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Can a Former Employer Give a Bad Reference?

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Often, people applying for jobs will be asked to provide a list of their former employers. The prospective employer examining the candidate might contact one of more of these employers to determine whether the applicant would be a good choice. While good references can boost a candidate's chances of being hired, a bad reference can greatly harm chances. However, there is nothing illegal about giving a bad reference, so long as it is factually accurate.


Sometimes, when a person applies for a job, he is allowed to give a list of positive references that his potential employer can check on. However, other times, the potential employer will not give the person a choice, based on the idea that person has stacked the references in his favor. If an applicant has a bad relationship with a former employer, he runs the risk of this person being contacted.

Bad References

A former employer may be asked for her opinion of the character of the individual, as well as facts about his employment. An employer has no legal obligation to say nice things about her former employee or to recommend him for a new position. An employer is allowed to express disapproval of the employee's character, cite negative facts about the employee's performance, and state her opinion about whether another employer should hire him.

False References

While an employer can give a bad reference for a former employee, he cannot provide a false one. If an employer tells lies about a former employee--for example, if the employer says the applicant was habitually late to work when, in fact, she was not -- the employee may be able to bring a lawsuit. However, the line between opinion and fact can be difficult to discern. When an employer states the employee did a "lousy" job, it may be difficult to determine, legally, whether this is opinion or fact.


If a job applicant suspects a former employer will provide him with a negative reference, he may wish to mention this ahead of time to the employer to which he is applying. When doing so, the employee should spell out the basis for his disagreement with his former employer and offer his own version of events. He should attempt to not speak with any rancor about his former employer, but state the facts in a calm manner.


Michael Wolfe has been writing and editing since 2005, with a background including both business and creative writing. He has worked as a reporter for a community newspaper in New York City and a federal policy newsletter in Washington, D.C. Wolfe holds a B.A. in art history and is a resident of Brooklyn, N.Y.

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