Downton Abbey & The Employment Reference

“Downton Abbey” is currently a very popular PBS television show.  It’s set on an English country estate around 1920, and focuses on the owners and the numerous “servants” that work at a large Edwardian Mansion.  Everyone has antiquated titles reflecting their social status, like “Dowager Countess,” “footman,” or “valet.”

Like any workplace, there is always drama.  Servants jockey for promotions and, in the process, often sabotage the work efforts of others.  Given the high standards expected of the servants, some poor soul always seems to be on the verge of losing his or her job for the slightest offense.

As a management-side employment law attorney, I often watch television workplace dramas with one eye out for any legal or human resources (“HR”) implications. (I know, I know, what a nerd!). Although I have only seen a few episodes, it appears to me that the servants on Downton Abbey spend an inordinate amount of time worried about whether they will receive a positive employment “reference” from Lord Grantham or Lady Crawley.  Some downright beg for one, and ominously lament that without it, they may never be able to work again.

How times have changed.  In my experience, many employees nowadays could care less about whether they receive a good reference or not.  Burning bridges is commonplace. Many employees don’t ask for employment references.  Likewise, many employers don’t give references for fear of being sued for defamation and/or retaliation, or give a bare bones “non-reference.” Prospective employers are often forced to “read between the lines,” or, worse yet, attempt to divine the meaning of the “tone” of the former employer during a brief phone call.

Regardless, a positive employment reference can still be valuable to employees and employers.  Accordingly, any employer who wants to provide more than a “name/rank/serial number” reference (perhaps in the hopes of someday getting a more detailed one in return from another employer) should consider the following admonitions:

First, an employer should only give a “good reference” to a “good employee.”  An employer that gives a favorable reference to a marginal or bad employee will very likely see that reference become Exhibit 1 in a subsequent lawsuit against it.  The employee (reasonably) thinks:  “Why was I terminated when they gave me such a glowing letter of reference?  It must be that the company discriminated against me because I am a _____.”  Giving a positive reference to an undeserving (ex)employee simply results in a “good deed getting punished.”

Second, any employer that is considering giving a positive reference should try to get something in return.  In exchange for a positive reference, obtain a signed release under which the employee waives all potential claims against the company related to his/her employment, including the provision (and contents) of the reference.

Third, control who has the authority to provide references for the company.  If possible, designate one person responsible for providing any references.  Often times this is the Human Resources Manager.  Do not let lower level supervisors or forepersons give employment references.  The reference needs to be accurate, truthful and concise.  Having an experienced professional who is careful with his or her words will ensure this.


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