5 Things to Do When Your Ex-Boss Gives a Bad Reference


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pencil on a form of employment reference check

Think your old boss is singing your praises? Think again. Half of bosses are saying negative things about their former underlings to prospective employers, according to reference check company AllisonTaylor. Many applicants are unaware of the poor reference their former supervisor is giving, even though it’s hurting their chances of landing a new job.

Some people mistakenly assume former employers are only allowed to confirm dates of employment or job titles, or perhaps say whether you were fired or parted ways voluntarily. Yet it’s perfectly legal for your boss to give a negative reference (provided he’s not lying). Even if official policy at your past job is to provide only minimal information on former employees, not everyone follows those rules.

“[M]any supervisors ignore company policy and give out information on employees that is glowing or extremely negative,” labor and employment attorney Donna Ballman told Inc. magazine.

So what should you do if you discover your old boss has less-than-complimentary things to say about you? Obviously, you won’t be putting him forward as a reference yourself, but you can’t always stop employers from contacting him. Rather than letting a bad reference destroy your future employment prospects, take these five steps to getting the problem under control.

1. Talk to your former boss

man applying for job

If you find out your ex-supervisor is slamming you when prospective employers call for a reference, or if you parted on less-than-stellar terms, your first step should be to try to work out the issue with them directly. Contact your old boss and explain that their reference is making it difficult for you to find a new job. Find out what they’re saying about you and see if you can convince them to temper the criticism.

“Explore whether you could agree to neutral language that would be mutually acceptable,” Susan Lessack, a partner with the law firm Pepper Hamilton, told Fast Company.

2. Go to HR

Supervisors who speak negatively about a former employee often do so without their company’s knowledge. A quick call to the HR department, or even a cease-and-desist letter, can put a stop to the bad-mouthing.

“[I]f you think the reference your boss is providing is factually inaccurate, skip her and go straight to your old company’s HR department. HR people are trained in this area, will be familiar with the potential for legal problems, and will probably speak to your old boss and put a stop to it,” HR expert Alison Green wrote in U.S. News & World Report.

3. Check your own references

Do you really know what your references are saying about you? If you suspect bad references are causing you to miss out on job offers but aren’t sure, do a little digging. Even someone you think will be a positive reference could be hurting your chances by offering lukewarm praise, being vague, or providing misleading information. Doing a reference check on yourself can help you identify a potential problem and then take proactive steps to address it.

Reference checking firms like AllisonTaylor and CheckMyReference will call your references and report back on what they say about you. Or you can take a DIY approach. Just have a friend call your former employers and ask for a reference, then report back to you on what was said.

4. Stack the deck in your favor

happy man on phone

Be proactive about identifying people who will say positive things about your past work. If you didn’t get along with a former boss, share the contact information of someone else you worked with. Make an effort to reconnect with people you’ve worked with in the past and ask if they’d be willing to act as reference. The more positive information you can provide, the less impact a bad reference will have.

“Don’t just offer up one reference contact – provide at least four,” Suzanne Lucas, aka the Evil HR Lady, wrote in an article for CBS MoneyWatch. “If they call three people who think you’re fabulous and one person who says you were fired, they are more likely to give weight to the three folks who liked you.”

5. Be upfront about the bad reference

You can get out in front of a bad reference by letting a prospective employer know what to expect. If you know a hiring manager is going to reach out to former employers, including those you didn’t have a great relationship with, adopt a policy of full disclosure.

Mention that your former employer may have less-than-flattering things to say about you, and then explain why. Perhaps your boss was a bully who has it out for you personally, or you made a mistake and ultimately left the company. Avoid negativity, but state your case. Candor may not be enough to counter the damage of a bad reference, but it could help, especially if all your other references are uniformly positive.

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