Bad References: What To Do When They’re Not Illegal

Published: Apr 04, 2013

Bad References: What To Do When They're Not Illegal By Jeff Shane, Professional Resume Writer

Many job seekers are aware that when a former employer offers negative input about them, such commentary can be illegal. Some examples include discrimination, defamation of character, and wrongful discharge. But what happens when their negative commentary isn’t illegal according to state or Federal law? Does this leave the job seeker without recourse, doomed to endless unemployment due to a key reference that can’t be removed from a prospective employer’s “radar”?

One such example was Madison, an applicant for a biomedical sales position for a national organization. She learned that when the prospective employer contacted one of her references, they indicated she was not eligible for rehire and indentified her termination date. This input was not (according to state law where she resided) illegal, but it certainly ended her chances of employment with the company.

Fortunately, there is recourse for job seekers like Madison. The first step is to ensure that a reference(s) is indeed problematic by utilizing a professional reference-checking firm to document both the verbal input and the tone of voice being offered by your reference. Once a problem reference has been confirmed, the reference-checking firm can identify an employment attorney well versed in assessing possible legal options. Foremost among these – particularly when the negative input does not constitute a violation of state or Federal law – is a “Cease & Desist” letter. Such letters are typically sent by attorneys to the CEO or senior management of the firm where the negative reference is employed, identifying the negative reference by name and the fact that the reference has been documented as offering negative input about the job seeker. The letter also suggests that if the reference-giver continues to offer such negative input, legal action would be contemplated against the firm.

Allison & Taylor reports that while approximately half of all reference checks they conduct reveal negative input from the reference, the overwhelming majority of Cease & Desist cases generated from these negative reference checks invariably reflect a favorable outcome. The reason: given a choice between addressing possible legal action against their company, or the alternative of discouraging an employee who violated corporate policy (which typically states that employees will either refer any reference requests to Human Resources, or will only confirm employment dates/title) from ever doing so again, the CEO invariably chooses the latter course.

Further, Allison & Taylor conducts an automatic “re-do” of their reference checks as part of their Cease & Desist offering. They advise that the number of previously negative references who continue to offer unfavorable input the second time around, is miniscule. Instead, the references offer a “neutral” reference (confirmation of dates/title only, or referring callers to Human Resources where such input is offered) that will not be problematic for job seekers.

So, the story can – and usually does – have a happy ending. Be sure that you know what your key references are saying about you, and – if it’s less than flattering – take the steps above to ensure that a poor reference won’t cost you future employment opportunities.

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About AllisonTaylor:

Allison & Taylor and its principals have been in the business of checking references for corporations and individuals since 1984. Allison & Taylor is headquartered in Rochester, Mich. For further details on services and procedures please visit

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