You can't stop a former employer from saying negative things about you. The law has no restrictions on how employers may describe your character or performance. But whatever they say must be the truth; lies and mischaracterizations have legal consequences. You could sue the employer for defamation of character. Or you could take preventive action to keep bad references from derailing your career.
Employers know the legal risks of providing references for former workers. Even the most accurate reference could be challenged in court. Employers often have protective policies that limit the kind of information they may provide. Some workplaces verify job titles and duties, but won't comment on character or performance. Others confirm only start-and-stop employment dates. Stay current with the post-employment reference policies in your workplace before you leave so you can head off problems in your job search later on.
Checking references is as much about not hiring the wrong person as it is about hiring the right person. You might have stellar job references to give prospective employers, but savvy recruiters know that job seekers get references from people who have only praise for their work. Recruiters dig deeper into job candidates' backgrounds by contacting people who aren't on a list of reference providers. Recruiters might contact a co-worker or client from three jobs ago. Some even ask candidates to call their most recent boss for a reference.
If you suspect that bad references are keeping you from getting job offers, or even getting interviews, you might need to contact your former manager. Explain your concerns about bad references. Be humble and non-accusatory. Ask if she would kindly agree to avoid saying anything damaging about you when prospective employers call for a reference. You might humbly acknowledge any mistakes you made and admit that you've learned from them. She might empathize with you or reject your request, but asking is worth the risk.
A candid discussion with the prospective employer is another option. Openly admit that problems in your previous job might generate a bad reference. Avoid making negative comments about your former boss or the company. By bringing up your concerns about bad references early in the recruitment process, you get to present your view of what happened on your old job. Focus the discussion on how you plan to handle similar challenges more positively in the new position if you're hired. The prospective employer might appreciate your candor.
If you have proof that a previous employer is lying about you in negative references, contact its human resources department. One of HR's responsibilities is seeing that employers comply with workplace laws and avoid costly legal claims. Point out the falsehoods in the reference and how they're blocking your chances of landing a new job. Take your concerns directly to your former boss if the employer is small and doesn't have an HR manager or designate. Politely tell him how lying about you could make the employer liable for defamation.
Valerie Bolden-Barrett is a writer, editor and communication consultant specializing in best business practices, public policy, personal finance and career development. She is a former senior editor of national business publications covering management and finance, employment law, human resources, career development, and workplace issues and trends.