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@Work Advice: How do you handle negative references?

(Photograph by Deb Lindsey)

Recent questions to me and to advice maven Carolyn Hax have me thinking about employer references — specifically, about keeping negative ones from demolishing your reputation.

It all started with a letter in Carolyn’s column. The letter writer’s mother-in-law had called the LW’s former boss, extracted damaging details about the LW’s termination, then spewed the news to everyone in earshot. Readers responding to the column online said the LW should sue her former boss, because companies nowadays can confirm only basic facts about a former worker, such as employment period and salary.

Not so, according to employment attorney Elaine Fitch of Kalijarvi, Chuzi, Newman & Fitch. She told me employers can share anything that is true, provided they have firsthand knowledge and a “common interest” in the matter with the person seeking the referral. It’s true that many limit themselves to the basics, but that’s to protect themselves against lawsuits from disgruntled ex-workers, not because it’s the law. Some employers require signed referral consents for that very reason.

Because the information was true, Fitch said, suing for defamation would likely be a waste of time and money, unless the boss acted out of malice or lacked firsthand knowledge about the situation.

Granted, it was “just stupid,” in Fitch’s words, for the boss to give the mother-in-law that information if he knew who she was; a desire to torch someone’s reputation does not qualify as an “interest” in the legal sense. But if the MIL posed as an employer, the boss probably believed she was entitled to the truth about a potential hire.


Reader: In several years of temping, I’ve unfortunately worked closely with people who would be risky or negative references. When I do find friendly people who know my work and are willing to be references, I can’t find a full-time job opening for months, so the references never get used. The person in charge at my agency said I have up to a year before they go stale. How can I explain having few references?

Karla: Too stale to use after a year? Bull-pshaw. A decade, maybe. Fill your Rolodex with anyone who can vouch for your skills and character. Just make sure you call the people first to remind them who you are, and make sure their offer still stands.

If any of those “risky” references try to shiv you somehow, your collection of positive reviews should make clear that the problem is with the naysayers, not you.

(Er ... it is them and not you — right? Either way, you might want to come up with a non-defensive defense, in case an interviewer hears something negative from a detractor and asks you about it.)

Karla L. Miller is ready to hear your work dramas and traumas. Send your questions to You can also find her on Twitter, @KarlaAtWork, or Facebook.

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Karla L. Miller offers advice on surviving the ups and downs of the modern workplace. Miller, of South Riding, Va., was the winner of the 2011 @Work Advice Contest. E-mail your questions to Karla at
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