Good News for Bad References – How to Fight Back
Published: Jun 17, 2010
By Jeff Shane
Picture this scenario: you've been seeking new employment at a biopharma company, but without success. Your employment credentials are excellent and while you’ve been able to land the interviews - sometimes more than one with a prospective employer – that job for which you’re well qualified, continues to elude you. Even more ominous, you may have been assured that the job is virtually yours and that completing the hiring process is a mere formality, and then…the trail goes cold, and the call-backs cease.
Sound familiar? If it does, you likely have a negative reference that is making your employment life difficult. What can you do about it?
The first step is to confirm that you do indeed have a problem with at least one of your references. Do an honest self-assessment of your references that are most likely to be called by prospective employers. Did you depart on good terms with them? Is there anything unflattering that may have made its way into your personnel file, accessible by an HR representative? Very possibly you already have a good idea of who may be making your employment search a miserable one. And while you might be able to keep some former associates off of a prospective employer’s radar, it is unlikely that a former supervisor or HR department will be overlooked. The HR department is a traditional venue for reference checks, and HR reps of your most recent employers are almost certain to get a call from potential employers. Your former supervisors will be high on an employer’s list as well, as they know you better than HR and may also be willing to offer a more revealing profile about you.
Then, consider having a reference check(s) conducted on those business associates from your past who might be problematic. Avoid the temptation to have a friend or associate call and pose as a prospective employer - this could backfire on you, also any unfavorable input obtained in this manner would be inadmissible for legal purposes. Instead, have a reputable third party (e.g. www.allisontaylor.com) conduct these reference interviews on your behalf to best ensure that any negative input obtained can be legally addressed and neutralized.
If negative input from a reference is uncovered, what steps can you take? Your options will depend on the nature of the negative input. Where your reference’s communication was inaccurate, malicious, or wrongful you may have the ability – through an attorney – to pursue legal recourse. When a reference’s negative input is not unlawful but is nonetheless restricting your ability to secure future employment, it can sometimes be addressed through a Cease-&-Desist letter which is typically issued by your attorney to the senior management of the company where the negative reference originated, alerting the management of the negative reference’s identity and actions. Typically the very act of offering a negative reference is against corporate guidelines, which normally state that only a former employee’s title/dates of employment can be confirmed. The negative reference is cautioned by management not to offer additional comments and – out of self-interest – will usually not offer negative commentary again.
Whether through a Cease-&-Desist letter or stronger legal measures, the prospects for neutralizing further negative input from a reference are excellent. Also, the “peace of mind” a reference verification brings to an employment candidate unsure of what their references are really saying, cannot be underestimated. If concern about your references is causing you some sleepless nights, it’s never too soon to document – and address – what they are really saying about you. The career you save, may be your own.