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  1. Blog
  2. Culture & Professionalism

Can a Former Employer Badmouth You?

And what you can do if they have

Woman looking seriously at the camera
Image courtesy of Jorge Salvador

You’ve been job hunting for several months and interviewed half a dozen times, but you’re not getting offers. What’s wrong? It could be that a former employer, whom you’ve given as a reference, is badmouthing you.

There are certainly steps you can take if you discover that your old boss or manager is speaking negatively about you. But first, you need to find out if indeed you’re being badmouthed by a former employer.

Read more: How to Know If What You’re Seeing is Workplace Retaliation—And What to Do About It

How do you know if a former employer is badmouthing you?

The best evidence is from the company that did not hire you. Some recruiters will tell you up front if a reference gave a bad review. You may have to ask for that information, though. Put your request in writing, and ask for all reference checks and interview notes.

If you’re not having any luck with that approach, have someone call your former employers (posing as a potential employer) to ask for a reference.

Read more: Just Fired: Is It Wrongful Termination?

What should you do when you find out a former boss is badmouthing you?

Career change coach Lisa Lewis Miller tells us you should first take a look at any contracts you signed when you left that company. “Is there a clause that says that the company will not disclose information about your employment? If so, you may have a document that can help you with a cease and desist request of these individuals.”

The problem, Lewis Miller warns, is that they are difficult to enforce without taking legal action.

If that’s the case, you may want to discuss the situation with your former employer in order to resolve it. She provides a great example of how you could approach that talk:

I wanted to reach out because I heard someone mention that they'd heard you talking about my prior employment in a disparaging way. Knowing your professionalism, discretion, and your desire to maintain your own strong reputation in the community, I found the claim hard to believe, but wanted to let you know that it's a rumor circulating in our professional circles. 

If by chance the rumor is true, please know that this is a very difficult time for me and my family, and anything you can do to help make it easier would be incredibly appreciated.

Read more: Employment Verification Letter: All The Goods

Are there legal ramifications for badmouthing a former employee?

If a former employer is accurate and factual in their reference, they are within their legal rights to disclose that information. However, if they’re giving out false information, you should see an employment lawyer.

If your former employer is badmouthing you because you had reported discrimination or other illegal practices during your employment, for example, you may be a victim of retaliation, and that’s illegal. The EEOC states that former employees are among those protected against retaliation under equal opportunity laws.

Attorney Barbara Kate Repa says to also check with your state labor department to see if your state regulates what an employer can say about former employees. She compiled a list of some 40 states, setting out the information that may be disclosed and when an employer might be liable. In many cases, employers that knowingly give false information can be sued for defamation.

Read more: How to Build a LinkedIn Profile That Demands Attention

What you can do right now to lessen the impact

If you haven’t left your job yet, but you’re worried that your boss will give a poor reference, talk to them about it. See if you can at least turn it from a negative to neutral reference. Escalate with an internal, formal complaint in writing, if you need to.

And remember that you can counter the negative things a former employer has said about you by highlighting the recommendations on your LinkedIn profile. These are references by clients, peers, and supervisors who explain their connection with you and why they endorse you. As such, they can be very useful as a testament to use against any negative statements.

About our source

Lisa Lewis Miller is a career change coach who helps unfulfilled individuals find careers that light them up. She's helped more than 500 people make transitions, and is the host of The Career Clarity Show on Apple Podcasts.

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