what to do about a bad job reference

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 in fact, 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.

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 your boss is providing is factually inaccurate, skip your former boss and go straight to your old company’s HR 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 and 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 nothing that says you can’t have a particularly professional friend do it for you for free.

I originally published this at U.S. News & World Report.

{ 33 comments… read them below }

    1. L.A. Mass*

      Here’s another reason: practicing law is a terrible awful no good very bad way to make a living. You work with and against complete and utter self-important douchebags. The billable hour is an inherent conflict of interest. You do nothing -NOTHING – creative, inventive or contrubutory. You spend your career billing hours and walking behind the proverbial elephant, trying to clean up what comes out – and it never stops coming out. Seriously, don’t go to law school.

  1. Ellen M.*

    Best wishes re: foot-healing. And thanks for remembering the librarians!


    Proud Librarian

    1. Anonymous*

      I second that sentiment, for both your foot and for remembering librarians. I received my MLIS last summer, and only recently was I even called about a volunteer position with a branch of my local public library. I am just glad to be associated with a library, even if it is in a volunteer capacity. It’s a way to become a known quantity. Now, I can chat informally with the branch manager and other supervisors. It’s not an ideal situation – since it generates no income – but, it’s a start.

      1. Anonymous*

        I’ve been volunteering at my local library since I got my MLIS, and it has certainly helped for networking. It even landed me a government-funded contract job at that library that now (a year later) might help me land a job in a different field.

        If that library has more than one branch, I’d ask about volunteer opportunities at the other branches, since being in multiple locations has made me more visible to staff and patrons and can only help once the hiring freezes are lifted.

  2. anonymous #something*

    I like librarians, they’re awesome. :-) I liked hanging out in my college’s library and the librarians there are/were pretty cool people.

    And congrats on walking (er… hobbling) again. I can imagine you’re stir crazy though? I remember one time I couldn’t walk around for a couple of days and could barely stand that. I think if a person in my vicinity at that time complained about exercising I would have snapped at them. J/k, but still… Not fun. :-D

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      What I’m really dying to do is clean things! I haven’t been able to clean my own house in months, and it’s driving me crazy. (I’ve hired people to clean, but it is not the same.)

  3. ChristineH*

    Ahh, I see the winter gear is gone!

    Woohoo for an unbroken foot. Best of luck with the continued healing process.

    It’s funny you mention librarianship because I’ve toyed around with the idea myself. However, what I’d want to do with it is very specific, so it’s not realistic at this point since it’d likely require relocating, which is not an option right now.

  4. noah sturdevant*

    Try not to get stuck in a horror movie until your foot is completely healed. Right now, you are a sitting duck.

  5. Suzanne*

    Thanks for the librarian tips. I confess. I am a librarian which it is not good to be these days. The large library system in my area has lost 30+ positions in the past five years. They’ve hired, I believe, 3 professionals in that time and all of them were hired from within. Librarians retire and leave but are not replaced and they will not hire someone with a library degree for a non-professional position as it is against their policy. The local colleges are cutting back so much, they aren’t hiring either. I have a relative that works at one and she tells me that full staff for them would be about double the librarians that they have now. She’s been there 8 years, and has never experienced a full staff.

    The library hiring tips are great, but in this part of the country, there simply are no librarian jobs to be had. So, I continue to attempt to forge my way into something else, but that isn’t easy either. As the local university’s career counselor told me, “Wow. Your resume just shouts librarian.” So, it’s an uphill struggle.

    Glad the foot is better, though!

    1. Jamie*

      Why are the positions being lost? I’m not in the field, but I’m a huge believer in the importance of a good public library. Is it because technology is advancing and they can eliminate positions? If so, that’s a real shame as it’s the first time I will take the side of people over technology.

      I remember being little and getting my first library card and being shocked that I could take all these awesome books home and all I had to do to get more was bring them back.

      Just between us, I still feel that way. It’s like a little internal giggle every time I check out and don’t need to pull out a credit card.

      I would argue that few things contribute more to the public good than free access to information. No one does that better than a good public library.

      I applaud those of you in the field and I hope the market turns around and the jobs open up again. My mom was a nurse and she used to say it was her calling – she was meant to be a nurse. Every librarian that I’ve known personally seems to have the same attitude – it’s a higher purpose than just a paycheck. I’m in awe of people like that.

        1. Lexy*

          Absolutely not!

          My husband and I are without children and in your generation and we occasionally have upwards of 15 or 20 books/dvds out on loan. We also have a huge personal library, hence using the public library so much… we have zero need for new books unless they are vital.

      1. Natalie*

        Positions are mostly being lost because of the crappy economy and a cultural opposition to government spending. Technological advancement is not helping, but I don’t think it’s the real problem.

        1. Emily Weak*

          There are a lot of answers to why library jobs are disappearing, but I think it’s less about technology replacing jobs and more about it causing jobs to be undervalued.

          People think all the information they need is online, and don’t realize that a lot of it is actually hidden away in print or in unindexed or for-pay sites. Conversely, some people associate libraries solely with print books only and don’t realize that libraries loan e-books, etc. and that librarians can help with filtering and evaluating an overload of information.

          Librarians have not always been the best at marketing and promoting themselves and their libraries, although I think that is really improving.

          And finally I think many Americans either don’t want or don’t see the importance of having common resources. I think that too might be changing.

          For all these reasons and more, libraries have been deprioritized in both private and government spending, and so there is less money to hire librarians.

          1. Liz in a Library*


            It’s not just a problem in public libraries either. Public universities are seeing a real squeeze in many places, too. It’s not an issue at my place of business (which is not public), but I know many friends who are losing positions in their departments, having them go part-time, or having them go paraprofessional.

            1. KLH*

              And also, there are fewer librarian positions and more paraprofessional positions (library assistants, etc) doing what was librarian work, such as reference, programming and cataloging.

              I went to library school in 2003 (part-time) because I had been unemployed and all the interesting jobs at that point required the MLIS. By 2007 when I finished my degree, the positions advertised did not required MLIS degrees. Add on to that the cutting of jobs all over, and that even entry-level librarian jobs often require at least a year or two of experience (and even professional library experience gained before or during library school may not be considered professional experience because it wasn’t post-MLIS)–it’s an awful, awful job market.

            2. ChristineH*

              Ahh…then I guess I should definitely forget about my fantasy career as a social work librarian. :(

              KLH – I thought the opposite was true, that to do any sort of library work (beyond the clerical or shelving duties) DID require an MLIS, moreso than in the past.

      2. Anonymous*

        Technology and lack of funding are two big reasons. There is a misnomer that Google can replace subscription bibliographic databases and librarians when it comes to research. Public libraries are using more paraprofessionals – so either that person won’t have the MLIS or if they do, they are not employed as a librarian, but rather as library assistants. Libraries and librarians are going through a process of reinvention to try and stay relevant.

        1. Suzanne*

          Librarian jobs are disappearing at a fast clip for all the reasons stated above. In my area, it’s mainly because of extreme tax cutting measures put through by the governor; the public library has lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding. Many people don’t understand where a public library’s funding comes from and many see it as a worthless use of their tax dollars. There is a very strong “I’ve got mine; screw you” (sorry to be so crass) mentality permeating this part of the country right now and places like libraries suffer for it.

          So, as I enter what I thought would be my most productive working years and see retirement as a dot on the horizon, I find my profession dying off and me trying to hang on with a job that pays me about the same as the job I had 30 years ago. I’d love to find a different way to make a living, but so far, at my age, that doesn’t even look possible. Keep supporting your library, though!

  6. Anonymous*

    Not sure if your previous OP and/or the person they had a fight with are lawyers, but if so, there might very well be a couple of positions open after the HR meeting…

  7. Megan*

    Congratulations on your foot! Glad you’re up to hobbling now; hang in there :) and I would like to second the thanks for remembering us librarians – even with the economy improving, it’s still a rough job market out there for us (ok, for everyone, really).

  8. Joy*

    I love libraries/librarians! I don’t have kids and I always have library books checked out – hardcopy and on my Kindle :)

    As for the lack of jobs, see lawyer post, see everything. *sigh*

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