Does truly no good deed go unpunished? A new legal alert from Boston-based law firm Tarlow Breed Hart & Rodgers, P.C. warns that even something as seemingly innocent as offering a former employee an online recommendation on LinkedIn or some other social media thumbs up potentially could make your company vulnerable to a possible wrongful termination or discrimination suit.

“When companies downsize, it’s natural to want to help former employees out to find a new position,” sympathizes Kerry Ryan, a member at the firm. “What happens in many situations is the former employee’s job search goes on for a while and they start to wonder why they were let go and so-and-so was not. Having a glowing recommendation from their supervisor only feeds the fire that they were wrongly terminated and that’s where lawsuits arise.”

Seriously? Um, okay. I’ve thankfully never been out of work so long that such thoughts would start to dance in my head, but I guess it’s possible.

Conceding the point, what should a company do to protect themselves from LinkedIn recs or Facebook comments becoming plaintiff’s Exhibit A?

“There are some basic steps that can help protect a company,” says Ryan. “You need to balance the desire to help out a former employee with the realities of potential litigation.”

The firm suggests employers might want to:
• Require any online recommendations to be reviewed and signed off on by a point person (like an HR/benefits pro like yourself or a company executive). All requests by telephone for a recommendation should be referred to the same point person.
• Adopt a company-wide policy barring employees from giving written recommendations for either current or former employees on a non-company Web site. This will give the supervisor a legitimate reason to tell the departing employee that the supervisor can't give the requested recommendation. The policy may help the supervisor out of a difficult situation. 
• Provide additional career counseling and other outplacement services in lieu of online recommendations.
• A supervisor could call other people in the industry suggesting that they interview the departing employee. These introductions may be more valuable than a written reference on a networking site.

“It used to be ‘if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all’. When it comes to recommending one of your former employees on LinkedIn or other social media sites, saying something nice could open the door to litigation,” said Ryan.

So, then even if you do have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.

Interesting. What do you think, pros? Have you ever been worried about a recommendation coming back to haunt you? Do the new concerns ushered in with the digital age make you think twice about making an online recommendation? Sound off in the comments.

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