Bad References Haunt You: 2 Steps You Can Take Right Now


Our company isn’t doing well, and my current employer needs to lay me off. I’m on good terms with my supervisor but have only worked here for five months. When I asked my supervisor to give me a reference letter, he said he would, and warned me that he almost didn’t hire me because of my awful prior references. It was almost like he was telling me I was lucky he’d hired me.

I asked him what they’d said and he said he liked me but didn’t feel he could tell me because everyone “knew everyone” in our industry and he’d told the guys he’d called that he wouldn’t. What do I do? And how do I find out what my former references said?


Ask your supervisor to write a detailed letter of reference listing all of your good qualities and skills and adding that your layoff resulted from a lack of work, a “last hired, first out” philosophy and was for no other reason.

When a prospective employer reads a brief, “nice” reference letter, it leaves questions and your supervisor’s letter overcomes those questions by adding detail. Attach your reference letter to your initial application, along with a note saying your current supervisor will be available for a reference call.

Because most prospective employers call the two most recent supervisors, you need to know what your former supervisor said. You can look online for a firm that calls former supervisors for reference information. When we do this for individual clients, we give our client a summary of the high and low points, so that we protect the confidentiality of individual references and yet provide our clients the issues they’ll need to address in their in-person interviews with prospective employers.

© 2020, Lynne Curry

Lynne Curry is the author of “Beating the Workplace Bully” (AMACOM, 2016) and “Solutions” (both books are rated 4.8 out of 5 stars on Send your questions to her at or follow her on twitter @lynnecurry10.

2 thoughts on “Bad References Haunt You: 2 Steps You Can Take Right Now

  1. Lynne–Your response taught me some new things. (1) that mot employers only call your two most recent references and (2) that there are services such as the one offered by your company that will contact previous references and give you a summary of what they said about you. Amazing! Thanks again for your insights and advice.

    1. Susan, many employers call only the last 2 references; some call more (we call 5 or more when we’re helping one of our clients assess a candidate). And yes, we’ve helped other clients learn about damaging references — without outing individual references. Thanks for your great comments.

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