What should I write in a Reference Letter?

It’s often a precarious place to be when a former employee who has been fired requests a reference letter for a prospective employer.  Should you provide negative feedback or only relay the positive in order to avoid a defamation lawsuit?

If the employee had real performance issues that might put others at risk it certainly isn’t wise to simply set them aside.  You could be risking a lawsuit down the road if someone sued after being harmed.

On the other hand, overemphasizing the former employee’s negative qualities could find you with a defamation lawsuit.  When in doubt about the reference wording, contact your company attorney for consultation,

Dr. Carol Lindsay, who is black, was terminated early from her contract as a specialist obstetrician.  Her supervisors didn’t like her messy office or the fact that she had fallen far behind in reading patient tests.  She was often late when patients went into labor,  She was also allegedly rude and uncooperative with staff.

Lindsay applied elsewhere and her former supervisor sent a carefully worded letter that said Lindsay’s knowledge was “adequate,” but that a prospective employer should place her in a setting where “peers are available for mentoring.”  When she wasn’t hired she sued, alleging defamation.

Fortunately for her former employer, she couldn’t show a connection with the letters and not being hired.  (Lindsay v. Children’s Hospital., No. 24114, Court of Appeals of Ohio, 2009)  – (HR Specialist Employment Law Vol. 39, No.5; May, 2009)

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