Getting your former employer to admit that it gave you a bad job reference to a prospective employer is tricky. But if you're resourceful and maintain excellent records about your job search, you can find a way to prove that your previous job is making it difficult for you to find a new one.
Give Your Resume a Once-Over
Provide prospective employers with accurate information. Compare your resume and employment application to personal records you have from previous jobs. Double check your dates and job descriptions, company names and contact information. A previous employer might not be providing a bad reference so much as it might be unaware of your performance or tenure with the company, based on possibly inaccurate information you give prospective employers. For example, if you misstate your employment dates, chances are the recruiter won't be able to verify your work history, which could mean being disqualified for the job.
Obtain Your Personnel File
Check your state law for instructions on how to gain access to your personnel records. You might not be able to simply call your previous employer and say, "I would like to drop by to pick up a copy of my employment file." Some states require written requests from a former employee who wants to view or copy his personnel file contents. In this case, send a written request to the company and be prepared to pay for photocopies of personnel documents. Review your file for inconsistencies or misrepresentations about your employment history or job performance.
Prove Rehire Eligibility
Proving your rehire eligibility won't get you a copy of a bad reference, but it can help you refute negative information about your work history. When you contact a previous employer, specifically ask, "Am I eligible for rehire?" Ask for a written statement about your rehire eligibility if the answer is "yes." In this case, you can show potential employers that you are eligible for rehire, which demonstrates that you are employable. That's all that many recruiters and hiring managers want to know anyway. They realize that candidates get bad, inaccurate references for a number of reasons.
Contact Your Former Supervisor
If you worked for a small organization, you might be able to contact your former supervisor directly to ask how the company is characterizing your work history. Regardless of the terms on which you left the company, speak up about the difficulty you are having finding a job. Refrain from accusing your former supervisor of sabotaging your career. Instead, explain that you have been considered for jobs but haven't received an offer and that you're wondering if your performance record is preventing you from being selected for future positions.
Choose the Last Resort
It could take more time than you have to spend, but filing a formal complaint with your state fair employment practices agency or the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission could reveal whether your previous employer is giving you a bad reference. Should you choose this option, don't tell prospective employers that you're seeking redress for what you believe is an unfair reference. Keep it to yourself and carry on with your job search as usual.