File a Lawsuit to Stop Bad References?

Q. I am currently a communications specialist, but I used to work for a mid-size metro newspaper. I had worked there for almost five years and was looking to move to a larger paper. Also, I was one of many who did not enjoy the abusive working environment. I had won several APSE and state writing awards.

My bosses (sports editor and assistant sports editor) learned of this and told me that they would help me any way they could and to use them as references in any job application, despite telling me that they did not want me to leave. At first I was a little leery because I had other references who I knew I could trust. But I thought having the sports editor and assistant sports editor on my reference list would be impressive. 

A job came up where I was a finalist for a major metro newspaper. I did not get the job. I later found out about two months later that they both had given that potential employer scathing remarks about me. I believe that they asked to be references so that they could badmouth me. I called them on it, but they denied it. The relationship went south from there and I ended up quitting because of the bad working environment. 
That was three years ago. Looking back on it, I wish I had gone to the HR department with my complaints. I am not sure if there is anything I can do about it now. Do you have any thoughts on this?
I have also learned that these two former bosses have continued to bad-mouth me to other potential employers and to former co-workers despite not listing them as references. I have looked into a defamation of character lawsuit against the former bosses and the company. I wrote a letter to that HR department letting them know that this is happening and I want it to stop.

They just told me they know that none of their employees would do that kind of thing. I know that a defamation of character suit is difficult to prove. Also, I do not have a lot of money to go up against this family-owned newspaper, which would most likely keep trying to put this suit on hold until I have no money left. 

I guess to make a long story short, I am seeking some advice in this situation. I have tried to move on, but it is hard with some people out to hurt my reputation. I believe it has cost me some jobs. I have learned a hard lesson to only use references who I can trust.  
Burned

A. You have raised several facets of what can be a terribly complicated situation. Whenever you ask people to be a reference, ask what they would say about you. This can help you avoid people who do not have good things to say, but only if they are being honest with you.

We all have to know that potential employers are free to call anyone they’d like to see what they can learn about us. There is no way to prevent people from calling folks you don’t want them to.

By calling out these editors, as well as the human resources people, you have probably discouraged them from saying negative things about you. Many, many companies have policies that forbid managers from giving any references at all, specifically because the companies are trying to protect themselves from defamation suits, which are expensive for everyone.

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I agree that a defamation suit against these editors and the company could take a lot of time and money. An attorney could explain how that would work. Consider whether you want to have your name associated with a lawsuit against a former employer.

And understand that a human resource department has multiple roles. It is there to protect employees, yes, but it is also there to protect the company or organization. Sometimes that means instructing managers not to give awful references — especially unsolicited — and sometimes it means defending the company against lawsuits.

Coming Wednesday: Join me at 1 p.m. ET for a live chat about knowing when it is time to leave your job.

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