Negative references can undermine your hard work overnight. Here's how to stop them from ruining your career.

We've all been there — some jobs just don't work out. Either they're not a good fit or we've made some irreversible mistake. Whatever it is, just chalk it up to bad luck, pick up the pieces, and move forward. 

Yet, what if something that doesn't work out hurts future offers? Some employers aren't willing to leave the past in the past and send references that hurt your chances and can cost you career advancements. For cases like this, a more proactive approach to a professional reference list is needed.

Here are six methods to prevent bad references from becoming future issues.

1. Clarify the situation

While it may seem obvious to avoid including an employer on your professional reference list you believe will give a negative report, many neglect this pertinent step and insist on referring hiring managers to companies that hold them in less than perfect esteem. You may think that a past employer won't give a negative reference, but unfortunately employers can — and do — give bad feedback. Think employers can't legally give a negative reference or do more than confirm dates of employment? This is not true. The law doesn't prevent negative references; past supervisors can and will speak poorly if they want to.

Before listing your past company, check with them to see what they will say in their recommendation. Often they will tell you upfront if they think it inappropriate to send referrals their way, while others may simply not comment. You also can ask a colleague to call and see what the reference would be before including it on your professional reference list. If the review is negative or unconfirmed, don't list the company as a reference.

Also, trust your gut. If you don't think your past employer will give you a positive review, it's better to cut your losses and leave them off your reference list altogether.  

2. Have a conversation

If a negative reference is unpreventable and your former boss has already hurt your reputation, it is time to reach out and negotiate a truce. Call your former boss and ask if they would be willing to agree to a future reference call. While you might dread making this call, remember that the worst that can happen is that they'll say no.

If you take this route, be careful not to come off as judgmental. Instead, treat this situation the same as you would a client with concerns or complaints. Go into the meeting with compassion and understanding, listen to their complaints, offer solutions to the problem, and apologize. Also, be sure to:

  • Listen to their side of the story

  • Use “I” statements and avoid the use of “you” pronouns

  • Explain the impact this negative review has had on your career

  • Don't argue or be judgmental

If the conversation doesn't look like it is going to accomplish anything positive, be assertive and explain why you think it is unprofessional and counterproductive to both sides. Many employers will feel pity for your mistake, especially if you were young and just starting out, or they may fear legal recourse.

3. Establish the true story

Sometimes the bad item on your professional reference list is a case of a misunderstanding or some form of inaccurate information. If the reference is factually inaccurate, skip your former boss and go straight to the Human Resources department. This may seem extreme, but giving a bad reference based on false information is unethical and unprofessional.

Explain that the supervisor has wrong information — without being judgmental or inferring that they are lying. Human resource specialists are trained to handle this type of problem and will investigate your claims. Often, if you can prove the information is wrong, they will apologize and make it right with the new company.

4. Explain the situation

When you can't avoid a bad reference or negotiate it away, explain it to potential employers. Warn them that the reference will not be a good one and take time to explain why. Don't make excuses or accuse your previous company of being in the wrong; just simply take responsibility for your actions. This shows maturity, and your future boss wants to know how you plan to prevent the same mistake from happening again.  

One of the most common strategies employed against a negative professional reference list is having more positive references. Consider seeking positive reviews from colleagues at the same company that can detract from the original negative feedback.

5. Ask them to stop

For negative references that don't cross legal boundaries, tell them to stop giving damaging references. This is particularly effective if the information is not accurate and could hurt your reputation unwillingly. A strongly worded cease and desist letter addressed to the CEO or another person high up in the organization is more effective than arguing.

List the name, complaint, and negative reference material in the letter. Tell them what they are doing, why it hurts your job prospects, and to stop sending negative references. Also include an ultimatum, like a Better Business Bureau or Chamber of Commerce complaint, if they do not discontinue their actions.

6. Get others involved

Legal remedies should always be a last resort, as it is a costly solution for both sides. But if you cannot convince your previous employer to stop, legal action may be required. Consider three aspects before seeking a lawyer: 

  • Is this the only solution?

  • Is the negative reference causing irreversible damage to your career?

  • Do you have the time and money to pursue legal remedies?

Sometimes court appearances aren't needed; a lawyer can contact the former employer on your behalf. Many companies prefer to prevent court actions and will simply stop sending references of any kind.

Takeaways

It's difficult to build a positive image, and negative references on your professional reference list can undermine your professional reputation overnight. Be careful of every word you say and action performed at work. If you don't know if it could hurt, don't take the chance.

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