Job References

Produced by Sheila C. Casey, Esq., Neighborhood Legal Services
Created June 13, 2006

If you are trying to find work, your new employer may contact places you worked
before and ask about your work experience, your work habits, and your attendance.
This article will give you information about what an employer can say and what
an employer cannot say about you.

Know your rights

In Massachusetts, it is illegal for an employer to provide false information
about you on purpose.This means that a former employer may give
negative information about you, if he or she believes it to be true.


If you were late for work or had many absences the employer may use that
factual information in your reference. Also, your employer or former employer
may give his or her opinion on your job performance. Therefore, if a former
employee truly believes that you were a slow-learner he or she may give this
opinion of you to a prospective employer.

However, there is certain information that an employer should not provide,
because that information is private. It may be an invasion of your privacy
for an employer to give highly personal information that is not relevant or
important to the reference or to give out unsolicited confidential information
about you in a reference. For example, it may be an invasion of your privacy
for an employer to provide confidential medical information in your reference.

It is also unlawful for an employer to give a bad reference in retaliation
for an employee reporting alleged discrimination, or participated in a discrimination
claim against the employer in any way. The law also prohibits current and former
employers to retaliate against you if you opposed unlawful employment discrimination
in the workplace, participated in employment discrimination proceedings or
otherwise asserted rights such as reporting alleged sexual harassment to your

If your rights have been violated

If you believe that an employer has given false or exaggerated information
about you and it has prevented you from gaining employment or an employer has
retaliated against you for reporting discrimination or any other activity you
believe to be illegal you should contact the Massachusetts Commission Against
Discrimination or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

Dealing with a bad reference

If possible, try to get another job before you are fired or before you quit.
This is a good idea for two reasons. First, employers view people who are currently
employed as better candidates – you look better to a prospective employer.
Second, potential employers usually understand if you do not want them to contact
your current employer. If asked, you may tell your prospective employer that
your current employer does not know about your job search and you would rather
wait to discuss it with him or her when you give notice of leave.

The following are steps to minimize the damage if you have already left and
believe you may receive a bad reference:

  • Only list references that you are certain will give you a good reference.
    Consider using former co-workers and former clients as references. Always
    call and ask permission of anyone you want to use as a reference. You should
    ask these references you if they prefer being contacted by phone or email.
    This ensures that prospective employers will be able to contact your reference.
    Consider sending a thank-you note or call your references after you receive
    your new job.
  • If a prospective employer insists on speaking with a “bad reference”,
    do damage control first by explaining the situation and your side of the
    story. Be careful to not sound confrontation or argumentative. You also do
    not want to appear to be “bad mouthing” your former employer.
    Try to be as vague as possible. Let the prospective employer know that “your
    not sure if your former employer will give you the positive reference you


You should only discuss “a bad reference” with a prospective
employer if you are very certain that you will receive a bad reference. If
you are not sure what a former employer will say, it may not be a good idea
to discuss it with a prospective employer.

There are agencies you can hire to do reference checks for you to determine
what your former employers are saying about you.

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