Many job-seekers mistakenly believe that employers aren't allowed to give a negative reference or to do more than confirm dates of employment. But it's perfectly legal for an employer to give a detailed negative reference as long as it's factually accurate. And while it's true that some companies have policies that they will only confirm dates of employment, these policies often aren't followed in practice.
So what can you do if you have a bad reference in your past? The most important thing to do is try to proactively manage the situation. If you do nothing and just hope it won't harm you, you'll lose the chance to neutralize any damage before it's done.
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Here are five steps that you can take to combat a bad job reference.
1. Call your former boss and ask if you can reach an agreement about what she'll say to future reference calls. While you might dread making this call, remember that the worst that can happen is that she'll say no.
When you call, say this: "I'm concerned that the reference you're giving is preventing me from getting work. Could we work something out so that this isn't standing in my way?" Employers who either take pity on you or are worried about lawsuits may be willing to work something out with you. And remember, it won't hurt to soften her up a little first by telling her that you've learned from what went wrong and appreciate the chance she gave you.
2. If the reference is factually inaccurate, skip your former boss and go straight to your old company's Human Resources department. Explain that your boss is giving an inaccurate reference for you and that you are concerned that this is standing in the way of your ability to obtain employment. HR people are trained in this area, will be familiar with the potential for legal problems if the reference is false, and will probably speak to your old boss to put a stop to it. (If it's a small company without an HR department, contact your old manager directly and politely explain that she's jeopardizing your ability to gain employment and exposing the company to legal risk by defaming you.)
3. If steps 1 and 2 fail, warn prospective employers that this reference won't be a good one. This allows you to provide context and framing for what the reference-checker might hear. For instance, if your relationship with your boss started out well before things went south, you could say something like, "I had glowing reviews from my boss at that job, but our relationship became strained toward the end and I worry that it could color that reference."
4. Consider offering up counter points of view. You could put the prospective employer in touch with former coworkers, clients, and others who can speak to your work, and even provide old copies of performance reviews if you have them.
5. If you're not sure what kind of reference someone is giving you, consider finding out by having someone call on your behalf. There are companies you can hire to do these checks for you, but there's no reason you can't have a particularly professional friend do it for you for free.
Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Leader's Guide to Getting Results and former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee development. She now teaches other managers how to manage for results.