Dealing with a bad reference

A bad reference can trip you up, but are you being paranoid?

This reader had a question relating to a bad reference:

I have been wanting to know if my previous employer is giving me a good reference or a negative one.

I left on good terms and thought of calling them myself, disguised as a recruiter and asking the questions a recruiter would normally ask the HR department. But I do not know what to ask. Any advice would be helpful.

My answer:

First off, let’s not misrepresent ourselves. Journalistic codes of ethics tell us not to do that, and our personal ethics would preclude us from pretending to be someone we’re not.

I have to ask, though: If you left on good terms, why do you think someone would be giving you negative references? If you have no reason to think that, I would forget about it. But if you have a good reason to believe someone is giving a bad reference — and failure to get a job is not, in my view, strong enough evidence — there are services that will make a reference check on you and for you. This, of course, is misrepresentation, too.

The grounds for bringing a lawsuit over negative references are similar to the grounds for a libel suit. Remember that truth is a defense in either case. If someone says something bad about you — and can back it up with documentation — your case would be hurt and you could be embarrassed. Unless you left on awful terms, someone threatened to badmouth you or you have heard that someone is giving bad references about you, I would worry about something else.

No reference: one step up from a bad reference.

Here is an excerpt from a question I received:

My news editor recently told me that she cannot say anything beyond basic information because of the company’s policy. She just found out about it from her superior. How do I go about getting references if anyone who works for my company can’t discuss my abilities?

My answer:

I often run into this policy and can get around it almost every time.

Here’s what job candidates can do:

  • If you have a written appraisal — one that is good — let that speak for you.
  • Ask the editor to write a generic letter of recommendation.
  • Ask the editor to request a dispensation from the policy and offer to write a letter saying you won’t sue if they give you a bad reference.
  • Have a talk with the editor before the employer makes the reference call and explain that a “no comment” could hurt your career and that you really need the support. You would be, in effect, giving permission for the reference.

The policy is in place to prevent people from saying things that could hurt former employees and bring about defamation suits. The danger of that goes way down if the editor has good things to say. Still, companies try to protect themselves with simple, clear policies that will keep them out of trouble. The problem is that most employees would benefit from a complete and honest reference and the policy helps only weak performers.

Mastering the newsroom:

Want more advice on bad references, good references or missing references? These questions, answers and advice come from my book Ask The Recruiter, where I have collected years of experience from recruiting in newsrooms. The book contains popular questions and answers dedicated to breaking open the occasionally opaque nature of newsroom hiring, promoting and managing.

For more information, check out the following resources:

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