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Can you keep a former employer from giving a bad reference?

You didn't leave your job on good terms with your employer. In fact, you were terminated. You have to list your former employer on your resume and applications since you were there for years. However, you're concerned about what your old boss will say when he's called by people interested in hiring you.

Many people think that former employers are only allowed to give basic information like employment dates, job titles and salary. Indeed, a lot of companies make it a policy not to give out more information than that to avoid any chance of a lawsuit. But can they legally say more -- a possibly derail your chances of getting another job? They can.

Federal employment laws don't restrict what information employers can provide on former employees. State laws vary. In fact, some states have laws that "immunize" employers from lawsuits for things like defamation. New Jersey isn't one of them. People can (and have) sued former employers for defamation of character. However, to do so, the information the employer gave out has to be false.

What if you were late on completing some important projects? What if you got into more than one heated argument with your colleagues? Your former boss can disclose all of that, as long as it's true.

So what are your options? It's always wise to find out from your boss or the human resource department before you leave what kind of information they'll provide if called for a reference. Of course, they aren't bound by what they tell you. If you're concerned about what will be said, you can pay a reference checking service to test out your former employer. You might give the name of a colleague whom you know will speak well of you as a reference -- although prospective employers typically want to speak to your manager.

If you had one bad employment experience but there were some good ones in your past and former bosses who will say positive things about you, include them in your references. They may help outweigh the negatives.

If you find out that a former employer is saying things that are untrue and damaging to your chances of future employment, it's wise to talk with an attorney.

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