instead, the decision is left up to the state. In Minnesota, for example, your old boss can provide basic information such as employment dates and salary information, as well as any documented illegal behavior on your part. However, if he does so, he must also send you a copy of that information in the mail. State laws can vary dramatically, so it's important to check with your state's labor office for specifics.
Your former company's disclosure policy also impacts what a manager or HR employee can say about you. Large corporations usually have strict policies to protect them from defamation lawsuits; read your old handbook or call the HR office for details. If you worked for a smaller company, there may be no such policy — and worse, your former employer might not be aware of the legal issues surrounding disclosure.
Factual, Documented Information
In most cases, your former employer is protected by the truth. That means that any information that is factual and documented is fair game. Again, this varies by state and company, but to be prepared, assume that your old boss can provide dates of employment, job title, salary information, the fact that you were fired and any illegal conduct. The same goes for quitting without notice or being disciplined on the job. An employer may also feel confident sharing information such as performance reviews, attendance and punctuality, as long as there is documentation to back up his claims.
In addition, a former employer may be allowed to disclose additional details or confidential information if you authorize it. For that reason, it's crucial to read everything you sign during an exit interview and in individual job applications. If you're uncertain, call the HR office and ask about any disclosure forms on file.
Understanding Actual Disclosure
Given the often confusing laws surrounding disclosure, it can be hard to predict what an old employer might say. The easiest way to find out is to call the HR office and your former boss. Alternatively, hire a reference checking company to call old employers to find out what they reveal about your work history. If those conversations turn up details that might hurt your job prospects, it's a good idea to be honest with potential employers about information that can be verified.
Disclosure can be confusing, particularly when it comes to matters of law, truth and company policy. If you're concerned that a former employer might hurt your job prospects, a proactive approach can help you get ahead of the problem.
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