Can an Employer Disclose That You Were Fired?

Employee being shown the door

Ghislain & Marie David de Lossy / Getty Images

If you're applying for new jobs after termination, you may be wondering whether a previous employer can say that you were fired.

You are right to be aware that your prospective employer may check on the reasons you left your job. Most employers conduct background or reference checks during the interview process. If you’ve been terminated for cause, it may well come up during their investigation.

Being prepared for what your former employer will tell inquiring hiring managers about the circumstances of your departure from the company can help you put the best possible spin on what happened.

When an Employer Can Say You Were Fired

In most cases, employers aren't legally prohibited from telling another employer that you were terminated, laid off, or let go. They can even share the reasons that you lost your job. However, if an employer falsely states that you were fired or cites an incorrect reason for termination that is damaging to your reputation, then you could sue for defamation.

The burden of proof would fall on you as the plaintiff to prove that the information shared by your past employer was false and damaging in order for you to win the case.

In many cases, the hassle of the court process and the surrounding legal fees won't be worth it.

What Information Employers Typically Share

Fortunately, most employers will be cautious about sharing any information that might be harmful to a former worker for fear of legal repercussions. Many organizations have policies that limit their staff to providing only dates of employment and job titles when inquiries are made about past employees.

You can be proactive during your exit interview (if you have one) and ask what the company policy is regarding the information they release to hiring managers from other companies.

Check State Law

Also, state labor laws vary, so check your state labor department website for information on the laws in your state that limit what employers can disclose about former employees. You’ll also find other useful information about what rights and services you are entitled to as a worker who has been fired.

How to Answer Questions About Being Fired

Even if you think your past employer won't share the fact that you were let go, you should always be as honest as possible when discussing your circumstances–although there are indeed right and wrong ways to answer questions about a firing.

The best answers are:

Truthful: While it’s OK (advisable, even!) to put a positive spin on the story of your termination, you still need to stick to the truth. That means not saying that there was a layoff when you were fired for cause, for example. Tell a lie, and you’re likely to get caught, either when your prospective employer checks your references or when the rumor mill churns out a contradictory story of your departure. Most industries are secretly pretty small: you should assume that the hiring manager will find out why you left your previous job, even if the company has a policy against revealing that information officially.

If you’re caught in a lie, you’re liable to lose the new job, even if you’ve already been hired when the news comes out.

Brief: There’s no need to dwell on your termination. Offer a brief, truthful, positive answer and move on to what you have to offer the new employer. Don’t fall prey to the urge to beat yourself up or over-explain. Most people lose a job at some point in their careers, and many successful people have been fired at one time or another. It’s not the career disaster it might feel like at this moment.

Positive and Forward-Looking: It’s the future that matters now, not the past. Bring the interview’s focus on what matters most: what you can do for the employer.

Be Prepared to Discuss

Even when you’re prepared, this can be an awkward conversation, but having a plan will give you the opportunity to construct an answer that leaves you looking as good as possible, regardless of the reasons. If you tell a lie and end up being caught, that misinformation can be grounds for withdrawing a job offer or even terminating you later on if it’s discovered by your employer.

When you have been fired, regardless of the reasons, you will need to address the situation with prospective employers as well as your colleagues, friends, and family.

Take the time to process the reasons, whether they are due to shortcomings on your part, or entirely circumstantial, and try to represent the facts in as flattering a way as possible.

Keep it Positive

Remember to leave any bitterness or blame out of the conversation with prospective employers and focus on how you have addressed any personal issues and/or enhanced your qualifications as a result of the termination.

The information contained in this article is not legal advice and is not a substitute for such advice. State and federal laws change frequently, and the information in this article may not reflect your own state’s laws or the most recent changes to the law.

Article Sources

  1. SHRM. “SHRM: Employers Slow to Pick Up Trend of Continuous Screening.” Accessed April 16, 2021.

  2. SHRM. “Can Employers Give a Bad Reference for a Former Employee?” Accessed April 16, 2021.

  3. Cornell Law School Legal Information Institute. “Defamation.” Accessed April 16, 2021.