Looking for a job is hard work. You have to respond to job listings quickly with your application, resume and cover letter, and participate in phone and in-person interviews. If you make it to the final stage of the hiring process, potential employers usually also expect you to provide references: the names and contact information of former employers or managers, who can attest to your skills, experience, and work ethic.
Not every employer is willing to serve as a reference, however. This article explains why and describes some steps you can take to line up the best possible references for your job search.
Why Employers Don’t Like to Give References
Some employers hesitate to give job references out of fear of being sued for defamation. In a defamation lawsuit based on a reference, the employee claims that the former employer maliciously gave a false and negative reference, which caused a potential employer to decide not to hire the employee.
Defamation lawsuits can be hard to prove and win for two reasons. First, truth is an absolute defense. So an employer that tells the truth about a former employee, no matter how negative, has not engaged in defamation. Second, it can be hard to prove that a negative reference was the deciding factor in the hiring process.
Laws in most states also give employers some protection against these lawsuits. In many states, including California and Illinois, employers may not be sued for defamation for giving a reference, as long as they acted in good faith and without malice. (To learn the rules in your state, see our article on state laws on employer references.)
Nevertheless, employers remain wary of reference seekers. To make sure they stay out of legal trouble, many companies take a “name, rank, and serial number” approach, providing potential employers with only your position, dates of employment, and salary. Although this information hopefully will confirm what’s on your resume, it’s unlikely to persuade a potential employer to hire you.
Getting the Best Possible Reference
You still have several options for lining up the references you need for your job search, even if your employment record isn’t spotless or your employer is reference-shy for legal reasons.
Review Your Personnel File
Before you start your job search, ask to see your personnel file from your former employer. In many states, employers must allow you to see your file—or at least certain documents in it, such as performance reviews, contracts, or disciplinary records—on your request. You may have to pay a small copying fee. In California, for example, former employees have the right to a copy of their personnel records relating to performance or to grievance proceedings within 30 days of requesting them, although they can be required to pay for copying costs. (To learn about your states rules, see our article on access to personnel files.)
If you find negative information in your file, consider your options. Is the information incorrect? If so, ask your former employer to remove it. If your employer refuses, you may have the right to insert a rebuttal in your file under state law. If you go this route, make your statement short and sweet, clearly explaining why the negative statements are incorrect or should be disregarded.
If your file includes negative information that you can’t get removed or explain away, be prepared to discuss it with potential employers in the best light possible. For example, if you had a poor performance review, you might explain that you were new to the company’s software system and took some time and training to get up to speed.
Offer to Sign a Release
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. In the release or waiver, you promise not to sue the employer for anything said in giving the reference. Even a hesitant employer is likely to offer more information with this legal protection in place.
Alternate Reference Sources
Still can't get an official, company-approved job reference from your old employer? Consider asking former supervisors, managers and coworkers whether they will serve as references. They can provide your prospective employer with valuable insight into your experience, work ethic, accomplishments and character. Some companies prohibit employees from giving references unless they are specifically authorized to do so, but it never hurts to ask.
Arrange for references in advance, and don't let a prospective employer catch a reference source by surprise. Always ask potential references what they will say if a prospective employer contacts them. A poor or negative job reference won’t do you any good; if you sense hesitation, ask someone else. If you can, provide information that will jog the person’s memory, such as an important project you worked on together.
Learning About Negative References
If you suspect that your references are costing you job opportunities, try to find out what your references are saying about you. In a competitive job market, neutral responses or a lack of a response can hurt just as much as a negative reference.
You can get reference feedback in several ways. You can ask a friend to call your former employer and conduct a reference check. Paid services are also available to do this undercover work for you. Or, you can simply ask the potential employer what your references said. If you learn that a reference is badmouthing you to potential employers, immediately stop listing that person in your job search materials.
If you believe your former employer acted maliciously—by saying false things with the intent to hinder your job search—you should talk to a lawyer. Although defamation is hard to prove, you might have enough evidence to make a case. A lawyer can also write a letter to your former employer, threatening legal action if it doesn’t stop badmouthing you to prospective employers.
Questions for Your Attorney
- I haven't received a letter of reference that my former employer promised to give me. What can I do?
- My former employer is giving bad references that don't line up with my written performance reviews. Do I have a case for defamation?
- I signed a release agreeing not to sue my former employer for giving a job reference, but the employer is giving really negative information to potential employers. Can I take back my waiver?