Labor and Employment

Job References

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Looking for a job and completing the interview and hiring process is work in and of itself. You have to be prepared for making first contact with your resume and cover letter, job applications, and phone and in-person interviews. Employers usually expect you to provide references.

Know the challenges you may face in securing solid references that will help you reach your goal and get that perfect next job.

Cautious Employers Weigh Risks and References

Not everyone has access to a written reference letter, and it's common to provide reference contact information so the interviewer can check references independently. Sounds easy enough.

However, your old employer may hesitate to give you a job reference out of fear. Many employers fear lawsuits by former employees who claim that a poor or negative job reference cost them a new job.

Often, such lawsuits are for defamation or slander. This is when you claim a loss, like not being hired, because your former employer made false statements, either written or spoken, to a prospective employer.

Laws in most states do give employers some protection against these lawsuits. An employer can give a negative reference if there is a good faith basis for doing so, such as not meeting quotas or attendance problems.

Reference Resources

You do have several options for lining up the solid and positive references you need for your job search, though. A good job reference can be a reality even if your employment record has a few black marks or your employer is reference-shy for legal reasons.

Speaking Freely: References, Releases and Waivers

When you know an employer is reluctant to give a meaningful reference, offering to sign a release or waiver can free up the flow of information. You promise in the release or waiver not to sue your current or former employer for anything that may come out of a reference.

Note that releases and waivers may work both ways. A prospective employer may ask you to sign a waiver stating you won't sue it over any negative information it gets and uses in the hiring decision. The prospective employer's release may include protection for your current/former employer too, as it wants complete honesty from references.

Cleaning Up Your Personnel File

Another option for getting a good reference is to ask your former employer to remove any negative information from your personnel file. This can be tricky though. An employer may refuse to delete negative information because it doesn't want to face possible liability for not disclosing it when someone asks for a reference.

An employee could have something serious in his or her file, such as stealing on the job or sexual harassment. There could be legal issues if the incidents are deleted and an employee does the same thing in a subsequent job.

Alternate Reference Sources

Still can't get an official, company-approved job reference from your old employer? You can use supervisors, managers and co-workers for references. They can provide your prospective employer with valuable insight into your experience, work ethic, accomplishments and character.

Arrange for references in advance, and don't catch a reference source by surprise. Get an idea of what they'll say if a prospective employer contacts them. You don't need a poor or negative job reference, and if you sense hesitation, certainly don't list that person as a reference.

Getting Bad References

When you suspect references are a problem, try to find out what references are saying about you. Then you can make the best decision for your next step. Remember, your references aren't required to give a positive reference, and neutral responses or lack of a response can hurt as much as a negative reference.

There are several ways to get reference feedback. You can pretend to be an employer and contact your references. There are paid services that will do this undercover work for you. A potential employer may also tell you about references it received.

You have options for dealing with negative references. Sometimes, a polite request to stop giving the bad reference will work. If it doesn't, you may have to use alternate reference sources.

When you think unjust or unwarranted references are hurting your job hunt, a labor and employment law attorney can help you assess the situation. An untrue reference may give rise to a slanderdefamation or retaliation claim.

Common sense doesn't have to get lost in a job hunt – you're often the main source for reference leads that an interviewer will rely on in making a hiring decision, and your advance work often makes the difference.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • I haven't received a promised written reference from a former employer. What can I do to get the reference?
  • My former employer is giving bad references that don't line up with my written performance reviews. Do I have a case for defamation or retaliation?
  • I thought my personnel file was positive, so when I was laid off, I signed a release waiving lawsuits against my former employer related to job references. The former employer is giving out bad references based on my file, so what can I do to stop it?
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