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How to avoid a bad employer reference

(MoneyWatch) Dear Evil HR Lady, 

I was terminated for made-up reasons that have little to do with the real reason, which had to do with my blowing the whistle on something. I'm now looking for a new job and am concerned about references. 

There's the official company version of events and then there's the employee's version. I know which one is right, but the person asking the questions won't.

Here is my question: How do I present my version of the story without scaring away every potential employer?

You are smart to be concerned about professional references. Many people think of them as an afterthought or are convinced that it's illegal for their previous company to say anything about employees other than to confirm their dates of service and job title.

In fact, companies and individuals can say anything they want to in a reference check, as long as it's true. However, as you point out, what's written in your file and your official reason for having been terminated may not represent what actually happened. Additionally, even when company officials' version of events is the absolute truth, it doesn't mean you're a horrible person who should never get another job in their whole life.

Let's also talk about whistle-blowing. You didn't mention what type of law was being violated, but many people think that complaining about anything qualifies as "whistle-blowing." It doesn't. Laws vary by state, but for the whistle-blowing to be legally protected the corporate behavior or practice you expose must be illegal. Many times people think they are exposing dire acts when, in reality, the practices are perfectly legal, even if it they are sketchy or unpleasant.

Potential hiring managers aren't too keen on hiring people who have tried to expose their previous employers' sins because they assume you will turn around and do it to them, too. Companies frequently violate some state, local or federal law. So unless the offense was some sort of major, newsworthy incident, defending yourself in this manner could backfire. Here are some things you should do to ease your job-search:

Speak directly to your former boss. The first goal of firing someone is to make them go away. Often, companies are willing to negotiate a reference (although this should be done at the first hint that you'll be terminated, not later when you're job-hunting). Call your boss, explain that you are looking for a new job and that you are concerned about what he'd say in a reference. Ask him what he would say. If you get the feeling he would mention something you think is false, you can remind him that he is required by law to be honest in assessing your tenure at the company.

Speak directly with your previous employer's HR department. Ask what they will say if called. Most HR departments don't do anything more than confirm dates of service, titles and salaries. Chances are they will do the same. Many companies have policies against giving references at all, but few managers follow that counsel.

Have a friend call and ask for a reference. The best way to figure out what your ex-employers has to say is to have someone ask. You can find plenty of sample reference check questions on the Internet. Write up a script and have your friend call and conduct a reference check. Have him make notes on what the person said. This way you know what you are up against.

Find a person other than your boss to serve as a reference. If you were actively employed, it's pretty easy to avoid a reference check at that company. Most recruiters won't attempt to jeopardize your current job by asking about your performance there. But since you've already been terminated, most recruiters will try to talk to that company. If you present them with a name early on in the process, they are less likely to try to track down your boss. This person ideally should be someone who you worked for. If not a former direct boss, then an internal client. Talk to this person -- don't just write down a name because you know she thinks you're awesome! Ask permission to use her as a reference.

Focus on networking. Sometimes you can avoid a reference check by going around a prospective employer's HR department. If you can get a job offer from someone you know personally, or a friend of a friend, they may avoid the reference check completely. Additionally, a manager who is really sold on hiring you may discount or ignore a negative reference from your former employer.

Be honest. This means discussing your role in what got your fired. If you blew the whistle on illegal behavior but were also a huge slacker, or annoying or late for work all the time, don't pretend the latter didn't play a role in the termination. But if your performance was stellar prior to this event, provide the reference checker with a copy of your strong performance reviews. But whatever you say, don't lie and don't place blame by saying something like: "When you call Acme Inc., they will probably say that I was terminated for failure to record my vacation hours. While this is technically true, no one in our department ever recorded vacation hours. I was singled out because I reported an OSHA violation." 

Provide numerous references from previous jobs. Don't just offer up one reference contact -- provide at least four. If they call three people who think you're fabulous and one person who says you were fired, they are more likely to give weight to the three folks who liked you. If it's one pro and one con, you're probably out of luck.

Don't sound angry. I know you are angry. But anger always comes off as a bit crazy, and no one wants to hire crazy.

Have a workplace dilemma? Send your questions to

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