Imagine this: You're applying for a job. You've been a productive, respected employee at your old company for years.
But when your prospective employer calls for references, your boss will say no more than yes, you're an employee, and how long you've been one.
Why this work-world equivalent of "don't ask, don't tell"? It's because many employers have been taken to court by former employees alleging they were defamed in references. In other cases, employers have been sued for not mentioning that a former worker had a problem - such as violent behavior.
"Companies are scared of being sued," said Barry Lawrence, a spokesman for the Society for Human Resource Management, based in Alexandria, Va. "As a result, no one's getting information. This hurts good employees, because the best indicator of future performance is past performance."
In an effort to give employers another legal protection besides the hard-to-defend one of honesty, state legislatures have stepped in. Thirty-four states have considered legislation to protect from suits employers who make good-faith efforts to be honest in references - even if occasionally wrong.
Georgia is one of these states, said Sam Hall, director of communications for the Georgia Department of Labor.
Georgia passed such a measure, which went into effect July 1, 1993. An amendment effective July 1, 1995, narrowed the scope of the law, by defining "employer" as only a small number of specific kinds of businesses, such banks, licensed home-care providers and home health agencies.
Another amendment took effect April 15, 1996. It took out the specific references to businesses to give general coverage to all types of businesses from sole proprietorships to corporations, Mr. Hall said.
Without these laws - and even in many cases despite them - employers are reluctant to give any information beyond name and employment dates for fear of suits that, in most cases, allege discrimination and defamation.
Twenty-six states have passed reference-check laws since 1993. Eight more states have considered similar bills this year.
Unless the reference checker asks a direct question, said Regina Maciula, director of administration for Wendel, Rosen, Black and Dean, a law firm in Oakland, Calif., "Our policy is only to give name, rank and serial number."
Still, some employers and human-resources professionals think the new reference-protection laws are a step, if a very small one, in the right direction.
"(These laws) raise the bar of protection when an employer gives a good-faith reference," Mr. Lawrence said. "Wherever the bar is, you have to make sure you raise it a little higher."
Business Editor Donna Rogers contributed to this report.