10 Ways to Minimize Liability When Providing Employee References

Although it was far simpler twenty years ago to provide references for most departing and former employees, it now requires careful planning. Employers must take deliberate steps to protect themselves against possible lawsuits brought by disgruntled former employees who may claim that they’ve been harmed by defamatory or negative job references.

All companies should now consider requesting (as a hiring condition) that each new employee sign a release form granting permission for the company to provide future job references without threat of liability. As noted below, that paperwork can then be supplemented by new, signed and dated authorization forms for each future reference requested.

Before sharing ten ways your company can reduce its potential liability when providing job references, this article will first briefly review common legal arguments advanced by former employees when they sometimes sue claiming a reference harmed their future job prospects.

Types of arguments past employees advance when alleging harm due to a job reference

Keep in mind that defamation does not have to produce actual harm – it’s enough that the negative reference was published or communicated to a third party and might reflect poorly on a past employee’s good name or overall reputation. Courts will normally review all the surrounding circumstances to determine whether a reference was truly damaging.

  • Intentional infliction of emotional distress. An angry former employee may claim that the person who issued the reference used unjustified and inflammatory language. While this isn’t asserted often, it’s a reminder to create a clear and distinct policy for how all references should be handled – free of unsubstantiated opinions or undocumented gossip. For example, it’s always wise to avoid alleging that a former employee demonstrated clear signs of struggling with some form of substance abuse on the job;
  • Invasion of privacy. Your company must avoid publicizing private information about an employee. For example, if you investigated why an employee was late to work on several occasions, you should never publicly disclose that the person was repeatedly jailed overnight due to arrests for drunk driving;
  • Interference with contract. A business should never knowingly provide false or misleading information about a former employee that could reasonably bias a prospective employer against hiring the person. Be as honest as possible and rely on neutral, documented information in the employee’s personnel file whenever possible;
  • Title VII discrimination. You must never provide a negative reference because a past employee was a member of a protected class. So, do not claim you fired someone because of their disability or alleged problems due to their gender. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 forbids this type of discriminatory behavior.

Ten practices that can help you provide safe and proper references

  1. Always obtain employee consent. You should require a written request from all past employees asking you to provide a reference to a specifically named individual. This is very important since references should only be provided to proper parties;
  2. Designate only one or two company officials to handle all employee references. Centralizing this operation can help your company avoid releasing poorly drafted forms or letters of reference. It’s usually best to forbid all supervisors and other employees from providing their own references. You may want to create your own simple form for providing all references;
  3. Maintain accurate personnel files for all employees. Furthermore, be sure to conduct regular employee evaluations – and have employees sign the bottom of all written evaluations. This information should provide the basis for future letters of reference. It must be free of any biased or highly negative comments whenever possible;
  4. Avoid providing references over the phone. This is important since phone requests can be placed by nearly anyone. You must always be sure you’re only providing information to legitimate parties. Secure, written communications are always best. And never provide a reference until after you’ve received a new, written authorization form signed and dated by the former employee. (It should state that your company will not be held liable for providing the requested reference.) You can email or fax this form to the past employee when you receive a new request;
  5. Only provide information to proper parties. Be aware that private investigators and others may contact you and just pretend to be potential employers. Your company could be sued if you release a reference to someone who is not a prospective employer;
  6. Try to stick to the scope of the requested information. Don’t volunteer opinions or offer unsubstantiated data. Depending on your firm’s established policy for providing references – just stick to basic facts. (However, be sure to review the last paragraph of this article about providing references for past employees who exhibited violent workplace behavior – made serious threats – or sexually harassed other employees);
  7. Keep detailed records regarding all reference requests. If you fail to keep all written data involved with these requests and copies of the information your company provided, you may have a very difficult time mounting an effective defense if you’re sued for defamation – or on the other grounds named above – by a former employee;
  8. Be careful and provide about the same amount of information about all employees. While it may be tempting to provide lengthy praise for some former employees, it’s best to only comment on factors that may apply to all employees. If you’re going to provide negative information, be sure to first check with your Houston employment law attorney to be certain you’re not being too harsh – or revealing too much;
  9. Try to avoid requiring or compelling self-publication. If you fired someone because they were recently convicted of a serious crime or are no longer qualified to maintain a certain level of a security clearance, be careful what reason you give for firing that person. Otherwise, you may be forcing that person to later “self-publish” negative facts about themselves. Ask your lawyer if there are other valid legal grounds you can state as the basis for the firing of an employee when controversial issues were also involved. This can cause complex problems — yet honesty is always crucial; and
  10. Only share objective information. Never tell a prospective employer about any workplace gossip tied to the past employee’s personal problems. You should only be sharing data that can be easily verified by reviewing the employee’s personnel file.

While all these tips should help you reduce your chances of being sued based on a claim of defamation (or the other grounds stated at the beginning of this article), you must remain aware that providing too little information about a past employee can potentially render you liable in a lawsuit brought by the new employer. More facts about that problem are provided below.

Can you be sued for negligent referral, fraud or misrepresentation due to your reference?

Those types of lawsuits are becoming more common. If you had knowledge that a past employee behaved violently in your workplace, made serious verbal or physical threats against others – or sexually harassed one or more workers, you might need to disclose some of that information. This is a topic you must discuss in much greater detail with your Houston employment law attorney since Texas law may or may not provide you with adequate protection from liability.

If you’re uncertain how to provide a reference for a past or departing employee, please feel free to contact one of our Murray Lobb attorneys. We can provide you with sound legal advice regarding such topics. Our firm can also help you create employee release and authorization forms. Should you be sued by a former employee, we’ll be available to defend you through every stage of any proceeding.

Should You Always Enforce Covenants Not to Compete?

Covenants not to compete are binding contracts that are designed to protect companies against exiting employees unlawfully sharing different types of proprietary information, “trade secrets” and intellectual property with their new employers and others and engaging in post-employment activities that can be detrimental to the company they left.

Before discussing whether it’s wise to develop an ironclad attitude toward enforcing these covenants, it’s helpful to review the basic reasons why these documents are usually drafted and what standards courts consider when deciding whether they should be upheld.

Companies must protect specific types of information

Whether your business sells cutting-edge security software or sends out consultants to advise clients in mostly rural areas, your employees often learn highly detailed information about how you help your clients. If you were to always let key employees leave and immediately put that proprietary information and knowledge to work for a competitor, your business might quickly lose its competitive edge and market dominance.

Therefore, many companies regularly require employees to sign noncompete agreements to prevent them from using what they learn while employed for a limited time post-employment. Should former employees violate these agreements, they (and their new employers) can often be sued in court.

Common types of proprietary interests you’ll usually want to protect

  • Trade secrets. Perhaps your company has invented a manufacturing process that should not be shared with any competitors. It’s also possible that you’ve designed a highly effective training program for your employees that makes them uniquely effective at handling their work. You clearly don’t want them to share those training methods with others;
  • Client databases. You’ll want to prevent all departing employees from reviewing any past buying practices, requests and needs of your clients;
  • Other highly confidential materials. These could include almost anything – perhaps you’ve implemented a specialized marketing plan that’s helped your business grow several times over during recent years.

These examples should help remind you of the many proprietary types of information you must protect by requiring your exiting employees to sign covenants not to compete.

Within such covenants, you’ll need to address various topics that may include the following ones.

  • A specific time period. Any time period must be reasonable, normally 1-3 years;
  • A description of the types activities the employee cannot engage in post-employment. You can list specific industries, customers or businesses the departing employee should not contact for a new employer;
  • A specific geographical area where the departing employee cannot work. You can state a certain region where the employee who left cannot compete with you for a set time period.

When evaluating the reasonableness of covenants not to compete, courts look to see if they are over-broad or too restrictive. While businesses have a right to protect certain information or “legitimate business interests”, they aren’t allowed to unfairly prevent a departing employee from pursuing most forms of gainful employment.

Should you always enforce your contracts containing noncompete clauses?

Although the most obvious response is to say you’ll always strictly enforce them, it’s important to recognize certain factors before suing someone for not honoring a noncompete covenant.

Please feel free to contact one of our Murray Lobb attorneys so we can help you draft any contracts you need containing covenants not to compete. We can that someone is currently asking you to sign – or assist you in enforcing or defending a lawsuit.

Key Traits New Business Partners Must Readily Offer

Although only 20% of new businesses fail during their first year, roughly half of them cease operations during their first five years. Frequently, the biggest problems develop because the founders failed to choose the best group of partners available to start the company.

Each potential business partner’s personality traits, ethical values, passion and proven skills must be carefully evaluated. Only then can everyone work hard together to define and establish high performance standards while carefully marketing the company’s goods and services to the public.

Here’s a general overview of the partner skills and traits that some business experts believe can provide a new company with a strong chance to succeed for many years to come.

Top skills and traits your partners must have and be willing to share with each other

  1. Trustworthiness, discretion and moral integrity. In addition to partners whose references say they’re definitely trustworthy– you also need people who have an innate need to treat others fairly and want to act as good role models for ethical business behavior;
  2. Keen intelligence and a proven track record of success. Ask all potential partners about their past business successes and failures. Find out if they have truly learned from all past experiences. The crucible of the workplace often provides the best measure of a potential partner’s ability to succeed in a new business venture. Look for highly intelligent partners who can readily respect other people’s creativity — while still bringing their own fresh, original ideas to the table;
  3. Able to maintain a consistently positive, “can do” attitude. Nothing can bring a business to its knees quicker than one or two partners who keep forecasting doom. Be sure each person will remain actively involved in all key company decisions and “go the extra mile” without being asked to do so on many occasions;
  4. Able to display strong, supportive communication skills. All companies need strong communicators who can create proper standards for respectfully interacting with others. These standards must apply to all in-person meetings, phone conversations, the exchange of emails and the use of social media. Each partner must also clearly communicate his or her support for others within the company;
  5. Can offer unique skills that help balance out those offered by the other partners. In addition to someone who can handle complex accounting matters, you’ll also need partners who are strong planners, innovative geniuses, marketing wizards and product (and service) development experts. You’ll also need at least one partner who maintains strong connections to industry experts who can provide your company with timely advice, crucial consultants and other contacts over the years;
  6. Can remain open-minded and is willing to constructively resolve conflicts with others. Always learn all you can about each potential new partner’s openness to the ideas of others and ability to compromise on matters. Also try to evaluate the person’s mature ability to acknowledge personal mistakes – and learn from them. You don’t need any partners who constantly try and prove themselves “right” about everything;
  7. Has the ability to handle different levels of risk and uncertainty. This may be the hardest trait of all to discern – but it’s well worth finding out if someone can remain fully productive – even when unexpected business challenges arise. Always ask about past business difficulties and how the partner candidate personally responded to them. Resilience in the face of change is a key trait of all successful business partners.

Once you’ve selected all your partners, you’ll need to meet with your Houston business lawyer to draw up a partnership agreement that clearly addresses such matters as each person’s roles and responsibilities, how (and when) everyone will be compensated – and how the company must respond when anyone chooses to leave the partnership.

Please contact our Murray Lobb office so we can provide you with the guidance you’ll need when forming any new business. Our firm’s lengthy experience working with professionals in numerous fields allows us to provide you with the help you’ll need.

Gray Areas Keep Emerging in the Field of Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment cases have remained quite numerous during recent years. Lawsuits involving Fox News, the late Roger Ailes and the transportation giant Uber have kept our judicial system very busy. In fact, in early July of 2017, the Los Angeles Times reported that Fox News had just fired the head of its L. A. sports programming division due to new allegations of workplace sexual harassment.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that while so many claims were being filed during the past five years, courts were being asked to evaluate some newer types of allegations. Several of them involve employees who were fired because their bosses said they were too attractive to have around or interact with on a regular basis. Equally odd are recent workplace problems caused by male employees trying to distance themselves from female co-workers who they claim harbor romantic feelings for them.

Before examining these new issues closer, it’s important to review what constitutes modern sexual harassment.

The EEOC’s Definition of Sexual Harassment

On its website, the EEOC states that it’s simply wrong to harass a person (such as a job applicant or employee) based on that person’s sex. Harassment can include someone making unwanted sexual advances or requests for sexual favors from another worker. While both men and women can suffer sexual harassment, statistics reveal that women file 83% of these claims. Some surveyed workers have said that they believe that this is probably true since men are often  overrepresented in positions of power in the American workplace.

Harassment doesn’t always involve any touching. In fact, offensive remarks about the opposite sex can be enough to constitute sexual harassment. What courts are often looking for is whether various workers’ words and actions have created a hostile working environment. When simple teasing and offhand comments become quite regular, they can legally be viewed as sexual harassment. Even consensual office romances can cause legal problems because when they end, one of the two participants may often wind up fired or demoted.

Relatively new sexual harassment claims involving bosses who fire employees for being too attractive provide new dilemmas for our courts. Likewise, employees distancing themselves from others because they think their co-workers harbor hidden romantic feelings for them are also uniquely troubling. These types of “gray area” claims are discussed further below.

Should It Be Lawful to Fire Someone Who Is Too Attractive – Or a Female?

Oddly enough, one or two courts have allowed bosses to simply dismiss women because they’re so attractive that the men fear they can’t control themselves if they remain in the workplace. One such case was filed by Melissa Nelson against her dentist employer in Iowa. This 33-year-old office assistant had worked for this dentist for many years. However, she was let go after he claimed that his wife had learned that her husband was sharing improper text messages with the young woman.

Of course, this type of employer claim clearly implies that the woman will make poor choices and should therefore be dismissed as some type of precaution. Perhaps the employer just wanted to dismiss her but couldn’t come up with a better excuse. Nevertheless, the Iowa Supreme Court later reaffirmed its decision, denying this fired young woman any type of compensation. The court even tried to dodge its questionable “logic” by saying that the firing was based on feelings – and not the young woman’s gender.

Unfortunately, that Iowa case is not unique. A similar case was filed due to the 2013 firing of a Manhattan yoga instructor who worked in a chiropractor’s office. She was told she was “too cute” — and that her ongoing presence in the office would make her boss’ wife jealous. A judge dismissed her case back in 2016. However, that case isn’t over. In August 2017, an appeals court ruled that the Manhattan yoga instructor can proceed with her case and sue the chiropractor.

What About Men (or Women) Who Want to Avoid Working with the Opposite Sex?

Can an employee refuse to spend legitimate work time with a woman because he believes she has a crush on him? Can this be viewed as some type of sexual harassment? This issue came up recently in an Austin, Texas workplace. William Manno, who had been refusing to work alongside a specific female — is now having to reevaluate and change his behavior.

Thomas Kochan, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor and co-director of the M.I.T. Sloan Institute for Work and Employment Research says that when workers inappropriately refuse to interact with others due solely to their sex or presumed romantic feelings – employers may need to intervene. In fact, it can prove very useful and instructive for employees who want to isolate themselves from members of the opposite sex to begin participating in group work activities so they can develop healthier work habits.

Regardless of how one views some of these newer issues, it’s important for all workers to stand up for their rights when any serious harassment behaviors develop.

What All Workers Must Do When They Believe They’re Being Sexually Harassed

  • Keep detailed notes about the offensive incidents. Be sure to write down the specific facts, the dates and times involved — and whether there were any witnesses. Keep this log at home and not in your place of employment;
  • Carefully review any employee handbook you’ve been given. Try to follow your company’s recommended way of handling suspected sexual harassment. If reporting the incident to your immediate supervisor won’t work – you may want to confide in a senior employee you believe you can trust. However, you should first review all the steps named here – before taking any action;
  • Immediately contact your local Houston employment law attorney. Once you’ve scheduled an appointment, gather together all relevant employee handbooks, training materials and other pertinent documents regarding your sexual harassment claim. Your lawyer will tell you exactly which steps to take in the proper order to fully preserve your claim in a timely manner;
  • Be prepared to contact the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission). You normally have 45 days from the date of the event to obtain help and advice from an EEOC counselor. Your lawyer can inform you how such claims are normally processed and tell you about other legal remedies you may need to pursue;
  • Seriously think about what you may lose if you don’t file an EEOC claim and consider other litigation. As most women know, some of the worst instances of sexual harassment are never reported. After all, no one wants to become the subject of office gossip if the employer fails to honor your privacy. Likewise, concerns about retaliation are common. Fortunately, there are legal remedies for retaliation. However, if you don’t file a claim, it may become much harder for you to protect your career in the future against the negative repercussions of the current sexual harassment.

Everyone Should Benefit When an Employee Is Properly Fired

While most people don’t enjoy being fired from a job, everyone can benefit if the process is handled properly. To understand how this result is possible, it’s important to remember that your employees must be able to work together as a team. When one member is completely out of sync with the others or simply cannot do the assigned work in a timely manner, everyone suffers. So, once you’ve efficiently moved through the firing stages, most staff members will finally get the chance to perform at their highest level again.

The following information provides a brief overview of important goals to keep in mind when firing an employee. It also provides tips for protecting your company from wrongful termination lawsuits and describes the best way to meet with people while firing them.

How to Display Good Character and Protect the Business from Lawsuits

  • Be sure to clearly explain all employee management and firing guidelines in an employee handbook. Always hand one of these out to all new-hires on their first day at work and have them sign a simple form noting that they’ve received the booklet and will carefully review it right away. It’s even better to gather together “new hires” within a week or two of their starting at your company and covering basic information in the handbook;
  • Carefully investigate all the facts involved with possibly firing a specific employee. Also, make sure all supervisors are regularly interacting with each employee and telling them when their performance needs improvement – in writing (be sure to have the employee sign and date this form before placing it in a permanent file);
  • Review all applicable state and federal laws regarding termination. If necessary, speak with your attorney if you have any major questions – or believe the employee is likely to sue. Always remember that some employees are very sensitive to issues involving race, gender, ethnicity, religion, nationality, veteran status, disability, age and sexual orientation;
  • Gather together all pertinent, written evidence concerning the employee’s work record. Be prepared to keep this file in a very safe place in case a lawsuit is later filed. While doing this, rethink all the hiring practices that may need to be revised so you can avoid hiring a similar person in the future;
  • Treat the employee with dignity and respect. Don’t gossip about your firing plans. Meet with the employee in a private office setting with at least one other staff member present to serve as a witness. Respect the fact that the process of being fired may be hard on the individual. Unless the employee is guilty of terrible misconduct, remain open to paying a later unemployment insurance claim. Consider offering a severance package in exchange for the employee signing a waiver not to sue for wrongful termination. Be polite yet firm when simply stating the reasons for your decision. Finally, let the individual speak briefly about how they feel about the event. And be sure to pay all monies owed for accrued sick leave and vacation time;
  • Know that you may face sociological repercussions among other workers after the firing. If what you have done in firing a specific person is considered unfair, you may have a problem regaining the respect of many co-workers and superiors. It’s always wise to meet briefly with all concerned employees and simply state that the individual is no longer with the company and that you would prefer to not discuss it further for privacy reasons;
  • Be sure to retrieve all company property prior to providing a last check to the fired employee. You’ll also want to ask for the company laptop and any keys to office property. Be sure to immediately notify your computer and building security forces so they can block the employee’s future access to the company database and email system.  You’ll also need to collect all company I.D. cards and uniforms.

Finally, try to part on pleasant terms with outgoing employees, perhaps noting that you believe that they’ll find a better fit in other positions soon. Everyone really can benefit from a properly handled firing since it can eventually improve workplace morale. In fact, even the fired employee may soon find an equal or better position somewhere else.

Be sure to call our firm if you need any specific advice about preparing an employee handbook, interacting with troublesome staff members — or any other employment law issue.

Six Approaches to Effective Negotiation

1. Understand your Opponent’s Position

a. Crawl into the shoes of the other guy. When you understand your opponent, you have a        better chance of reaching a successful conclusion. That means paying attention to how they    view the issues.

2. Build Trust through Personal Relationships

a. Through mutual trust, you are able to achieve things that benefit both sides. When there      is trust, you can talk about their assumptions, strategies, and even fears.

3. Build Confidence

a. Confidence building keeps the parties talking. The best way to think about a big                      negotiation is in a series of small negotiations. Start with an issue that could be resolved          quickly, reasonably and amicably.

b. The longer you can keep the sides talking with one another – instead of delivering                  sermons to one another – the better the chances that a middle ground can be reached.

c. Once the two sides are able to take small steps in unison, you can move to larger and            more complicated issues.

4. Compromise

a. Negotiation is by definition the art of compromise. But no compromise should be taken        to the extreme of sacrificing core principles. Know what you are willing to give up before the    negotiations start, and by abiding by Approach #1, you should have a pretty good idea what    the opponent can live without.

b. President Reagan once said; “I’d rather get 80% of what I want that to go over the cliff          with my flag waiving”.

5. Timing

a. Recognize when to press a point and when to withdraw. Like a good poker player, you          have to know when to hold them and know when to fold them.

b. On the other hand, bad timing can undermine successful negotiation.

6. Maintain a deep Appreciation of and Respect for Politics

a. The difference between success and failure is often measured by the ability to understand    how political constraints shape the outcome of any negotiation. Understand the external          influences the opponent may have.

b. Appreciate what objectives, arguments, and trade-offs are important to your opponents.

c. A public official must have the power to make the decision. That power largely derives          from public support or support of a board of directors.

d. A public official who loses public or board confidence also loses power. Understand that      the opposing negotiator may have to save face to get the deal done. Understand what is            necessary for the official to save face.

How one considers these six approaches will change from situation to situation. An approach to timing that proved effective in one negotiation might not work in another. Always remain flexible.

There are three maxims that remain absolute. Ignoring one of these maxims can seriously jeopardize a successful negotiation.

Maxim 1: Never lie.
Maxim 2: Nothing should be deemed agreed to until everything is agreed to.
Maxim 3: Keep a written record of all discussions.