Q: I was unfairly fired from a telecommunications company five years ago. I am a union member, and I took the case to arbitration. I also filed a lawsuit in case I did not like the outcome of the arbitration. The company was hoping that I would get weary and walk away, but the arbitration was settled in my favor, and I am entitled to all back wages, stocks (dividends and stock split) and medical benefits--everything as though I had been employed since then.

Now I've learned that the company is bad-mouthing me to potential employers--telling them I did not have the job I say I had on my resume, which makes it look as if I'm lying. All that happened is the job title changed.

A: We've heard a lot about the issue of references lately. Please read on.

I accepted a job at a manufacturing company after I was downsized from my previous employer after a merger. Little did I know that I had entered into the most abusive relationship of my life.

Within the first week, two people who worked for my boss quit. My boss said she had fired them for incompetence. I later found out that one had gotten so fed up she had just walked off the job. The other person quit, giving two weeks' notice, but the boss got so mad when she resigned that she told her to leave immediately. I tried to keep an open mind, but the boss's office was next to mine, and I would hear her spewing off about how she enjoyed ruining ex-employees' lives. When people called for reference checks, I would hear her tell them things like they were incompetent, or they spent too much time with their families, or weren't dedicated to their careers, or that they had experienced a nervous breakdown.

For nine months, I tried to do the best job possible, working 70- or 80-hour weeks, but it was never enough for my boss. Finally, when I resigned, my boss yelled that I was fired and that she would make the rest of my life miserable. Then she printed out a generic termination letter on her computer and inserted my name in the blanks. Obviously, this script had been used in the past.

It is now seven months later. I have had lots of job interviews, including some really wonderful interviews and have been called back second and third times. I always request they call my previous employers, not the last one. But in all these situations, the communication abruptly stops. Last week, I spoke frankly to a former human resources manager, who said that company had been told that I was fired, and that I might have a mental problem.

And here's another:

I recently left a job because of a racial situation. I was administrator of a long-term care facility, supervising 100 employees. I was the only minority (black female) in the company in that kind of managerial role. When the director of food services quit, taking some of the staff with her, I was told that I was expected to wash dishes in the kitchen. I thought this was very offensive. When my boss gave me an ultimatum to do it, I quickly wrote a note of resignation and left that day.

Now, in retaliation, he is giving out negative comments to potential employers and the company will only release dates of employment. I do have two excellent evaluations given by a previous employer, but I am worried about how I can counteract the other comments. I have been looking for a job for over six months.

Let's be clear on one point: Employers are permitted to openly discuss a worker's past performance. Even if information is damaging, it is entirely legal--as long as it is true, or reasonably believed to be true. In fact, other employers need to be able to receive an honest appraisal so they can make a good hiring decision themselves. But many employers have become so fearful of being sued for giving out bad references that they release only a handful of basic facts--job title, length of service and salary.

Still, workers need to be wary as they look for new jobs that their references are in order. Some employers seem to act more like jilted lovers than professional colleagues. Other times, human resources departments inadvertently give out inaccurate information that makes applicants appear to be misrepresenting themselves. And a new problem on the horizon for job seekers is that some companies have outsourced their reference information to outside firms that aren't familiar with former employees' work or aren't committed to getting information straight.

"A simple typo on a starting date or an ending date makes you look like a liar," said Terra Dourlain, managing director of Allison & Taylor Reference Checking Inc. of Jamestown, N.Y., which operates the Web site MyReferences.com. "Every little inconsistency is a red flag, and the employer will just move on to another candidate without telling the person."

Another problem for job candidates, Dourlain said, is that some of these outsourced personnel departments charge callers a fee for information. She said that prospective bosses must wait out long voice-mail messages explaining numerous telephone options, with the bill increasing by the minute, to confirm the basic facts on a candidate's resume.

And then there is the inevitable minority of unscrupulous employers who willfully misrepresent the facts. Mike Rankin, spokesman for Documented Reference Check (www.badreferences.com) of Diamond Bar, Calif., said his firm, too, has encountered examples of employers who seek to injure their former employees, making it impossible for them to find work. "They are being stalked by their employers," he said. He said that in those cases, the only thing that works is a threat of legal action--either a lawsuit or pursuit of a cease-and-desist order against the employer. His firm employs court stenographers to do the background checks, so that they can offer testimony in court about what they were told.

A couple words of advice from these experts: Don't leave a job in anger, because it makes the circumstances of the departure unclear and subject to interpretation. Double-check your employment facts when leaving a job so you can correct inaccuracies before they are conveyed to a new employer.

And be truthful about, but don't over-explain, negative facts. Dourlain said that in about half of the reference checks they perform for clients who believe they are being maligned, it turns out the person is actually being depicted positively. The problem, she said, is that the job-seeker is making too much of the problem.