Dear Matt: I've been out of work since 2009. I've done everything - networked, updated my résumé, attended job clubs - and am getting lots of interviews. In a few, I even made it to the third and fourth interview and at that point some things came up that led me to believe my former employer is badmouthing me. If this is true, what can I do? How much information can a previous employer legally say about me?

Matt: There could be two things going on here. One is the possible legal ramifications of the issue. The other involves trying to understand what's going on in the interview that is preventing you from becoming the one chosen for the job, besides the possible badmouthing.

First, the legal angle, provided by Karen S. Johnston, a Twin Cities-based employment law attorney:

Minnesota statutes allow an employer to give reference information including dates of employment, compensation history, job description and duties, training and education provided, and documented acts of illegal conduct, as long as the same information is mailed to the employee at the same time. If the employee provides written authorization, the employer can provide additional information. Again this information must be mailed to the employee at the same time it is provided as a reference. An employer that follows this procedure and provides true information is protected from a defamation suit. If the former employer in this case is not following this procedure, it is not protected from the possibility of a defamation suit, if the nature of the information it is providing to prospective employers otherwise meets the standards for bringing a claim.

"The individual in this case could consider calling this statute to the attention of the former employer and asserting the right to get the reference information it is giving out in writing," said Johnston. "The employee is entitled to this information and it would likely help to limit the information that the former employer is giving out."

Looking beyond that situation, is there anything else going on that may be holding you back? Are your salary demands too high? Do you lack a certain skill set or degree that others may have? Getting to a third and fourth interview is impressive. However, keep in mind, with so many people out of work, it might be the fact that while you seem to be a good fit, the company may think someone is a better fit, and ultimately, that could be why you have been passed by.

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