Bad Reference: How to Handle and Overcome the Negative Impact on Your Career

Bad Reference: How to Handle and Overcome the Negative Impact on Your Career - Shiftbase
  taking legal action for better reference list

In this article we will explore the implications of a bad reference, how to handle it, and the steps you can take to overcome its negative impact on your career.

What is a bad reference?

A bad reference is a negative evaluation or feedback from a former employer, supervisor, or colleague to a potential new employer or professional network. A bad reference can harm your chances of securing future employment. Potential employers may view you as unreliable, difficult to work with, or lacking the necessary skills for the job.

A bad reference can result from various factors, including poor work performance, behavioral issues, personality clashes with supervisors or colleagues, or simply misunderstandings or miscommunications. It's important to note that a bad reference is not the same as a lack of a reference, which means that a former employer or colleague chose not to provide a reference.

Common causes of bad references

There are several common causes of bad references, including:

  • Poor work performance: If you consistently underperform, missed deadlines, or fail to meet expectations in your previous role, your employer may provide a negative reference.

  • Behavioral issues: If you exhibit unprofessional behavior, such as being consistently late, not following directions, or having a poor attitude, your employer may provide a negative reference.

  • Personality clashes with supervisors or colleagues: If you have a problematic relationship with your supervisor or colleagues, they might provide a negative reference out of personal bias or resentment.

  • Misunderstandings or miscommunications: If there were misunderstandings or miscommunications during your previous employment, your employer might provide a negative reference based on incorrect or incomplete information.

It's important to note that sometimes a negative reference may not be entirely justified or accurate. It's essential to seek clarification and feedback from your previous employers to understand the reasons for their negative assessment and to address any concerns they may have.

Why is a reference important?

A reference is important because it provides potential employers with additional information about your qualifications, skills, experience, and character. A reference can serve as an endorsement of your abilities and help to build trust between you and the potential employer.

Employers often use references to verify the information provided on a resume or during an interview and gain insight into your work style and professional demeanor. A positive reference can give a new employer confidence in your ability to perform the job and be a good fit for their organization.

Furthermore, references can be an opportunity to showcase your achievements, work ethic, and other qualities that may have yet to be highlighted in your resume or during the interview. A good reference can also help you stand out from other candidates who may have similar qualifications and experience.

Can an employer write a "bad" reference?

dd4cff76-425c-462e-8d54-324160aba5beIt's all up to what you consider "bad." A reference can say things perceived to be negative about someone, but the question is whether they're true. Whenever a reference mentions a concern about someone's work or reputation, it must be something that has been discussed with them before and must only include known facts.

Don't include negative speculations and conjectures. However, former employers can express negative opinions if they carefully consider them and their underlying justification.

In addition, make sure any criticisms of performance or attendance don't come from a disability-related reason because this could lead to a discrimination case. Employers should stick with facts they know about their employees and can prove.

The prospective employer often asks if the old employer thinks the person is right for the job. In most cases, this isn't appropriate since the employer needs to express an opinion on a job and organization they don't know anything about.

As a rule, a "bad" reference depends on whether it is fair (under the circumstances), true (there is nothing wrong or misleading), and accurate (e.g., have you left something out that would alter your perspective if included?).

How to handle a bad reference

Handling a bad reference can be daunting, but it's essential to take proactive measures to mitigate the negative impact it can have on your career prospects. Below are some practical steps you can take to handle a bad reference:

Assess the situation:

If you suspect that you've been given a bad reference, assessing the situation and understanding why it happened is crucial. Try to recall any potential issues that may have caused the negative reference.

Was it related to your work performance, personality clashes, or other issues? Understanding the root cause of the bad reference can help you address it effectively.

Speak with your former employer:

This step in handling a bad reference is to reach out to your former employer and ask them about the negative feedback. Approach the conversation with empathy and take responsibility for any issues between you. Use "I" statements to express your desire to address problems directly.

Sometimes, an apology can go a long way to mending a damaged relationship with a past employer. The key here is to use active listening tactics to effectively address any concerns your previous employer may have in a bid to remedy the bad reference.

Look for any feedback from the recruiting employer:

Ask for feedback regarding their conversation with your referees. It may give you a better idea of what specific issues came up during the conversation, giving you a better opportunity to respond. You can share ways you've changed behaviors to improve your performance. As long as the issues are legitimate, you want to respect them instead of dismissing them.

Get help from colleagues and friends:

Have a friend or former colleague call your previous employer and ask for a reference on your behalf. It might give you all the information you need to decide how to handle a bad reference best. You could also use a professional reference-checking service, but they charge a fee. Consider your options before finalizing your reference list to help you choose the best referees.

Useful Read: How To Do a Background Check: A Guide for Employers

Assess your other references:

Mitigate a bad reference by ensuring your other references offer a more positive portrayal of your work history. Double-check with your referees that they will provide useful, positive references about your time with their company. If you don't have an extensive list of references from past employers, remember that a referee doesn't have to be a previous supervisor. Expand your pool of potential referees to help you select the best ones.

Embrace any negative feedback positively:

If there is no avoiding a bad reference, use it as an opportunity to demonstrate growth and development. Take negative criticism on board and improve any faults or bad habits. By acknowledging your flaws and showing a willingness to improve, you can offset any negative perceptions created by the bad reference.

Handling a bad job reference requires a proactive and constructive approach. By taking ownership of the situation, seeking feedback, and focusing on positive growth, you can mitigate the impact of a negative reference and enhance your chances of securing future employment.

How to challenge a bad reference

The employer is responsible for providing a fair and accurate reference by law. Whenever you feel an inaccurate reference has been given to you, you may challenge this. You can challenge a bad reference by following the steps below:

Talk to your new employer.

Tell the recruiter or interviewer in advance if you suspect your previous employer might provide an inaccurate reference. It can facilitate the interviewer's understanding of any concerns about the reference. It also offers the opportunity to discuss using other references or a probationary period.

Get a copy of the bad reference.

You should examine the reference for yourself before you decide whether it is legitimate. A reference copy can be obtained by asking the person who wrote it or by asking the recipient. Depending on data protection law, if the previous employer has placed a confidentiality clause on the reference, you may be unable to view it.

Consider legal advice

Legal advice may be necessary if the bad reference issue cannot be resolved amicably. It might be a good idea to talk to a lawyer. You can obtain additional information from Citizens Advice to help you decide whether to have a former employer prosecuted and how to approach a bad reference.

What can employees do if they get negative referrals?

When an employer refuses to give a reference or gives an unjustifiably negative reference, an ex-employee may bring an employment tribunal claim for discrimination or victimization. There is a link between this and protected characteristics such as race or disability.

A claim for negligent misstatement may be brought in ordinary courts if the misleading reference is unfair or inaccurate. There was a negligent misstatement claim in the Hincks case above, but the employee failed to prevail. Referees may also be liable for Defamation if they make disparaging statements with no justification or other defense for the statement. Moreover, these claims should be brought in the ordinary court, not the employment tribunal.

Applicants unhappy with how reference information was processed or disclosed may file a complaint with the Information Commissioner. They may also claim under the Data Protection Act 2018.

Can employers provide an essential written reference only?

To mitigate legal risks, many employers only provide the job title and date of service for basic references but do not provide any other information. The type of reference they provide does not reflect the individual's skills and qualities, so they are useless to new employers.

Employees/ex-employees are entitled to the same type of reference as long as the employer provides them with the same kind of reference. Employees who leave under settlement agreements may be able to obtain a more detailed reference as part of their package. Oral references are generally discouraged as they are not recorded for future use.


In summary, handling a bad reference requires a proactive and strategic approach. By taking ownership of the situation, building a strong network of positive references, and communicating transparently with potential employers, you can overcome the negative impact of a bad reference and continue to advance your career.

Remember, setbacks are a natural part of any professional journey. By staying positive, proactive, and strategic, you can turn a negative experience into a valuable lesson and even use it as a catalyst for your professional development. With the right mindset and approach, you can overcome the negative impact of a bad reference and continue to achieve your career goals.

Topic: HRM
Carin Vreede

Written by:

Carin Vreede

With years of experience in the HR field, Carin has a lot of experience with HR processes. As a content marketer, she translates this knowledge into engaging and informative content that helps companies optimize their HR processes and motivate and develop their employees.


Please note that the information on our website is intended for general informational purposes and not as binding advice. The information on our website cannot be considered a substitute for legal and binding advice for any specific situation. While we strive to provide up-to-date and accurate information, we do not guarantee the accuracy, completeness and timeliness of the information on our website for any purpose. We are not liable for any damage or loss arising from the use of the information on our website.