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

Finding Job References

I’ve had a few questions in the past weeks about references:

I went online to apply for a job. I was able to fill everything out on a job application except for a reference list. The application requires that I list three references with name, phone number, and email. I do not have that kind of information to give, especially email address. I cannot submit application without all the required information for references. How can I work past this issue?

Multiracial Thumbs Up Against Blue SkyDear, No References,

You need to get some younger “Millennial” friends with computers! Other people who may not have ready references include:

  • Young workers
  • Recent graduates
  • Stay-at-home parents or caregivers entering or reentering workforce
  • Employees terminated from one or more jobs
  • Bridge burners (you stormed out, or just didn’t appear for work one day without giving notice)
  • Self-employed individuals

Are references required fields in the application? If you cannot submit your application without filling in all of the blanks, try entering “N/A” (for Not Available) or type in “Upon Request.”  While some applications specifically request “professional” references, personal or character references may be accepted by other companies.

The professional references that hold the most sway are former supervisors. Peers or coworkers who can attest to your work ethic are also suitable references. Testimonials from clients or customers would also be impressive, especially for self-employed entrepreneurs seeking jobs.

Job_Reference_MemeIf you don’t have a bevy of professional references, find character references from other acquaintances. Teachers, college professors, or guidance counselors are great references for students and recent grads. Members of civic groups, church, or volunteer organizations may be able to attest to your attributes that would be work-relevant. As a last resort, use personal references, but definitely not your mother, your fiancé, and preferably not your BFF (unless he’s the president of an impressive multinational corporation). Think of your accountant who does your taxes, your landlord, or the long-time family friend who is an upstanding business owner in the community.

Be sure to ask these individuals for permission to include them on applications and your reference list. Ask “Do you feel you know me well enough to provide me with a good job reference?” This gives the person an out if they are uncomfortable vouching for you.

One final note: do not include your references on your résumé. In our online world of searchable job boards, it’s a privacy issue.  When you do provide contact information, give work phone numbers and emails rather than personal whenever possible.

Dear, Anita,

On an employment application, is it appropriate to list Human Resource department, along with that office phone number, in cases where the company is a “branch” location and the corporate office is located in another area (i.e., city or state) or if your direct manager/supervisor is no longer employed by that company?

Dear, Long Gone,

I think that is wise, as the HR department can at least verify your dates of employment. If you have kept in touch with your direct supervisor (and he can give you a glowing recommendation), you may want to use him as a reference with his new contact information.

If you’re out of touch, search for former managers and coworkers on Google or LinkedIn. It’s a good networking practice to stay connected with folks from past jobs – before you want a favor like a recommendation letter. After you reconnect on LinkedIn, endorse skills in which your ex-colleagues excelled, and ask for endorsements in return. In addition to traditional reference checks, many HR departments routinely check social media.

Readers: Who was your most “creative” job reference?

Do you have a job-related question? Ask Anita.

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RELATED POSTS:
Finding a Job Without Recent Work References
Reference Check Response
Responding to Reference Check Requests
Creating a Résumé from Scratch

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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