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?

RELATED POSTS:

Responding to Reference Check Requests
Finding Job References
Reference Check Response

Disclaimer

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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