So things didn’t work out with your last job. It happens. But what’s going to happen when that potential new employer calls your old boss?
"Unfortunately bad references are far more common than most people realize," says Jeff Shane, founder Allison & Taylor, a reference checking and employment verification firm. "About half of the reference checks we perform come back with negative comments."
In a perfect world, a previous employer would simply confirm dates of employment and job titles, but that doesn’t always happen. So how do you know if references are hurting your job-hunting chances?
Shane says the most common telltale sign is if you’re getting second interviews and then the trail goes cold: "It could be your resume or it could be the hiring market, but if it’s happening again and again, it could be a negative reference," he says.
"As an employer gets to the end of screening process they start looking for reasons to cross someone off of their list. If they hear something that’s not favorable, they’ll rarely give the candidate a chance to explain."
This can leave you guessing who’s the problem. Shane says he’s seen countless instances when someone provides a favorable written reference and contradicts it later on the phone. If you suspect you’re getting a bad reference, remove doubt by having key references checked. An organization like Allison & Taylor or CheckMyReference will perform checks by calling previous employers, asking to speak to supervisors or human resources, and asking for a reference.
"It’s about 50/50 where the employer goes to first, however, supervisors tend to be more talkative," says Shane.
While HR people are trained to give limited information, don’t assume that means their remarks couldn’t be harmful. A potential employer might ask, "Can you enthusiastically recommend her?" Or, "Is he eligible for rehire?" Even if the question is averted, sometimes there are clues in the tone of voice.
In some cases, a negative reference could be illegal. Defamation of character—something like, "I wouldn’t hire this guy in a thousand years—he’s stupid and incompetent"—is a form of slander and you could take your former employer to court, says Shane.
Susan Lessack, partner in the Philadelphia-based law firm Pepper Hamilton says defamation of character is providing false or discriminatory information that harms your reputation, but it’s a slippery slope. "If it’s an honest assessment, it’s not illegal," she says.
If you believe your former employer is trying to interfere with your getting a new job, you can also sue for interference with prospective contracts. "Those cases are hard to prove," says Lessack. "You have to show that an employer is actively trying to prevent your employment."
For negative references that don’t cross legal boundaries, Lessack says the easiest thing to do is to contact your former employer and ask why they’re giving reference. "Explore whether you could agree to neutral language that would be mutually acceptable," she says.
Shane suggests sending a strongly worded cease and desist letter addressed to the CEO or another person high up in organization. The letter should name the person who gave the negative commentary, and suggest to the previous employer that they should simply confirm dates of employment and job titles.
"Those letters work 99% of time," says Shane. "Virtually every company has created policies to just confirm employment. Providing negative comments are always inappropriate and reflect poorly on an organization."
Shane says you should never ask a potential employer to not contact a former supervisor; it’s a red flag. Since you’re virtually obligated to provide their information, be proactive before you leave a job and ask your boss what he or she would say. If there are unresolved issues, do what you can to address them before you leave.
"References tend to give same information over and over," says Shane. "If you have a bad reference, identify it sooner than later to eliminate or minimize damage to your career."