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How to Keep a Bad Reference from Ruining Your Career

Negative references can undermine your work overnight. How to stop them from ruining your career. [TWEET]

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. No worries, just chalk it up to bad luck, pick up the pieces and move forward. What if that doesn’t work, and you’re bad fortune hurts future offers? Some employers aren’t willing to leave the past in the past. They send references that hurt your chances and can cost you career advancements. For these instances, a more proactive approach to a professional reference list is needed.

Here are five methods to prevent past errors from becoming future issues.

Clarify the situation

While it may seem obvious to avoid including an employer you believe will give negative reports on your professional reference list, 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 references. 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, and, professional ethics notwithstanding, past supervisors can and will speak poorly if you let them.

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

Have a conversation

When a negative reference is unpreventable, and your former boss has 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.

Be careful not to come off as judgmental. Treat this situation the same as 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. Be sure to:

  • Listen to their side of the story.

  • Use “I” statements; avoid the use of “You” pronouns.

  • Explain the impact this caused to 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 you think this is unprofessional and counterproductive to both sides. Many employers will feel pity on your mistake, especially if you were young and just starting out, or they may fear legal recourse.

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 the supervisor has wrong information. Don’t be judgmental, and never say 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.

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, and never accuse the company of being in the wrong. Take responsibility for your actions. This shows maturity. Everyone makes mistakes. Your future boss wants to know how you plan to prevent the same mistake from happening again.  

Some recruiters recommend smoothing the way by offering positives and proactive measures you took while at the job. Then explain the mistake. Others say sugar-coating the incident makes you look less than willing to take responsibility. One of the most common strategies employed against a negative professional reference list is more positive references. Consider seeking positive reviews from colleagues at the same company. They be able to detract from the original negative feedback.

Ask them to stop

For negative references that don’t cross legal boundaries, tell them to stop giving bad 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 organization, is more effective than arguing.

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

Get others involved

Legal remedies should always be a last resort. This is a costly solution, to both sides. But if you cannot convince the person to stop defamation practices, 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 my career?

  • Do I 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 simply stop sending references of any kind.


It’s difficult to build a positive image in your career. Negative references on your professional reference list can undermine your work overnight. After 10 years of perfect work and productive contributions, one small mistake could shine brighter than those $50 million contracts you brought to the company. Be careful of every word you say and action performed. If you don’t know if it could hurt, don’t take the chance.

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Write your resume like a pro.

TopResume's resume worksheet is just like the one our pros use. Download it now for free and start getting more interviews!

Write your resume like a pro.

TopResume's resume worksheet is just like the one our pros use. Download it now for free and start getting more interviews!