Is a Former Employer’s Bad Reference Harmful?

Company XYZ wanted to hire Joe Blank. He seemed the perfect candidate to fill the job after a lengthy and exhaustive search. Is there such a thing as a too ideal candidate?

Even his credentials seemed a masterful fit to the position’s requirements. If Joe was so perfect, then why did he have two bad references?

One negative reference would have been conceivable to overlook. But two?

The firm decided to dig deeper to find out why and asked the staffing agency that had found Joe to look further into his background. Was it possible that two of Joe’s former bosses had real issues with Joe’s performance? Were they crazy or was it sour grapes?

Here are three points to consider about references:

  • The Rant. When a former manager begins with negative comments and continues on a rant, it may be time to disregard the conversation. After all, the agency had spoken with Joe but didn’t know anything about the person providing the reference except that Joe had given the agency the name. And, yes, it is possible that two bosses had given bad references. People do tend to report negative qualities rather than positive ones.
  • The Truth. When Joe had applied for the position, he had been candid that he left his former positions with some conflicts. He admitted that he had ethical issues with some of the tasks his former managers had asked him to do.
  • The Excuse. The person providing the reference appeared double-minded. “What would you like to hear? Joe did his job okay, but I just didn’t like him. So, I wish you better luck.” Then before the agency representative hung up, she heard Joe’s former manager say under his breath, “Joe doesn’t know what he’s worth. If I give him a bad rap, he can’t leave.”

The point of any reference is to confirm what the interview has revealed. While it can push a decision forward, it also can feel like such a shot in the dark that it’s best to disregard what is said and rely more on the background screening.

In Joe’s case, the third reference gave glowing remarks and answered the representative’s questions in detail which persuaded her that Joe was worth receiving the job offer.


Data Screening is a Certified Women’s Business Enterprise that has offered business-to-business employment and tenant screenings to human resource professionals and business owners, including staffing companies, for two decades. Among other organizations, they are members of the ASA (American Staffing Association), SHRM (Society for Human Resource Management) and the NAPBS (National Association of Professional Background Screeners).


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