I've been getting a lot of questions about references lately and I'm getting tired of typing the same answers to them, so I am hereby presenting answers to all of them at once.
Is it legal for a former employer to give me a bad reference?
It's legal for an employer to give a negative reference as long as it's factually accurate and can be backed up by evidence.
Well, then how come some companies will only give out dates of employment and not comment on the employee's performance?
Some companies don't want to deal with the headache of a lawsuit, even if they're likely to win; their lawyers advise them to just play it safe. And they are the bane of reference-checkers everywhere as a result.
I worked for one of those companies that has a policy not to give references, but the new job I'm interviewing with is insisting on getting a reference from them. How can I make this happen?
You can often get around this by using your direct supervisor as a reference, not simply "HR." It's usually HR types who adhere to the letter of these policies; individual supervisors are usually willing to give more detailed references, particularly if you explain that your job offer hinges on it. (Contact this supervisor directly and make sure he or she is able to give you a good reference first though.) You can also offer up former coworkers, clients, and others who can speak to your work, or -- if nothing else works -- explain the company's policy and offer old copies of performance reviews if you have them (they're good to keep for this reason).
My old boss is giving me a bad reference. I don't dispute her account, but since it's making it hard for me to find another job, is there anything I can do about it?
Call your old boss and ask if she'd be willing to reach an agreement with you on what she'll say to future reference calls. It's at least worth a shot -- the worst that can happen is that she'll say no. When you call, say something like this: "I'm concerned that the reference you're providing for me is preventing me from getting work. Could we work something out so that this isn't standing in my way?" Employers who either (a) take pity on you or (b) are terrified of lawsuits may be willing to work something out with you. Also, it won't hurt to soften her up a little first by telling her that you've learned from the situation, appreciate the chance she gave you, etc.
My old boss is giving me a bad reference and what she's saying is wrong. What can I do about it?
Contact the HR department of your old company and explain that your boss is giving an inaccurate reference for you and that you are concerned about slander and defamation. The HR department, which is trained in this stuff and knows the legal jeopardy they are in, is going to freak out on your old boss and put a stop to this. If it's a small company and there's no HR department, you may need to contact the old boss directly and politely explain that she's exposing her company to legal risk by defaming you and jeopardizing your ability to gain employment. If all else fails, you may need to simply warn prospective new employers that the reference won't be a good one -- but if it comes to this, try your hardest to find other people who can speak well of your performance there -- again, clients, coworkers, old performance reviews, etc.
How can I find out what kind of reference my old company is giving for me?
You have two choices: You can call your old company and ask. Or if you don't trust them to be candid with you, you can have someone else call them and do a reference check on you. There are companies you can hire for that purpose, but there's nothing that says you can't have a friend do it for you for free.
I gave a prospective employer a list of three references to contact, but they contacted a different employer from my past who wasn't on the list I gave them. Can they do that?
Yes. The new employer can call anyone you've worked for or who might know you and ask about your performance. They aren't limited to the list you provide them with.
I want to use my old boss as a reference, but she doesn't work at that company anymore.
That's no problem; simply give her current contact information and explain she has moved to a new company. (This is why you must stay in touch with people from your past; otherwise you won't know their new contact info.)
Someone asked me to be a reference for them but I don't want to do it. How can I get out of it?
See here and here.