Overcoming Negative References

Hello, Anita,

Since 2010, I have not had the best fortune in regards to employment. In the myriad of positions held I did what I could not to burn bridges and always gave 2 weeks notice. If an employer were to verify my work history, is it true the only thing they can legally verify is if I worked there and eligibility for rehire? Can my previous employer disclose wage history or anything beyond the aforementioned items? I believe one of my previous employers (a former supervisor) may be providing negative information when contacted about my tenure. Thank you for any clarification you can provide in this matter.

Dear, Ruffled About References,

As I mention in my post Responding to Reference Check Requests, there are no Federal laws regarding what may or may not be divulged by a previous employer for a job reference (although compliance with the EEOC and Fair Credit Reporting Act is required). State laws regarding background checks vary; there’s a great Nolo website that outlines what information may be disclosed and who may receive that information, state by state.playing cards at computer

While it may be legal to answer many of the questions asked by reference checkers, HR departments these days, wishing to avoid discrimination and defamation lawsuits, are playing their cards close to the vest and not revealing much besides dates of employment. (Just try getting an opinion rather than a hard fact from a seasoned HR professional!) Of course, not everyone got this policy memo. Supervisors at smaller companies without strict HR guidelines may become Chatty Cathy when called for a reference.

Combat negative references by offering glowing testimonial reference letters instead. Attach them to your cover email before they are even asked for. When asked for a list of references, omit this former supervisor you think may be giving you a thumbs down, unless this was your most recent job. If your job list is as long as you imply, many employers (particularly smaller businesses) will call a few references  and, unless they’re getting any red flags, will call it a day before reaching out to each and every past employer on your lengthy résumé.

If you are unable to omit this reference, you may want to address the issue head-on during the reference discussion. Tell your potential employer that you and your supervisor did not see eye to eye on certain issues and offer contact information for another colleague at that same company who may balance out the perspective.

Another tactic is to contact this former supervisor directly to clear the air. Ask whether, despite the bad  blood, you can come to a mutually agreeable response for him/her to give when called for reference checks. If you strongly feel that this supervisor is still dispensing inaccurate negative information (based not only on intuition, but feedback from interviewers), check to see if this manager is following his or her company’s HR policy for responding to reference requests.  If worse comes to worst, contact an employment attorney about the possibility of sending a cease and desist letter to your former boss.

Readers: Have you ever been surprised to hear you received a bad reference from a former employer?


Responding to Reference Check Requests
Finding Job References
Reference Check Response

5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Cathy
    May 15, 2015 @ 06:55:13

    I was told by my employer of 6 years he would give me a good reference (I was laid off due to funding in the University). When I was hired at my next position, the new professor told me that my previous employer answered questions about my abilities by saying ‘I don’t know, we never asked her to think.’


    • anitaclew
      May 15, 2015 @ 08:15:36

      Wow, Cathy, you’d think after 6 years, you’d get a better reference than that! Thankfully, it appears your new employer took the reference with a large grain of salt.


  2. MIchele Vics
    May 14, 2015 @ 09:16:26

    I’m always careful about who I list for references. Most potential employers want to verify dates of employment, not about how long you hung around the water cooler, for instance. As long as I’ve maintained a good work ethic, I can’t go wrong. Good employers will see that.


  3. Tiffany Lieu
    May 13, 2015 @ 15:13:37

    Cease and desist letter from an employment attorney to the boss can be a good option when all else fails and the workplace experience needs to be used for further job applying. Attorney costs must be kept in mind though. I think they are tax-deductible maybe not indefinitely. The way people hang on to their jobs these days, they are trying to get around. And, without enough years of experiences, it is difficult to convince professional bosses to hire for high paying jobs.


  4. amelia rojas
    May 12, 2015 @ 11:23:00

    Good questions and I’m sure it’s something we all wander about, I know I do often times. I agree with Anita and I like the trying to “clear the air” approach with the boss if there was “bad blood” that is in my opinion the best approach, if and when it’s at all possible of course. I’m sure there are many circumstances when “clearing the air” is not an option, so ensure you have other references that you know will offer the best and most positive feedback.

    Tough on tho.
    Best of luck!


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Anita Clew's blog posts are intended for general guidance and should never be taken as legal advice. In all instances where harassment, inequity, or unfair treatment is believed to be present, please consult your HR Department or legal representation.
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