A case out of the Eleventh Federal Circuit provides a cautionary tale for any employer who is trying to cut a terminated former employee a break in references.  Maybe don’t be a “nice guy”:
In Kragor v. Takedo Pharmaceuticals of America, Inc., 702 F.3d 1304 (11th Cir. 2012), the Appellate Court reversed and set for trial an age discrimination case in which a manager who had terminated an employee for misconduct disavowed the reason in a subsequent reference call.  He apparently wanted to help out the former employee—who learned about the kindness and brought it into evidence as proof that the reasons given for the termination were pretextual.  The Appeals Court found this contradiction created a triable case to allow the age discrimination case to proceed:
When the employer’s actual decisionmaker, after terminating an employee for misconduct (or the appearance of misconduct), says without qualification that the employee is exceptional, did nothing wrong, did everything right, and should not have been fired, that contradiction—when combined with a prima facie case—is enough to create a jury question on the ultimate issue of discrimination.
So much for trying to be a “nice guy.”
Takeaways:  Be cautious in staying consistent with the reasons provided for a termination and statements to third parties.  Good intentions do not always lead to good results.  When you want to give a more positive reference after a troubled termination, work with legal counsel on maintaining consistency with the company’s reasons for termination.