News Column

Job Seekers Beware: Former Employers Can Bad Mouth You

May 16, 2013

You're filling out a job application when you come to the question "May we contact your former supervisor?" While you didn't "part company" with them on particularly good terms, your understanding is that all they should be allowed to divulge to a prospective employer were your title and employment dates. Anything beyond that would be illegal. So, should you check that box 'yes'?

The answer is indeed "yes", but not for the reason mentioned here. It's always in your best interest to tell a prospective employer they can contact your former supervisor, for the simple reason that telling them they cannot will raise a "red flag" and likely ensure that you'll be removed from consideration. Yet, assuming your former supervisor cannot--and will not--offer any unflattering commentary about you is equally ill advised.

While legal and/or corporate guidelines may indeed state that only your employment dates/titles can be confirmed, it is not necessarily illegal per se for a reference to give negative commentary about you. References can --and very frequently do--offer considerably more commentary to your prospective employer than simply verifying your employment dates/title. As a result, many job-seeking candidates who expect a favorable (or at least neutral) assessment from their references unknowingly lose out on employment opportunities as a result of bad job references.

Note that for their own legal protection, prospective employers will almost never share with a candidate the fact that a negative reference was received. This is highly problematic for any job applicant--how are they to know when a reference is offering negative, perhaps unlawful input about them to a prospective employer? Even if they know this, how can they address it?

As mentioned previously, negative input a reference offers about you is not wrongful or unlawful per se. Negative input may be illegal--some categories include discrimination, defamation, retaliation, disparagement or sexual harassment. Where a third party can document that a reference's communication was wrongful, inaccurate, malicious and/or may fall under one of these categories, you may indeed have the ability to pursue legal recourse. In situations where a reference's negative input is or is not unlawful but is restricting your ability to secure future employment, it can typically be addressed through the transmittal of a Cease-&-Desist letter, issued by your attorney to the senior management of the company where the negative reference originated. The letter would alert management of the negative reference's identity and actions. Typically the very act of offering a negative reference is against corporate guidelines, which normally state that only a former employee's title/dates of employment can be confirmed. The negative reference is cautioned by management not to offer additional comments and out of self-interest is unlikely to offer negative commentary again.

If you're unsure as to whether a negative reference is impacting your job seeking efforts, note there are companies such as Allison & Taylor, Inc. ( that can determine this on your behalf. Approximately 50 percent of all reference checks they conduct uncover negative input from the reference; their report can be used for legal purposes or for the Cease-&-Desist letter described above.
Note that a negative reference is likely to continue offering the same input about you to every prospective employer that calls unless you detect it and take steps to stop it. Job seekers can lose many opportunities before they realize what is happening. It's never too early to identify and neutralize a negative job reference in your life.

AllisonTaylor and its principals have been in the business of checking references for corporations and individuals since 1984. AllisonTaylor is headquartered in Rochester, Mich.

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