What To Do When Your Employer Won't Provide a Reference

What do you do when your previous employer refuses to provide a detailed reference? 

It's been a while since I've shared a reader question here so let's see what we can do to help this job-seeker out. She asks, "What am I to do, now that my previous employer refuses to provide a thorough reference? And how can I prevent that from negatively affecting me in the future job search? " 



Previous employers can provide job-related information on past employees to prospective employers provided that it is based on fact and given in good faith (Employment Reference Laws) but that doesn't always happen. A more likely scenario is what my reader describes below:

"They can confirm the dates that I worked with them and what my function at their organization was, but cannot / will not provide any other details or commentary, whether good or bad, about my work performance and other intangibles. This is because they don't want to potentially get sued for falsely representing their former employee. (Apparently that's a thing.)"

Yes, that is a thing and I am not going to riff and rant on the pros and cons of employers liability in providing references because I've been on both sides of the employer/employee coin and that will not help my reader out.

Not being able to get any information at all from a previous employer can potentially be a red flag but here are a few ideas: 

  • Try reaching out to your former manager(s) directly or asking them for a written letter of reference. Managers are often very willing to provide a recommendation for their performing employees.
  • Offer to provide prospective employers copies of your most recent performance reviews. What companies are uncomfortable sharing over the phone, they often put in writing at the end of each performance year.
  • Did you work with community partners or members of other organizations in your role with your previous employer? Perhaps they would comment about your work performance and professional interactions with them.

What ideas do you have for job seekers when their employers won't provide a reference? What has worked for you?