You make it through the final interview with flying colors. The hiring manager all but offers you the job, but needs a few days to check references and complete paperwork before making you an offer. Then, silence. You never hear from him again.
If this scenario sounds familiar, you might have a bad reference on your resume.
Most people assume that former employers won’t give a negative report when potential employers call for a reference. But that isn’t necessarily true. Even though corporate guidelines may state that only your employment dates and position titles can be confirmed, it is not necessarily illegal for a reference to give negative commentary about a former employee, says Jeff Shane, a spokesperson for Allison & Taylor, Inc., a professional reference checking and employment verification firm.
“References can, and very frequently do, offer considerably more commentary to your prospective employer than simply verifying your employment dates and title,” Shane says. “As a result, many job-seeking candidates 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.”
If you fear that a former supervisor may be “torpedoing” your chances for a new job, you have a few options:
- Pursue Legal Action. Not all negative input is unlawful. It is illegal if it involves discrimination, defamation, retaliation, disparagement or sexual harassment, Shane says. It’s unlikely that you’ll ever know what specific negative feedback a reference gave — because a prospective employer will rarely share the negative reference with a job candidate for their own legal protection. But if a third party can document that a reference gave communication that was wrongful, inaccurate, malicious or illegal, you may have legal recourse. Talk to an attorney about the possibilities.
- Send a Cease and Desist Letter. If a reference’s negative input is not unlawful, but is restricting your ability to get a job, you can typically address the situation by sending a cease and desist letter. This letter must be issued by your attorney to the senior management of the company where the negative reference originated, and the letter is designed to 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 and dates of employment can be confirmed,” Shane says. When a cease and desist letter is received, the negative reference will be “cautioned by management not to offer additional comments and, out of self-interest, is unlikely to offer negative commentary again,” Shane says.
- Find out the Truth. If you don’t know whether or not a negative reference is impeding your job search, consider hiring a third-party reference checking firm. Such a firm can interview your references and document everything they say for your review. According to Shane, approximately 50 percent of all reference checks conducted by Allison & Taylor uncover negative input from the reference. And the report provided by a reference checking firm can be used for legal action or to develop a cease and desist letter.