It came out in the news this week that Dakota Meyer, the only living Marine to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor since the Vietnam War, recently filed a lawsuit against his former employer, the defense contractor BAE Systems. Meyer alleges in his lawsuit that one of his supervisors at BAE effectively blocked his employment at another defense contractor by claiming that Mr. Meyer was not mentally stable and had a drinking problem, which Mr. Meyer asserts are false and defamatory statements. Undoubtedly, this dispute with Mr. Meyer is a public relations disaster for BAE Systems and will be costly in time and legal fees regardless of the case’s outcome.
This lawsuit demonstrates the risks involved in providing substantive references to potential employers of former employees. Providing substantive references provides little benefit to the former employer (since the employee no longer works for the company) and may provide a basis for a former employee to file a lawsuit. I have seen defamation cases filed against employers in Virginia, and these cases universally cause financial harm to the employers who are left to defend against such cases. Consequently, more and more employers are establishing firm policies concerning what information may be divulged in employee references. Frequently, references are limited to the dates of employment and the former employee’s position.