What To Do When Company Reference Policy Is Not Honored

Seeking new employment in her area, Jennifer was confident her last employer would not be a problem reference. While she hadn’t “parted company” with them on particularly good terms, her understanding was that all they would be allowed to divulge to a prospective employer were her title and employment dates. Anything beyond that would be illegal.

Unfortunately, Jennifer discovered the hard way that references can – and very frequently do – offer more input than simply confirming employment dates and titles. After almost a year of job searching, Jennifer learned to her dismay that her last employer was giving her a mediocre-to-poor rating to prospective employers. She ultimately relocated, as all the local employers in her field of expertise had turned her down.

Where did Jennifer go wrong here? What could she have done differently, in hindsight?

First, she assumed that it was illegal for her former employer to offer negative input about her. 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 a former employee. 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 like Jennifer who expected a favorable (or at least neutral) assessment from their references unknowingly lose out on employment opportunities that are “torpedoed” as a result of a negative reference(s).

For their own legal protection, prospective employers will almost never share with a candidate the fact that a negative reference was received. How, then, could Jennifer have known that one of her references was offering negative, perhaps unlawful input about her to a prospective employer? Even if she had known, how could she have addressed it?

As mentioned above, 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 – through an attorney – 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, whom can you contact? One option is Allison & Taylor, Inc. (www.allisontaylor.com), a reference checking service in business since 1984. This company will interview your reference(s) and document their input word-for-word. Approximately 50% 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 to every prospective employer that calls unless you detect it and take steps to stop it. Like Jennifer, 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.