Your Former Boss Can Kill Your Job Offer

by Joe Turner | March 31, 2009

  • My Vault

Many job seekers are blithely unaware that their former employers all too often say things that can damage or halt their career prospects. Most of this is due to the erroneous belief that it's somehow illegal to ask about things other than title and dates of employment during a reference check.

This is simply not true.

Today's courts have literally invented a whole new body of law called "Employment Law." Bundled in this tangle of law is employment pre-screening, otherwise known as reference checking.

As a result, many employers restrict information given about their former employees to name, title and dates of employment. The problem is that there is no hard and fast rule about what can or cannot be divulged during the reference call. Also, any eventual case that an employee tries to bring up through the legal system must meet fairly stringent tests and they must be proven. Additionally, over 30 states have adopted reference check immunity laws. These laws generally offer protection to employers who provide job references for current or former employees.

The reality
There is no reference police officer watching over your past employer. Essentially, your past employer (or any reference) can take a few moments on the phone with a total stranger and either increase your chances of obtaining a new position or absolutely ruin them. Most anything can be discussed in a reference check. Most employers are reluctant to give much information. However, when the interviewer adopts a more conversational style, many employers find themselves discussing relevant areas of an employee's past performance.

For example, here are some questions typically discussed during a quality reference check:

  • What was the nature of your affiliation with him/her?
  • What were his/her duties and responsibilities as you saw them?
  • How would you evaluate his/her management ability?
  • How would you appraise his/her technical ability?
  • How did he/she get along with others?
  • How did he/she deal with upper management?
  • How did he/she take criticism?
  • What do you feel are his/her strongest points?
  • Does he/she have any weaknesses that would prevent him/her from succeeding on the job?
  • Are there any bad habits that you know of?
  • Was he/she terminated or did he/she leave voluntarily?
  • Would you re-employ this person if you had an appropriate opening?
  • On a scale of 1 to 10, rank him/her as an overall (add title here).

You'll notice that these questions go way beyond "name, rank and serial number."

For your protection:

1.) Get their permission: Always obtain permission from any potential references you wish to use. In fact, you might want to test the waters first to determine what kind of a reference each individual might give you. If in doubt, ask them ahead of time if you can "count on them for a good reference."

Consider this: A bad boss can mean a bad reference. Will you trust your last supervisor to give you a good reference? If future employers contact this person when you apply for a new job, it could spell the difference between a job offer or not. If you are not in a situation where you can approach this person, you may want to consider a professional reference checking service. These are businesses that provide reference checks and pre-employment screens. They also provide this service to potential employees who would like to find out exactly what their references will say about them before their potential employer calls them. (Look for pre-employment screening services.)

2.) Keep references private: This is confidential information you are entrusted with. It should only be given to those who have a "need to know." Your references should only be given to a prospective employer who is about to give you a formal job offer. Never put references on you resume or post them on a job board.

Never assume your references will restrict themselves to giving only the bare essentials about your prior employment. Don't take for granted that they will spend the time and give an overly enthusiastic recommendation. Take precautions now to ensure you know exactly what your references are saying about you. If you find yourself in a less than ideal situation, you may want to consult an attorney who specializes in employment law. You can find one through NELA - the National Employment Lawyers Association. Additionally, you can access legal advice and information at US Law Books.

As a recruiter, Joe Turner has spent the past 15 years finding and placing top candidates in some of the best jobs of their careers. Author of Job Search Secrets Unlocked, Joe has interviewed on radio talk shows and offers free insider job search secrets at

Filed Under: Job Search

Close button

Get tips on interviewing, networking, resumes, and more directly to your inbox.

No Thanks

Get Our Career Newsletter

Interview, resume and job search tips emailed directly to you.