Is Your Former Employer Giving You Bad Job References?

In a tough job market, it’s more important than ever to know what your former employers are saying about you.  When prospective employers call about you, what are they being told?  Do you know?  If you’re being bad-mouthed, what can you do about it?

If you’re in the market for a job, I recommend that you talk directly to your former employers, and let them know you’ll be listing them on employment applications or resumes.   Ask if they’re willing to give you a positive reference.  Be clear about what subjects they will and won’t discuss (e.g., job performance, dates of hire, salary, subjective opinions of your potential, and so on).  Sometimes it’s what’s not said that does the harm.

The point is that you should not leave anything to chance.  My sense is that, if you’re like most people, the actual number of jobs out there for which you are highly likely to win the post are limited in number.   Since most prospective employers will rely heavily on what former employers say about you, your references are crucial to your success. Know what will be said, so you can highlight the best ones and, if necessary, defend against the bad ones.

What Exactly Can Employers Say About You?

It’s a common misconception that employers can only give your dates of employment, your job title, and your salary (or a similar set of very limited details).  In fact, employers in Florida and Georgia can share factual information about you – such as the quality of your work, and your abilities, or even laws you broke –  as long as it’s not false and as long as it doesn’t violate your civil rights.  The Florida statute even goes a bit further, by protecting employers who provide false information as long as they didn’t do it knowingly.  Both states, then, give employers some protection against lawsuits based on disclosures about you to prospective employers.  Importantly, the protections only kick in if the disclosures by your former employer were requested either by you or by a prospective employer.  In other words, these protections do not apply if your former employer makes the disclosures without being asked.  It can’t go looking for trouble.

The flip side of these laws is that you may have a claim against a former employer who bad-mouths you if (a) the employer wasn’t asked to disclose the information, or (b) the information was false and your employer knew it, or (c) the disclosure of the information violates your civil rights.  (Most civil rights laws prohibit employment decisions based on race, gender, age, disability and similar protected classes.  So if your former employer says that you’re disabled and can’t do the job, or discloses your age and says you’re too old to do the work, these statements might be a violation of state and federal civil rights laws.)

How To Tell If A Former Employer Is Giving You Bad References

There are tell-tale signs that your former employer is giving bad references.  One is that you’re not even getting interviews; sometimes employers call references before setting interviews, and decide after a first round of reference checking who to schedule for interview.  Another sign is that you are getting interviews, but not job offers – even for jobs you were surely the best-qualified candidate to hold.  A third way is to use a reference-checking service and find out yourself what the former employer is saying.  There are plenty on the Internet. I often recommend the service at   There are others, but I’ve had success with them, and I’ve sued several employers using their transcripts of reference-checking calls.


The importance of good references to your future employability cannot be overstated.  Develop, manage and protect your references like you would any valuable asset.  If you find that a former employer is actively damaging your career prospects through bad references, consider whether legal action is appropriate to both stop future harm and to repair the damage caused already.

Categories: Bad/Retaliatory Job References, Retaliation

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

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