How to Deal With a Bad Employment Reference

A bad employment reference can thwart your efforts to find new work. Many prospective employers use these references to get an idea about your workplace behavior and productivity, and a bad reference suggests an unsuitable employee. Be aware that you don’t have to get fired to get a bad reference. Any time you leave a company and the boss has a negative impression of you, you could end up with a bad reference. If you have one, you need to know how to deal with it.

Verify the Reference

If one of your previous jobs ended badly or on uncertain ground, find out what kind of references you can expect from that company. Have a friend pose as a prospective employer and call the human resources department to confirm your employment and get a sense of what kind of employee you were. If the company has no such department, have your friend call your old boss instead. It helps to have a script ready to use. Although the tactic has a sneaky element to it, your former employer has nothing to lose. You, on the other hand, stand to lose a job offer.

Most Recent Job

A bad reference from your current or most recent employer poses a big threat to your employment prospects. Prospective employers almost always want to know about your most recent job experience, and usually you can’t hide it — unless you had another job at the same time, or unless the job lasted less than six months, in which cases you can omit the bad employer from your resumeentirely. If you can’t hide a bad reference, though, then you have to be proactive. The facts will come out anyway, so get ahead of them and tell your side of the story to a prospective employer. However, think twice before challenging the validity of the bad reference directly. Even if you have the high ground, the prospective employer might interpret your challenge as egotism or stubbornness. Instead, focus on conveying yourself as someone who has learned from past mistakes.

Older Jobs

When it comes to a bad reference from companies farther back in your employment history, you have more freedom to gloss over it. Don’t volunteer the information. If a prospective employer asks you directly whether they should expect a bad reference in your employment history, then you can say that you had a job some time in the past that didn’t end well. Succinctly lay out the crux of the bad reference, explain what you learned about it, and finish up by noting that your overall record speaks for itself. Try to do it in just a sentence or two. Also, be creative with your resume. If subsequent employers or the passage of time gives you an opportunity to simply cut off your resume at the point of the bad reference, then take it.

Former Employer Outreach

In the event of a particularly negative reference that has cost you multiple job offers, reach out to your former employer’s human resources department yourself and tell them that their reference is costing you the opportunity to get work. Human resource workers tend to have a greater appreciation of the legal risks of defamation and slander, so take a level-headed, polite tone and ask if you can work out an agreement on a less-negative reference. Additionally, anytime you learn that a former employer has issued a factually inaccurate reference, call the human resources department right away to correct the record. If the company has no human resources department, then call your old boss or his replacement — or, if the two of you have too much bad blood, call his boss. If you can’t get relief from the company, then seek legal counsel.

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