May Churches Give Negative Employment References?

Pastor Ray faced a serious dilemma. He had recently dismissed his Youth Minister for sexual misconduct. The police had been notified, yet no charges were preferred (due to teen’s legal age) and none were filed. Pastor Ray felt a tremendous sense of relief knowing this matter was over, and that the Youth Minister was no longer at the Church, and had also moved out of town.

Nightmares Never Seem to go Away

All of us have had a nightmare at some time in our lives – one that in spite of all efforts to forget it and move forward, seems to occasionally rear its ugly head.

This was the case for this Pastor. Within 3 months of the Youth Minister’s dismissal, the Pastor received a call from a Church in a neighboring city. That Church called for an employment reference on the dismissed Youth Minister.

Pastor Ray knows too well, his ex-Youth Minister’s indiscretions. Should or should he not reveal this information to this request for employment reference? If he does not, that Youth Minister will more than likely engage in other instances of misconduct. Should this occur, some young person’s emotional and/or physical well-being may be at risk. Another dilemma he faces is that of civil liability – whether or not the information is divulged. If he does speak out, he may face a lawsuit from the former employee. If he does not speak out and someone encounters sexual harassment, the victim may sue. What is a Pastor to do?

Labor Laws

Contrary to what some may think, there are no Federal Laws that restrict or prohibit what an employer may say about a former employee. When a company fires an employee, they can say so. They can also give the reason for the termination. For example: if an employee is terminated for stealing money, the company can state that as the reason for dismissal.

However, State Laws differ from state to state and employment reference allowances and restrictions are often subject to an applicable State Law. Every Pastor and Human Resource Manager for any Church should obtain the Labor Laws applicable their home State.

Make sure that your Church has a copy your State’s Labor Laws and abide by them.

Avoiding a Law Suit

Most employers, including Churches, limit information provided in an employment reference. They do this to limit the possibility of a defamation suit. If you give the reason for an employee’s dismissal, the ex-employee may file suit against you. Although the burden of proof would be upon the ex-employee, lawsuits are expensive for defendants, and should be avoided when possible.

If you do provide the cause of dismissal, make sure that reason is legitimate and can be substantiated.

For this reason, most employers limit their references to basic information such as: Dates of Employment, Job Title, and whether or not the ex-employee is available for rehire.

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