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I am listed as a reference for a former colleague (let's call him Bob). When working together at a past job (small company that had some financial troubles), Bob was unexpectedly let go for reasons that were unclear. In the months after, Bob struggled to receive his contractually due redundancy pay and even had to take the employer to court over it.

Other people were made redundant, and the company wasn't doing well, so he wasn't the only one let go and targeted for poor performance. Though in redundancies they usually keep the top performers, that's just common sense. I was not aware of any performance problems from him. However he may have been struggling on something. The company often ascribed tasks to people that weren't suited to their area of expertise. E.g. in programming getting them to fix a problem in one language when they were mainly a developer in another language.

Bob has since been looking for a new job for quite a while. Bob wants to list the former boss on his resume because the work done for that company is important to his experience and attractiveness as a potential employee.

I am also listed as a reference for Bob and when I've been contacted (not that often) I am asked unusually specific questions about whether Bob was a troubled employee at our former mutual employer.

I am concerned that the former employer is describing Bob in a falsely and exaggeratedly negative way as a form of revenge for Bob's legal efforts to obtain the redundancy pay that was due to him.

Aside from removing this former employer from the list of references, what can Bob do to ensure that his boss is fairly describing his work experience at the past employer? Can Bob take any action to prevent the employer from describing Bob negatively (given that Bob's performance at the time was never viewed negatively)?

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Here are some general ideas:

1) Hire a reference-checking firm. This is typically just someone who will pose as a company looking to hire Bob, calling his old employers to see what they will say about him. (Bob could just ask a professional-sounding friend to do this, but a friend could be considered biased towards Bob, so any report they make could be suspect.) As @JoeStrazzere points out, laws about recording conversations may apply, but hiring a third-party firm could put that liability on the third party if they choose to record the call. Keep in mind, however, that if this company is saying things to keep Bob from obtaining a new job, he may have to take them to court (or threaten to do so) in order to stop the behavior. [*] (Note that Bob should not necessarily seek to receive any financial compensation; instead, he might want to seek an agreement with the company that they will refuse to answer any questions beyond the typical "start date, end date, ending salary".)

2) Find other managers at the company to serve as his reference for that job. If the main boss is unhappy with Bob over the legal issues, but another manager there is knowledgeable about Bob's work there, they may be willing to serve as a reference instead. Bob should be prepared to explain why his direct manager isn't being listed as a reference ("I reported directly to the owner, who didn't pay me my last two paychecks and became irate when I had to take him to court to receive my contractually obligated pay, but [other manager] is available to discuss my work at [company]").

3) Leave all managers at the company off his resume, and move you to the top of his reference list. If Bob can't find another manager at the company who's willing to serve as a reference, he could put you at the top of his references list, and explain that you were the highest-ranked coworker who was willing to be a reference in light of the legal issues. This isn't the best situation - they'll be looking for someone who can answer questions about Bob's work performance, and as you state in comments, you weren't completely aware of how he was doing. However, you'd be able to explain the circumstances of why he's unable to get anyone higher in the company to say anything positive about him, as well as explaining your own experience working with Bob.

4) Leave the job off the resume. Unfortunately, if all else fails, omitting the job entirely may be the best way to go forward. If this one company turns out to be the reason he's unable to get a job, leaving them off the resume could possibly get him past this hurdle. However, many companies do more sleuthing than others, and it's possible they'd find out that Bob worked for this company, and that could be two strikes against him (one for leaving it off his resume, and the other when they call the company and hear them talk about Bob in an unfavorable light).

[*] I am not a lawyer; this paragraph contains some potential legal advice that Bob might want to run past an employment lawyer.

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