Receiving a Negative Job Reference

Receiving a Negative Job Reference

Last updated: July 2009

Can my former employer give out a bad reference about me?

Yes. In general, under Illinois law an employer can give out negative information about you in a job reference as long as the information they give out is truthful and related to your job performance.

I keep getting turned down for jobs. Does that mean that my former employer is saying bad things about me?

Not necessarily. People get turned down for jobs for many reasons and it may have nothing to do with your references.

Can my former employer say that I was fired?

Yes. An employer may say that you were fired because it is both truthful and related to your job performance.

How can I find out what my former employer is saying about me?

You have several options:

  • Have a friend or family member call the former employer asking for a reference for you and see what the employer says;
  • If you don’t get a job, ask that prospective employer if he/she will tell you what your former employer is saying about you;
  • Retain the services of a private company who will check your job references for you; or
  • Contact your former employer’s human resources or personnel department and ask what their policy on giving job references is. Many companies have a “neutral reference policy” whereby they only give out your dates of employment, your title and your rate of pay. If you find out the company has a neutral reference policy but that they are not following their own policy, you should inform their human resources or personnel department and ask that their policy be followed.

What companies are available to help me find out what my employer is saying about me?

There are many companies available for a fee that will call your former employer posing as a new employer and ask for a job reference. They will then provide you with a report of what was said about you. Some of these companies include:

There are many other such companies that can be found on the Internet.

If my former employer is giving truthful, but negative information about me, what can I do to improve my chances of getting a new job?

There are a number of approaches you can take:

  • You can see if there was a particular supervisor who knew your work and who might give out a more favorable reference for you. They may be willing to be your contact person at the former employer’s workplace and you could give out that supervisor’s name as your reference in the future;
  • You can address the negative reference directly with prospective employers and try to make it into something more positive. For instance, if a prospective employer is going to learn that you were frequently tardy in your last job anyway, you could acknowledge the situation up front, saying something like:
    • “Ms. Brown may tell you that I was tardy, but it was for a two week period during which I experienced some major transportation problems. I immediately realized the
      importance of a reliable automobile and worked diligently to purchase a new car. Once my vehicle issue was resolved, I was never late again and didn’t miss a single day of work.”
  • You can contact the human resources department and ask that they give just a “neutral reference” for you, confirming your dates of employment, your position and your salary, and nothing more. Sometimes employers will agree to do this for you.

If My Former Employer is Giving Out Untruthful Negative Information about Me, What are My Options?

If you have proof that the employer is giving out untruthful negative information that is not related to your job performance (for example, saying that you were involved in a criminal matter outside of work that you were, in fact, not involved in), you may have a private legal claim against them.

Note: In order to have a claim you will have to be able to establish that you were damaged as a result of their false statements. If you have one of the rare situations wherein the employer may be subject to liability for their statements about you, you will need to find a private attorney to represent you.

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