Former Employers & Bad Mouthing: What to Know

It is a common misconception that your former employer cannot say anything negative about you. Here's the deal.

Kim Costa |
Categories: Career Advice

You nailed the interview and now you just need a reference check. You think you'll be okay, but you’re not so sure about that one manager. Maybe you missed a few days but your overall job performance was good. Maybe you didn’t get along so great with one of your co-workers and there was some friction. Hey, stuff happens. So, when they're called for a reference, can your previous employer say negative things about you as their former employee? The answer is yes...aaaand no. 

A lot of people think a former employer can’t say anything bad about an ex-employee. That's not true. They can legally tell a hiring manager almost anything about your job performance except confidential stuff.

But they can't just say whatever they want without proof. Saying untrue things about you without having anything to back it up could get them in a lot of hot water. For example, if you don’t get a job because your old boss lied about your work ethic or performance, you could sue for defamation of character. Being hit with a lawsuit like that can cause a company big trouble. In fact, because of lawsuit possibilities, many businesses have a reference policy that strictly limits what managers can say. They might only be allowed to give your job title and dates of employment. Or they can also say whether you can or can’t be rehired.

If you hear that a former employer is bad-mouthing you during your job hunt, you can take legal action. But keep in mind you also have to prove the comments are not factual. Call your state labor department to find out state law and always get legal advice before you take any action. 

What if you know you'll get a bad reference?

A job search is stressful enough and worrying about a bad reference only adds to the anxiety. If you already know that a reference will be less than positive, you'll probably want to find out exactly what the company is allowed to say. You can always call and ask the HR department for their policy. When you know you're going to get a negative reference, be honest with your hiring manager or recruiter. Tell them what you think the people at your previous job might say. Yeah, that can be scary, but you’ll probably make a better impression by being upfront. 

Another thing to try, if you know your previous employer is likely to say something negative, is to attempt to smooth things over with them. That probably sounds really overwhelming. But it could show them you’ve changed, and it might change what they say about you. What have you got to lose?