Great Careers Groups Career Transition Tips on Bad References from a Former Employer

Tips on Bad References from a Former Employer

General & LinkedIn Tips on Bad References from a Former Employer

Dealing with bad references from a former employer can be challenging, but handling the situation professionally is crucial to minimize its impact on your job search. 

Here are some tips below to help you navigate this situation of bad references and a Q&A with Marc E. Weinstein of Weinstein Law Firm, LLC in Fort Washington, PA

Question 1: Can a former employer say whatever they want about you?

Answer 1: For the most part, the former employer can state their opinions about you without legal repercussions. They can claim you were incompetent, lazy, difficult to work with, etc., and the law will allow them to get away with it.  What they can’t do is make false factual assertions about you.

Question 2: Are you obligated to tell a prospective employer where you have worked in the past?

Answer 2: Generally, no, you’re not obligated to tell the prospective employer all the places where you have worked. If you worked somewhere for nine months a few years ago, and they fired you for BS reasons, feel free to leave out that employer in your application. Of course, you can’t do this if you’re applying for a job wherein you’re required by law to fully disclose, like in a law-enforcement position.

Question 3: How should I get a reference from a prior employer that discharged me??

Answer 3: In circumstances where you need a reference or verification from an employer you were fired from, consider providing the cell phone number of someone you used to work with who would speak favorably of you. You have no obligation to give the prospective employer the name of the HR person who let you go or to encourage the prospective employer to contact the former employer’s main office. Steer the prospective employer to a former co-worker or supervisor who will speak favorably of you.

Question 4: What can you do if you learn that a former employer is bad-mouthing you?

Answer 4: If you learn a former employer is bad-mouthing you, you can send a letter warning them that you will confer with counsel if they say anything false about you (which is not opinion). If you suspect – but aren’t sure – that a former employer is bad-mouthing you, you can hire a reference-checking firm to find out what the former employer is saying.

Here are some other considerations if you have an employer bad-mouthing you.

Talk to the Former Employer if Feasible: If you believe there might have been an innocent misunderstanding or that the reference was unintentionally negative, consider contacting your former employer. Politely express your concerns and ask for clarification. Try to address any issues or misunderstandings professionally.

Seek Alternative References: If you’re concerned about a former employer providing a negative reference, build strong references from other sources, such as colleagues, supervisors from other jobs, or professional mentors who can vouch for your skills and work ethic.

Use Personal References: In some cases, personal references from individuals who can speak to your character and abilities may be more helpful than professional references. Personal references could include teachers, coaches, or community leaders.

Address the Issue During Interviews: If you suspect a potential employer may contact the problematic reference, be prepared to discuss the situation during interviews. Explain any misunderstandings, improvements you’ve made, or steps you’ve taken to address the issues raised by the reference.

Create a Positive Online Presence: Building a strong online presence through LinkedIn or a personal website can help prospective employers get a more balanced view of your qualifications and character. The more public recommendations you can get on LinkedIn, the better.

Legal Action: In some cases, if the negative reference is false and damaging to your career, you may consult an attorney to explore legal options. Reference laws vary by location, so consult a legal professional for specific advice. The comment provided by Attorney Marc E. Weinstein is for the state of Pennsylvania.

Focus on Your Skills and Accomplishments: In your resume, cover letter, and interviews, focus on your skills, accomplishments, and how you can add value to a potential employer. Highlight your strengths rather than dwelling on negative references.

Practice Discretion: Avoid badmouthing your former employer or the individual who provided the negative reference. Keep conversations about the situation professional and respectful.

Improve Your Qualifications: Take the time to build your skills and qualifications. Your actions towards lifelong learning can help offset the impact of a negative reference by demonstrating your growth and commitment to professional development.

Block Contacts on LinkedIn: If you were connected to anyone on LinkedIn that you no longer want to be connected to, you can remove them as a first-level connection and block them from seeing your public profile (from their profile). It does not mean they cannot see you if they ask someone else to look you up.

Remember that a single negative reference doesn’t have to define your job search. Be proactive, focus on the positive aspects of your career and qualifications, and continue seeking opportunities to showcase your abilities and potential.



Lynne M. Williams is the Executive Director of the Great Careers Groups, a volunteer-run 501(c)3 nonprofit organization that provides career development and networking connections for 1) job seekers in career transition, including veterans, and 2) employed and self-employed for career management.

Aside from writing keyword-focused content for ATS resumes and LinkedIn profiles, Lynne is currently writing her doctoral dissertation on LinkedIn for Job Seekers. She is a contributing author on “Applying to Positions” in Find Your Fit: A Practical Guide to Landing the Job You Love, along with the late Dick Bolles, the author of What Color is Your Parachute?, and is also a speaker on career topics.

This article is also published on:,,,, and in the author’s LinkedIn newsletter. A list of articles can also be found in a Google doc.