Fixing a Bad Employment Reference

Recently, a jobseeker wrote to us with this question: “I need some advice on what to say to potential employers about the reason for leaving my past job. I received a message today from a company with a possible job, and I don’t want to miss out on the opportunity. I was dismissed from my last job because an employee starting a rumor about me. My previous employer appealed my unemployment, but I won since everything was hearsay and they had no proof. On past interviews, I told interviewers that I had just decided to leave, but I’m not sure what is being said to them when they call for a reference. I felt sure I had the job at one place because I had a strong second interview, but I think a bad reference killed the offer. I have also tried telling the truth, but then never received a call back after the phone interview. I’m eager to get back to work and I don’t want to lose another offer just because of this question. What do I do?”

The jobseeker is in a tough spot, and one that is hard to fix easily. Here’s my best advice.

First, you should find out what is the status of your employment reference. You don’t mention the size of your previous company, but if you have access to an HR professional at the company, you might be able to call and ask about what people who call for references are being told. If you won the appeal of the unemployment claim, you may be able to make the case for a neutral reference. You could then list the HR contact as the reference, so you can be sure that you get the most neutral reference possible. If the company is small, and the callers reach your manager right away, you may not be able to control what’s being said. Either way, you should always be professional and calm in your dealings with the company; if you come off as angry or unprofessional, you’ll only reinforce their rationale for firing you.

If it’s your former manager who is giving the reference, you can try to find out what he is telling people. Some jobseekers ask a friend to call and pose as a potential employer, asking if you would be eligible for rehire, and trying to determine what the tone of the reference is. Two words of caution here: First, she should never confront the manager if he says something negative; that would be a terrible mistake that would hurt your prospects for future references. Second, you should never falsify any paperwork or forms in order to obtain a reference. Saying: “I’m considering her as a potential employee. Can you tell me about her performance at your company?” is fine; filling out a reference form with a false company name is never fine.

You don’t mention what the trouble was; the rumor might be embarrassing but not serious.  Say your rocky relationship with a coworker prompted her to start a rumor about some minor off-hours activity that didn’t reflect well on you. In this case, you’d have to find a way to let your potential employer know that you learned from your mistakes. You were the victim of a rumor that had no basis, but you wouldn’t blame someone for thinking badly of you (if it were true.) In this scenario, the lesson you take away would be to make sure you don’t let misunderstandings fester into toxic relationships. The difference in the scenarios will dictate how you might handle them. Best of luck in working on a solution.

3 thoughts on “Fixing a Bad Employment Reference

  1. Traveler

    Definitely take the time to find out what your references are saying before you use them. Ask them directly what they will say; you can even have them checked by an agency like or to find out exactly what is being said. It is better to know- even if it’s negative- so you can deal with it.

    If they are giving a very negative reference, there are legal ways to deal with them, and not all of them involve going to court. A simple cease and desist letter can work wonders.


  2. Great blog you have here but I was curious if you knew of any message boards that cover the same topics talked about in this article? I’d really like to be a part of online community where I can get responses from other knowledgeable individuals that share the same interest. If you have any suggestions, please let me know. Appreciate it!


  3. I don’t know of any forums, but I’ll keep my eye open for any that I come across with quality content.


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