Never Assume” – Your Job References

You’re filling out a job application when you come to the question “May we contact your former supervisor?” While you didn’t “part company” with them on particularly good terms, your understanding is that all they should be allowed to divulge to a prospective employer were your title and employment dates. Anything beyond that would be illegal. So, should you check that box “yes’?

The answer is indeed “yes”, but not for the reason mentioned here. It’s always in your best interest to tell a prospective employer they can contact your former supervisor, for the simple reason that telling them they cannot raise a “red flag” and likely ensure that you’ll be removed from consideration. Yet, assuming your former supervisor cannot – and will not – offer any unflattering commentary about you is equally ill-advised.

While legal and/or corporate guidelines may indeed state that only your employment dates/titles can be confirmed, it is not necessarily illegal per se for a reference to give negative comments about you. References can – and very frequently do – offer considerably more commentary to your prospective employer than simply verifying your employment dates/title. As a result, many job-seeking candidates who expect a favorable (or at least neutral) assessment from their references unknowingly lose out on employment opportunities as a result of poor references.

Note that for their own legal protection, prospective employers will almost never share with a candidate the fact that a negative reference was received. This is highly problematic for any job applicant – how are they to know when a reference is offering negative, perhaps unlawful input about them to a prospective employer? Even if they know this, how can they address it?

As mentioned above, a negative input a reference offers about you is not wrongful or unlawful per se. Negative input may be illegal – some categories include discrimination, defamation, retaliation, disparagement or sexual harassment. Where a third party reference checking firm can document that a reference’s communication was wrongful, inaccurate, malicious and/or may fall under one of these categories, you may indeed have the ability – through an attorney – to pursue legal recourse. In situations where a reference’s negative input is or is not unlawful but is restricting your ability to secure future employment, it can typically be addressed through the transmittal of a Cease and Desist letter, issued by your attorney to the senior management of the company where the negative reference originated. The letter would alert the management of the negative reference’s identity and actions. Typically, the very act of offering a negative reference is against corporate guidelines, which normally state that only a former employee’s title/dates of employment can be confirmed. The negative reference is cautioned by management not to offer additional comments and – out of self-interest – is unlikely to offer negative commentary again.

If you’re unsure as to whether a negative reference is impacting your job-seeking efforts, note there are companies such as JobReferences ( that can determine this on your behalf. Approximately 50% of all reference checks they conduct uncover negative input from the reference; their report can be used for legal purposes or for the Cease and Desist letter described above.

Note that a negative reference is likely to continue offering the same input about you to every prospective employer that calls unless you detect it and take steps to stop it. Job seekers can lose many opportunities before they realize what is happening. It’s never too early to identify – and neutralize – a negative job reference in your life.

To find out more about workplace bullying and the steps you can take to prevent or eliminate it, please visit

About Allison

Allison & Taylor Inc. and its principals have been in the business of checking references for individuals and corporate accounts since 1984. We have successfully built our brand and corporate recognition and have been recommended by industry specialists such as The New York Times award-winning author Martin Yate (“Knock ‘Em Dead Résumés”). Numerous articles have been published about our business in newspapers and magazines including The Christian Science Monitor, The Wall Street Journal, Glamour Magazine, New Woman, Worth, National Business Employment Weekly, The Detroit News, and The St. Petersburg Times.