Recently, Cindy F. Crawford and Jennifer Nycz-Conner wrote an article in the Birmingham Business Journal titled "Reading References". The article dealt with some of the problems with giving references, and how to get additional information when employers only give the dates of employment. Providing references is a potential pitfall for employers, and may subject both the employer and the person giving the reference to various causes of action. These causes of action may include defamation and fraud. The employer may be subject to additional claims if they provide different types of references for different employees. For example, a white male may get a glowing reference, but an African American female may get no reference at all other then dates of employment. This may lead to claims of discrimination based on race and gender. The law does not require that employers provide references for current or ex employees. It is up to the employer to decide what it's policy will be: providing just dates of employment, providing more detailed information, and whether the reference needs to be in writing.
Practice Pointer. Whatever the employer's position is on giving references, it is important that there be a written policy about what type of reference can be given, and just as importantly, who gives it. Only a particular individual or a small select group of people should be responding to requests for references. This will help reduce the potential exposure to employers and individuals when responding to requests for references.