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Though it is the policy of some large companies to only confirm dates of employment, employers actually have tremendous freedom with regard to the information they disclose to prospective employers inquiring for a reference. Specifically, Civil Code 47(c) proactively guards
an employer's right to make any "communication concerning the job performance or qualifications of an applicant for employment, based upon credible evidence, made without malice . . . .upon request of, one whom the employer reasonably believes is a prospective employer of the applicant." (See here for the actual text of the law: http://law.onecle.com/california/civil/47.html
Basically, this means that employers can say anything to prospective employers--including whether an employee was fired, whether they were a "good" employee, and any other fact or opinion, with the exception of statements that are knowingly false and told for the purpose of maliciously injuring the employee's chance of hire.
For example, if a former employer was bitter about an employee leaving the company, they could not lie and tell prospective employers that the employee was fired for using cocaine. Aside from outright lies of this nature, though, there are no legal prohibitions on what an employer can say.
Thus, I am afraid that an employee would have no legal recourse if their former employer revealed they were fired or stated any sort of subjective opinion regarding the quality of their work.
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