A master is under no legal obligation to give his servant a character, but, if he chooses to give him a character the character should be a true one. And as between master and master the character given is a privileged communication unless given maliciously. So that if the answers to inquiries are unfavourable, or even false, the servant will have no right of action against the master unless he can also show express malice.
A master is not obliged to prove or substantiate the truth of the character he gives, and the fact of its being given to more than one person at a time or made in the presence of several people does not alter the fact that it is a confidential declaration. Thus, where a master, addressing his servants, warned them against speaking to a former servant, and saying that he had been discharged for robbing him, the communication was held to be privileged, although made in the presence of several persons.
The servant will have to make out a very strong case before the question of malice is allowed to go to the jury. And if he is unable to do so, the duty of the judge will be to non-suit him. If a master volunteers the character of his servant and gives him a bad one without its being applied for, or couples charges of misconduct with expressions of vindictiveness, or makes statements unsupported by evidence and the direct contrary to what really occurred, or betrays a desire to injure the servant and prevent him from getting another situation, malice may be inferred, and he may be made responsible, therefore, in an action for damages.
Information at Second-hand
Information obtained at second-hand may be privileged, and a master may be justified, when answering inquiries regarding the character of his servant, in stating not only what he knows of his own personal knowledge and experience, but also what he has been told and believes to be true.
The fact of a master having given a servant a good character does not preclude him from giving an adverse one subsequently from information which comes to his knowledge. Thus where a husband, during his wife's illness, gave his cook a good character which procured her a situation, and when, in answer to subsequent inquiries, his wife, who had recovered, wrote saying that she suspected her former cook of dishonesty, it was held that the communication was privileged. An action cannot be brought against a master for words spoken to a policeman on giving a servant in charge, or when preferring a complaint against him before a magistrate. Special Damage
Assuming the statements made to be malicious, in order to give the servant a right of action the words must be actionable in themselves, or the servant must have suffered some special damage.
Words actionable in themselves are those imputing some criminal offence, contagious disease, dishonesty, or immorality, or some charge which affects the servant in his capacity of servant, such as accusing a gamekeeper of killing foxes. Special damage is harder to prove, and is the actual definite injury to the servant as the result of the slanderous statements. A girl who was dismissed by her employer in consequence of reflections made upon her character by the landlord of the house in which she lodged was successful in obtaining damages from the man in question for being the cause of her dismissal. False Character
A master has no right to recommend a servant to another employer by giving him a false character, and if the new employer sustains any damage in consequence of having taken the servant upon the recommendation he will have cause for action against the former master. If, therefore, out of kindness of heart and to give the girl another chance, a mistress ignores the fact that her servant has thieving propensities, and gives her a good character, and the girl, lapsing into her old ways, robs her new mistress, the latter is justified in taking action to recover damages from the original employer.
There is a penalty of £20 for falsely personating a master or his wife, housekeeper, steward, or servant, and either personally or in writing giving any false, forged, or counterfeit character to any person who is endeavouring to obtain a situation, or for falsely pretending that they have been in a situation for a longer time than was actually the case, or was discharged at any other time than that at which he actually left, or that he had never been in service before.
A similar penalty is imposed upon servants for making false statements when seeking employment, or making use of a forged certificate of character, or altering the date, or erasing any word in the character, or falsely pretending that they had never been in service on any previous occasion.