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My partner had an interview for a teaching job which she did not get. The interviewer said, "check your references as one doesn't show you in good light".

She is relatively certain the reference is someone in her current school, likely a senior member of staff. Is it appropriate to approach this person and ask them why they gave a bad reference? What is a tactful way to approach them considering the knowledge came through the interviewer?

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    This might even be a legal issue. – mike Jul 17 '13 at 10:30
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    there's no basis for legal anything! If it's a personal reference, it's your fault for putting that person down. If it's a professional reference, the party being questioned shouldn't lie, including giving a bad review. – squeemish Jul 17 '13 at 11:48
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    If you partner suspect a reference at her current school is resentful of her why is that person a reference in first place. This is one of the reasons you don't list your current manager as a reference, there is a conflict of interest, the manager simply might have wanted to force your partner to stay in her current position because they actually think she does a great job. In the end you should only list references you know will present you in the best light, otherwise, what is the point of them? – Donald Jul 17 '13 at 12:35
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    @Jonah welcome to the Workplace! I edited your question as it was collecting close votes. If you think I cut out the essence of the question, or missed something important, please edit it. – jmac Jul 17 '13 at 14:57
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    @jmac That's absolutely fine jmac. – Jonah Jul 17 '13 at 18:24
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She needs to approach this situation very carefully as the last thing she would want to do is to make matters worse.

  • Call her old boss and ask if she'd be willing to reach an agreement with you on what she'll say to future reference calls. It's at least worth a shot—the worst that can happen is that she'll say no. When you call, say something like this: "I'm concerned that the reference you're providing for me is preventing me from getting work. Could we work something out so that this isn't standing in my way?"
  • If she feels that the reference her boss is providing is factually inaccurate, skip her and go straight to her old company's HR department. Explain that your boss is giving an inaccurate reference for you and that you are concerned she is standing in the way of you obtaining employment. HR people are trained in this and will be familiar with the potential for legal problems, and will probably speak to your old boss and put a stop to it. (If it's a small company and there's no HR department, I would advise contacting the old boss directly and politely explain that she's exposing her company to legal risk by defaming you and jeopardizing your ability to gain employment.)
  • If all else fails, she may need to simply warn prospective new employers that the reference won't be a good one. And you do want to give this warning, because it allows her to provide context and framing for what they might be about to hear. If you don't, they may never tell you that the reference is why they rejected you, so the time to speak up is before they place the call. How she explains it depends on exactly what's behind the bad reference, but her goal should be to put it in the best possible light. For instance, if her relationship with your boss soured after a particular event, she could say something like, "By the way, I had glowing reviews from my boss at that job, but our relationship became strained toward the end and I worry that it could colour that reference." She would need to be prepared for questions about what caused the strain, of course.

If you think the statements made in the reference are untrue and believe that it then unfairly harmed your future work prospects you may be able to take the person to court for ‘negligent misstatement’. To do so, you must show that:

  • The information in the reference is misleading

  • Providing this misleading information has had a negative effect on your future employment.

  • Your employer was negligent in providing a reference.

Alternatively, if you think there is an element of discrimination involved, you can bring your former employer to an employment tribunal.

As you are in the UK I would strongly advise you to get her to visit this site for further information and what her rights are.

  • @michael-gruby Great answer +1 – Jonah Jul 17 '13 at 10:43
  • @JoeStrazzere In the UK jobs I have applied for have to account for at least 3 years of professional work and provide a reference for those years. If there is only the 1 person available to give that reference its a tricky situation. – Michael Grubey Jul 17 '13 at 11:13
  • isn't it quite possible that the person didn't do a good job and the reference is accurate? I've never known a professional to slander a former employee on a reference call. just food for thought. – squeemish Jul 17 '13 at 11:50
  • @squeemish She didn't do a bad job, her pupils get great results and she has also got friends there who can vouch for how professional she is. – Jonah Jul 17 '13 at 12:24
  • @Jonah is that all heresay from her mouth? have you ever worked with her? most people i know won't admit to doing a bad job. – squeemish Jul 17 '13 at 12:26
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Don't assume all bad references are the result of saying negative things. A lot of times its because they're just mediocre. A reference of "She was an adequate teacher." isn't very helpful. Also, some people don't know how to give a good reference.

This is why you have to be very careful in picking professional references. Make sure you have their permission first. Let them know what the job requires and why you think you'll be a good fit. You don't have to put words in their mouth, but provide some background information. It could be a private school that emphasises teacher's academic qualities and is less interested in discipline where as a troubled school may be the opposite.

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