“I would like to know if an employer can get away with bad-mouthing a former employee.”
That is a great question, Bill! It is a common misconception that your former employer cannot say anything negative about you.
The technical mumbo-jumbo
Legally, a former employer can say anything they want about you (unless the information is confidential).
However, they may be opening themselves up to be sued for defamation if they cannot back up their claims. Because of this, many companies have policies in place that limit what they can and can’t say about a former employee. For example, they may only be allowed to confirm you worked there, give the dates, your salary and job title. They may not be able to give a specific reason as to why you left.
If you feel like they are not being truthful and you can prove your claims, there is legal recourse you can take. For specific information, contact your state’s department of labor and explain your situation.
What to do if the experience was negative
No matter what they say, it is important that your stories line up. It is best to be honest.
It can be a scary, especially if you did not leave on good terms with the company, if you don’t know what they will say about you. If you would like to know what their policy is, try calling and asking. If you are fired, try to remember to inquire immediately what they would say if they are asked about your performance.
If you know they will not say positive things about you, try getting in contact with them to smooth things over. I know that sounds intimidating, but it will not only show them you have changed, it may also change what they will say about you. Having a bad reference can make things stressful during your job search, so your best bet is to do everything you can to change the perception of you (unless their policy is to just confirm the basic information of your employment).