In this climate of litigation, the probability is that most
organizations that have been given the proper legal advice will
only disclose three pieces of information about you, no matter the
quality of the job you did:
Dates you were employed.
Your job description or employment capacity.
Your salary information.
Some information is absolutely prohibited from disclosure:
School records, without your consent;
Criminal history, though this varies from state to state and
the nature of the prospective employer (however, your criminal
record is public info, available to all);
Medical records, without your consent;
Questions about a disability you may have, unless that
disability impinges directly on your ability to perform the job
even if the prospective employer makes "reasonable
Certain governmental records, such as personnel records of
local or state employees in some jurisdictions (Even if not
provided by your previous employer, government employee records are
Your history of worker's compensation claim(s).
Your driving record is public record and can be released without
Your previous employer does not have to answer any questions.
(Remember the First Amendment? Freedom of speech is also freedom
not to speak.) The past employer bears significant liability for a
defamation action by you if it reveals any information that is both
(1) untrue and (2) damaging to you. If the answer prevents your
getting the job, it is damaging to you.
As stated at the beginning of this answer, most organizations,
particularly large organizations, governmental organizations, and
smaller organizations that have been given good advice by lawyers
have very strict policies governing what information is allowed to
be released about you.
If you are unsure about a potential reference there are several
companies that will check your references for you and give a
detailed report. Put "reference check" in a search engine and you
will discover information about many such businesses.
If the referee is very pleased with you, (s)he may be inclined
to give a glowing reference, but, again, the strict policies apply,
and in today's era of litigation, the probability is that the
organization will remain silent except for the three pieces of
information mentioned at the beginning of this answer. Further, the
referee that gives out the "glowing" reference may be exposing her
or his organization to liability should your prospective employer
suffer damages because of you--the present employer may bring an
action against the referring employer for failing to disclose the
One way people gather information about applicants while
reducing liability is for an individual person working for the
prospective employer, acting, supposedly, "as an individual," to
contact the referee at home in her or his capacity "as an
individual," so that the referee is not acting as an agent of the
organization. That way, sometimes, information flows more freely,
but an individual contacted will still fear saying much that is
negative about you for fear of a legal action by you, as already
described, or a governmental entity, such as the Equal Employment
Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or your state's version of the
This is a complex topic. The above is, admittedly, a
simplification. We recommend you seek some additional
There is a good and readable summary of the legal issues (albeit
for California only) here: