our everyday life

How to Deal With Negative Job References

by Dana Severson, studioD

A lot of obstacles can get in the way of landing a job -- chief among them, not having the necessary skills or experience. But if you meet all the requirements and nail the interview, the last thing you need is a bad reference from a former employer. It’s always best to know what people are saying about you before they ever utter a word.

Find different references. A former and trusted colleague -- “trusted” being the operative word -- is always a good choice. Or, turn to a supervisor from a different department if the two of you had a good working relationship. Even past clients can serve as references. No matter the choice, be sure to ask whether the person is comfortable giving you a reference.

Manage negative references before they can damage your job opportunities. Be honest with hiring managers and tell them you and an old boss, for example, never quite saw eye to eye, and another reference would be a much better judge of your performance. By getting in front of negative comments, you can mitigate the damage much more effectively than when you are asked about them after the fact.

Contact any employer you suspect is giving you a negative reference and try to come to some agreement on what will be said going forward. Sometimes just reaching out to someone can make a positive impact. In addition, many employers are concerned about the possibility of legal trouble if they provide a negative reference with no documentation to back it up. Your old boss might agree to provide the dates of employment to your prospective employers, while keeping his opinions to himself.

Call the human resources department at your former employer if someone is giving false information about your performance. Encourage the HR representative to look into the situation because what’s being said about you hurts your chances of landing a new job. An HR professional will likely take care of it on the spot, mainly because of the legal implications.

Consult an attorney to discuss the merits of a cease-and-desist letter to old employers who are speaking poorly of you. A negative reference could result in a legal principle called “intentional interference with economic relations.” Jim Abrams, an attorney at Allison & Taylor, told CNN.com that "your skills and employability are property rights that a bad reference is taking from you." By sending a cease and desist letter, you might convince your old employer that you are willing to take whatever steps are necessary to protect your right to earn a living. This in turn could convince him to stop providing negative references.


  • Resist the urge to enlist the help of a friend to pose as a potential employer. Calling references to see what they’re saying about you could do more damage than you think. For example, a good reference could be suspicious about a call and quickly turn into a bad one going forward.

About the Author

Based in Minneapolis, Minn., Dana Severson has been writing marketing materials for small-to-mid-sized businesses since 2005. Prior to this, Severson worked as a manager of business development for a marketing company, developing targeted marketing campaigns for Big G, Betty Crocker and Pillsbury, among others.

Photo Credits

  • David De Lossy/Digital Vision/Getty Images