Has anyone ever given a negative job reference to a former employee?

I’m asking this because I haven’t seen a lot of information about it in HR literature and my own HR has never provided guidance.

As background, a former member of my team made it well known he wanted to leave. He secured job interviews, which he told me about, but he didn’t ask specifically for a job reference. I am accustomed to giving them, and for my employees to ask me for them so this was a notable thing for me that he didn’t ask. This employee did not have a good track record, his work was sloppy, he had negligible problem solving skills and on projects he was expected to deliver results on, he was impossibly disorganized, could not take initiative, and when things got really behind, he would clam up and refuse to tell anyone what was wrong, or give any indication that he needed help. Consequently, the other team members were always bailing him out, and he and I had a few terse meetings where we had to review his performance, set goals, measure his ongoing performance, etc. It was exhausting.

I was happy to see him go, but then the HR for his new supervisor (same company, just a different section) called for a job recommendation, and he hadn’t asked me for one… In reviewing the specs for the position he was being considered for, the requirements were for project management, good time management, ability to juggle priorities and deliver results in a timely manner–everything he failed to,deliver when he was on my team.

Well, I was honest with the HR person. It was a gut reaction. Every question HR asked that had to do with an area he was poor in, I answered in detail about his shortcomings. Anything he was good at, I included that in our conversation if I was asked. I was clear that in my opinion, he would not function well on a team or as a team leader.

He got the job in the end, but I always wondered why, since in my line of work and for this company, job references are the thing that clinch the deal, or can be dealbreakers.


Yes, I have given a negative reference. The employee in question was a fairly mediocre performer. If I had given him a glowing reference it would have been my reputation that suffered.

My wife was in human resources with the Australian Government and would never give a negative reference. She claimed there was always something positive to say, and if there wasn’t she would refuse to give a reference.

I am in too small a professional circle to give a negative reference. It can backfire on me.

OTH, a less than enthusiastic response to questions can convey far more information than outright criticism. At the end of the day, all evaluation is subjective to an extent and things that I saw as shortcomings on a persons part may not be seen by someone else as that.

When I managed a fast food restaurant a few years ago, the only thing we were allowed to tell a reference-checker (per corporate rules) was when the person in question had started and stopped working for us, and what their hourly wage was when they left (and that only if the person previously gave us permission to do so).

This x99.

There are times when a person and company / team just aren’t a good fit, for whatever reason, so I don’t go out of my way to give negative references. If I’m asked direct questions about specific skill sets, I will give my honest opinion, but I’ll try to be nice about it - being overly mean in a reference phone call sometimes reflects poorly more on you than the candidate in question!

That said - I’d really really need to see some extenuating circumstance to hire someone when they got a negative reference. People almost always try to be as nice as possible; that someone would give negative feedback is such a red flag.

Yes. I had an employee (for less than a month) who sucked big time. She used me as a reference. A potential employer called and asked if she was eligible for rehire. “Not if she were holding a gun to my child’s head” was my less-than-glowing reply.

One thing you should keep in mind, OP, is that the quality of a reference largely depends on the employer. Is it a mom and pop place, or a large-cap corporation? Also, is the boss an unreasonable jackass? As someone else mentioned, reputation is key. Talking to other people that have worked for an employer can help resolve some of these speedbumps.

Regarding defamation–you can’t be sued for telling the truth but that’s not the same as expressing how you truly feel about an employee. Also, it’s highly unlikely that someone in HR is going to tell the candidate what you said to them, so there’s that.

Too dangerous.
As others have said, a less than glowing reference is sufficient.
Many years ago I saw a very sad case. A supervisor said in an interview about a former employee that the employee had been regularly seen drinking at the end of the day. Not impossible, but unusual in our area. That was recorded and got back to the subject of the interview. A lawsuit ensued. Unfortunately the supervisor had left our company and so had to defend himself out of his own pocket. As I understand it, the lawsuit was dismissed since there was no doubt as to the truthfulness of the statement, though the implication was the issue. But the supervisor had left the area and had to return for the court hearing. Expensive and harmful to everyone.
So, no. I am glad to say we aren’t allowed to provide references for former employees. That information comes from HR and they don’t provide any information except the fact that the person was an employee.

I was recently part of a recruitment panel to choose an applicant for another section at work. I didn’t really care who they selected but I thought the candidate the other panel members liked was crap. I said that if he didn’t get glowing references I wouldn’t sign off on his selection. He did get glowing references and after a few weeks they let him go, because he was crap.

Last week I was talking to his boss, she said that she was tempted to ring his referees and tell the, “You are a fucking liar!”

In all my years of interviewing I have only found talking to a referee useful once, and that was to ask about something that hadn’t become clear in the interview process. I thought she was the best applicant but the other panel members assumed that she didn’t have skills that they knew the other applicant possessed. So I asked about that specifically. Turned out she had better training skills than the applicant they preferred.

The idea that asking someone, referred to you by the person you already want to appoint, whether they are any good, has to be the very definition of confirmation bias.

My question to the OP is why hadn’t you fired this guy already. At a minimum, all of your remarks should have been documented in his performance review and be in his HR file.

If that hasn’t occurred, that’s a shortcoming of your own as a supervisor.

I’ve given negative references, but it was for co-workers not my employees. Somehow I’ve wound up as people’s references (without being asked). One specific time I remember, I didn’t give out the gory details of why they were a shit worker, just that I had concerns about their ability to do the job in question

This is what I was wondering. All of the exhausting goal meetings and handholding should have been in hIs file. Why didn’t they just look there?

I’ve gone the “damning with faint praise” route once. It was several years after we had both left the company where I was his supervisor though, so there was no HR/corporate policy issue. When the guy called me to ask if I was OK with giving him a reference, I told him I’d really prefer not to, giving the reason that it had been several years since we worked together, but he had them call me anyway. I basically told them he’s adequate at a fairly restricted set of job requirements, but I couldn’t recommend him for anything beyond that. Never heard if he got the job or not.


Just because a lot of smaller businesses, or franchise/department managers sometimes do give a negative review to a new employer does not make it a good idea. It’s an absolute minefield that can lead to enormous settlements.

Go ahead, tiptoe through the minefield if you think you’re safe or justified in doing so. Don’t blame anyone else at all when you spend two years in hearings and court and end up on the bad end of a six-figure settlement.

Been there, done that, can testify that it’s somewhere between no fun and the worst divorce imaginable. (Not a bad review, but a related and utterly ginned-up labor case.)

Let your tone and the most neutral statement of employment facts carry your message.

We had an employee leave us that we were thrilled to see go. Awful employee, nasty bitch to other workers and even customers didn’t much like her. When we got a call from another job asking for a reference the owner just said that we don’t do references (but we’re happy to verify employment etc). He figured that if he told the truth we wouldn’t be able to get rid of her and if he lied (and said she was a wonderful employee) it could come back to haunt us. Now, she was just leaving one small business and going to another small business. This isn’t the corporate world so it’s not like they were going to sue us or anything, he just didn’t want to have to lie about it.
Anyways, last I heard she was up to her same old crap at the new place. Way to start off on the right foot.

The closest I’ve thing ever done is when someone I knew called for a reference for someone she was looking to hire. The applicant was someone we fired for stealing and I proactively told them that she wasn’t eligible for re-hire. I made sure the tone in my voice conveyed that she should stay far, far away from this person. I think I may have later (much later) told her, in person, why that person ‘wasn’t eligible for re-hire’.

I’ve worked in places that only let you say if you would hire the person again and I’ve worked in places where we are only allowed to confirm the dates of employment. Having said that, my industry is fairly small, so if I know the person checking the reference (ETA: and trust), I might say “give me a call for more info.” That’s pretty much code for a bad review and half the time you don’t even need to follow up with the actual phone call.

Thanks for your reply. It was a large company, and quite well-established, and the position was a lateral move for this employee, ie, same pay, only a completely different job. I didn’t talk to the eventual boss of this guy, because everything was done through HR. And the hiring process is confidential, including the comments made during the reference checks.

Good point Omar. I’ve worked for this company for 20+ yrs and when I was in my 5th year, the company decided to do away with performance reviews in favour of continuous learning and improvement:rolleyes: So, no formal performance evaluations. Instead, I did document all the issues this guy had, and we had meetings to set goals and review problems, and review meetings to go over progress, and examine new issues. All of this was in his file, so yes. Whether HR checked it or not, I’m not sure. During the reference interview, I specifically mentioned this documentation process and gave every indication this guy was high maintenance.

At the time he was hired, there was a recruitment drive for employment equity candidates, and his group (visible minority) was included. I think he was hired to fill a quota in that job sector, so the fix was in. At least I tell myself that so I don’t feel so bad that such a terrible team player is still working for the same company I am.

Should someone post for an internal position I will give an honest evaluation to the hiring manager. Our company policy is to not issue references for external positions.

I know this situation so well, given the work environment I am in where the dead wood just gets floated around. One case I know of, the employee was bipolar and had real interpersonal issues with most everyone. She was a real head case most days. But because of the HR policy, she could not be fired, only moved around to where she could cause the least damage.