Employee Rights: Is it Illegal Retaliation if My Former Boss Gives Me a Bad Reference?

Bad References: But I Thought I was Free From This Jerk!

It's finally over! You're done with your job, where you toiled under a bully boss who subjected you to a hostile work environment. But before your even done celebrating your new found freedom, you suspect that the jerk is still reaching from your former company to hurt you and your career. Twice you have been "the final candidate," for a great new job. Your interviews went great. You really like the new people you would be working with. The final hurdle, the new employer told you, is just the reference check. "I'm sure there won't be any issues," they told you. After a week you started worrying, and a few days later a sterile sounding form letter comes in the mail: "We're sorry to inform you that your were not the best fit for New Company, Inc. We wish you the best...."

What happened? They loved you at the interview. You nailed every question they threw at you. All that was left was the reference check.... the reference check! You realize that the bullying jerk you used to work for is probably saying bad things about you when he is called by your potential new employers. Even though you are outraged, you are not surprised. This boss loved to abuse employees. He actually appeared upset that you were leaving the company, as if he would miss having you under his thumb each day... so what can you do to cut off his abuse for good?

Don't Let a Former Bully Boss Give You Bad References
Don't Let a Former Bully Boss Give You Bad References

Even Former Employees Have Rights

Just like a family that legally splits apart, your relationship with your old company is never truly over. You have ongoing obligations to keep private any trade secrets that you learned. You are obliged to not use the company's intellectual property for your own profit. And most importantly here, neither you nor the company say untruthful things that are damaging to the other's reputation.

If your former bullying boss is making untruthful statements to reference checkers who call about your past job performance, you have not one but two potential legal remedies that you can hit him or her with. As you may have guess, the law most former employees use in this situation is defamation. I have a related Hub that thoroughly covers suing a former employer for defamation. This Hub will focus on the second way of using the law to strike back at your abusive former boss: suing for discriminatory retaliation.

The Supreme Court Weighs In on Retaliatory Job References

Supreme Court: Bad References Can be "Discriminatory Retalition"

In 1997 the United States Supreme Court ruled that a former employee, Robinson, could sue her powerful ex-employer, Shell Oil, under the Civil Rights Act for giving out retaliatory negative job references. Robinson v. Shell Oil Co., 519 US 337 (1997).

In that case the employer, Shell Oil Co., fired its employee Charles T. Robinson, Sr. Robinson, who was African-American, immediately filed a complaint with the EEOC alleging that Shell had fired him because of his race. While his EEOC discrimination complaint was working its way through the system Robinson began to apply at other companies in an effort to get a new job. One company Robinson applied to contacted Shell seeking feedback on Robinson's work. According to Robinson, Shell gave him a negative reference not because he deserved it (he didn't), but because Shell was upset about the EEOC complaint and wanted to "get back at" him for filing it.

The reason this case went all the way to the Supreme Court is because the Civil Rights Act (often called "Title VII") prohibits employers from retaliation against employees who file discrimination claims. Shell argued that since Robinson was no longer an "employee" then he was not protected by the Act. The trial court (called "District Court") agreed with Shell. When Robinson appealed, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals also agreed with Shell. But when the case went to the Supreme Court, the Justices voted 9 to 0 that Title VII does protect former employee from retaliation, as well as current employees.

So what does this mean for you?

Target Your Former Boss With a Retaliation Claim

Retaliatory Negative Job References: Fighting Back

Because of Robinson v. Shell you can file a complaint with the EEOC, and if your company gives you a negative reference any time after that it will appear that the company is trying to retaliate against you for the EEOC complaint.

One key here is that you cannot file with the EEOC because you believe your bullying former boss is going to give you a bad reference. You only can file with the EEOC if your employer let you go because of your protected class status (See my Hub on "Protected Classes"). Robinson filed with the EEOC because he was African American. You may be able to file with the EEOC because you were fired due to your race, religion, color, national origin, gender, age, disability, veteran's status, or pregnancy (other protected classes exist as well).

Then, after you have filed with the EEOC, your former boss will not be able to retaliate against you with negative job references; you will be protected under federal law, and finally be able to put an end to his or her desire to "stick it to you" even after you've broken away from that hostile work environment.

You Can Break Free & Stop the Retaliatory References

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35 comments

Harry Paul 7 years ago

I quite appreciate and agree with the points expressed over here specially about the career damages that bad bosses can do. Dealing them in a professional manner can save us a lot of effort from our end.


Undercover Lawyer profile image

Undercover Lawyer 7 years ago from The Beautiful Northwest, USA Author

Thanks for stopping by and commenting.


drking 6 years ago

As a former employer my attorney always instructed me to never say anything negative about the person. I was told to only answer basic questions about their employment.


Undercover Lawyer profile image

Undercover Lawyer 6 years ago from The Beautiful Northwest, USA Author

DrKing, I think your attorney was giving you sound advice. I wish more employers acted like you and followed their lawyer's counsel. Kudos to you.


Ms.G 6 years ago

after working for one boss for 31/2 years,with no known problems (that I was aware of) I was suddenly transferred to a different location, "to assist the director with her duties" and to "make it easier for me to commute". (hah!) My transfer working under this director ended in my terrmination ("removal from my position")The instances of working in a hostile environment were numerous, nick-picking, accusations, so-called "performance issues". All this led up to me being put in a position that paid much less than I was making and being humiliated. I went from an administrative position to a janitorial position. This all stemmed from a discrimination complaint I made against the director to our so-called dispute resolution office. I have since filed a complaint with the EEOC and have secured the services of an attorney. I am actively seeking other employment as the salary I am making as a janitor cannot even pay for gas for my car. After working over 23 years for one employer with a stellar reputation to working for a company for 4 years and being terminated is more than I can bear. At my age I can ill afford to live under these conditions and am determined to take this employer to task for their harrassment, discrimination and unfair treatment. I found out that this company has numerous discrimination lawsuits filed against them. How are they still in business is beyond me. Any suggestions?


Undercover Lawyer profile image

Undercover Lawyer 6 years ago from The Beautiful Northwest, USA Author

You should definitely make your attorney aware of the past discrimination suits against this company. You also should make it clear that you won't tolerate any negative comments to potential employers -- if you think they giving you bad references. You are doing most of everything right. Get plugged into a support network is also important because it's a long fight. Try http://www.undercoverlawyer.com/forum/


Manasseh.Oddity profile image

Manasseh.Oddity 6 years ago

WOW, love the article! There are so many bullies in the work place. You are "IT" for directing people who are suffering from this issue now. Too many people run from battles and dismiss them as conflict and drama; people don't want to help others fight. This article is inspiring to me!


Tammy 6 years ago

I worked for my boss for 3 years, I was a dedicated, hard worker whom he could count on at a moments notice. There were only 4 people at any given time working in this office. The office manager had a very close relationship with the boss and because of this she tended to be lazy, and when she was given work to do would hand it over to me so she could spend the day on facebook or myspace. The boss knew this but turned a blind eye unless it was someone else doing it, then it was grounds for dismissal. I took this abuse and more that I have not mentioned for almost 3 years. I decided in july of this year to give notice, I gave them a whole month to find a replacement. In August they still had not found anyone to replace me and I was talked into stay on part time on the understanding that I was going to have surgery in september and I would be out for six weeks. Well long story short I had my surgery but they were calling me the day after it to find out if I was ready to come back to work. a week later I gave in on one day and spent the next week recovering. Everyday they would call to ask if I was ready and when I said no they would become upset. Anyway I decided not to return so I wrote the boss a letter telling him why I was leaving and asked for the reference letter he promised to write me when I had given my notice 2 months ealier, he refused. now I believe he is giving me a bad reference, how can I find out if he is and what can I do about it?

Thanks


Jessie Corento 6 years ago

No one could be in a worse situation than me. I use to work for a bank. I suffered due to the result of a mind game played on me. Then a while later, i was forced to resign. I had trouble getting work for years until someone told me there was a message on my file which said DO NOT REHIRE. I even got a job back in the same company as I desperately needed money. In calling to make sure it was alright, a short time later, I was told the job was no longer there. I have been out of work for almost ten years now. My life in a way has ended, but before I go down completely, I plan to sue this bank for what it did to a woman that didn't deserve the treatment. In a way, what happened to me, took away my shyness and insecurities. Although I have battled ill health which was later contributed because of my long term unemployment, it made me tough mentally. I will enver work for a bank again and I think anyone who is half decent should do the same.


lcecil0582 6 years ago

I've always suspected my former employer has been giving a bad reference, retailation due to internal click biases, not job performace. Having an MBA degree, I have been taught to identify actions, questions and statements which not only protects the employer from crossing the acceptable legal lines, but also to hold the banner of high ethical standards in business practice. Unfortunatly, corporations often frame cleverly worded vision and mission statements designed to act as guiding principles for all to live by. . . .until, someone proactively identifies a potential risk that reveals actions of the internal circle designed to set up employees to be cut from the group. All employers operate in this fashion in some degree and generally speaking, if you see it and keep your mouth shut about it, then it places you on the road of internal click acceptability. This is, what I call "a corporate click culture". It is also the reason why most employeers in positions of authority and corporate power, do not like employees to improve their education level which challenges and provides the tools to unravel the illusionary tactics of unethical leaders. Dispite having over 21 years in my field, numorious high level performance ratings and job performace evaluations by clients, the power this internal circle corporate click has to distroy careers should be illegal and would be illegal if revealed in the light of day.


JL 5 years ago

My God what is happening in our workforce.


Heather 5 years ago

I've in my 20's and have spent the last 3 1/2 years working in a hotel. When I first started, the hotel had only been opened 2 months and everything was a mess, nobody knew what was going on, how to do anything, and everyone was constantly gossipping & badmouthing each other, etc. I figured this was something that would go away in time once everything and everyone got settled in. The Manager & Head Housekeeper were on good terms, and had one or two of their family members working there as well.

After 3 years, almost the entire staff is made up of relatives of the head housekeeper & manager. I have seen and heard them bad mouth people who were some of the hardest workers ever, just because they wanted a family member to get the job instead of someone who wasn't related to them. One woman quit the job after a week because the head housekeeper was on her case every minute of the day, yelling and being very rude, and they actually photocopied her resignation letter and posted it in the staff room, where the housekeepers wrote nasty comments about the poor woman on it.

When I finally quit because I just couldn't handle it anymore, I gave 2 weeks notice and began looking for other jobs. Since then I've gone to countless interviews, a lot of them I was pretty certain I'd get the job...but I never did hear back after any of the interviews. After being unemployed for months, a friend told me about an opening at their store, I went in for the interview, and the next day they called me to tell me that their manager had called my old manager...and he had given me a bad reference. He had told them I was lazy and napped at work, showed up late constantly, had bad manners, AND that I had repeatedly slept with guests at the hotel.

I couldn't believe myself when I heard this, and I'm honestly still so mad about that it's hard to stop myself from going over there and slapping him. I don't understand how ANYONE can do that to someone. I have had to ask family and friends for money for rent and groceries because I haven't been able to get a job, all because these people think its funny to toy around with peoples livelihood.


hetie 5 years ago

I left a job a few years ago on what I thought was good terms. I returned after a 1 1/2 years and applied for my old position (there were four available). I was told I would not be hired back. I have been back a year and still have not found permanent employment. I am currently working as a contract RN for very little pay compared to my old job. A doctor I work with now has a position in his clinic. He asked me why my old employer won't hire me back. I don't recall ever telling him my ex employer won't hire me back. He has asked me two times about this. I doubt I will be getting the job in his clinic but how do I find out how he got this information? Beside outright asking him.


John Hewitt jr profile image

John Hewitt jr 5 years ago

What a great hub. Very imformative.


Barbara Spivey 5 years ago

I was working for a company for 5 and a half years. About 2 years into my employment I was turned down for a position I qualified for due to the fact I worked that position for a year and a half. The men that worked that same position was called back when the position opened up again. I went to the General Superintendant and he told me he didn't want me in that position at this time, I asked him if he had a problem with my job performance and he said no. So I filed a discrimination case with EEOC and they denied the claim.

I left that job a few monthes ago under good standing so I thought.

I applied for a job through a subcontracting company in a sister yard in a different state. The subcontracter E-Mailed me and told me I was denied for rehire.

Is there any way I can find out why I was black balled from this company?

I strongly believe I am being retaliated against. Luckely I have not had to go through them for a referance as of yet.


mike 4 years ago

im 47 and i have a two yr degree. get as much education as u can, or you will end up being treated like garbage at most jobs...if you r not a boss. I went to Penn State, but had no clue what I wanted to do, so eventually I got my associated degree...bullshit degree. Thank god I have my wife, wo I met wen I was 19, for moral support. The jobs that I have had don't care about an employee...it's like a revolving door. Thank god I have parents who can help me out monetarily as well. If anyone can relate to this, feel free to give me your input.


Nicole 4 years ago

How can I prove if my former boss is giving "negative" comment/reference about me to the new job I'm applying for?


Jimmy 4 years ago

Hi Nicole. Good question. I would like to find out this as well. I have had trouble getting jobs and interviews any time I put down my last job on my resume and strongly suspect that it is because I left that job on bad terms with my immediate supervisor. It is unbelievable what they'll do to someone who worked hard for them, got good reviews and literally thousands of dollars in bonuses every year.


Heather 4 years ago

I have been doing dentistry for 12yrs and normally after a resignation on Friday I'm employed again by Monday but oh my have things changed so I thought. I resigned from my last Dental Office Manager position 5/16/2011 and as of today I'm still unemployed. I resigned due to lack of advancement, shady hours and a lazy c student doctor. After numerous attempts to try and bring extra money into the practice and every idea was declined although I knew they would work I just couldn't allow the Dr to keep blaming me for lack of income therefore I resigned. Curious as to why I'm still unemployed the first thing that comes to mind is my last employer was being disrespectful so when I applied for a position at my sister job she notified me that they called and the Dr stated "he's not giving me a reference because he has nothing good to say about me" and before that my coworker said "do not use her cus she can not tell a lie" Omg is what I said since I worked there for 6yrs and I've never did anything to either of them. Is what they both said actually bad or am I tripping?


bushbailey 4 years ago

I have been doing dentistry for 12yrs and normally after a resignation on Friday I'm employed again by Monday but oh my have things changed so I thought. I resigned from my last Dental Office Manager position 5/16/2011 and as of today I'm still unemployed. I resigned due to lack of advancement, shady hours and a lazy c student doctor. After numerous attempts to try and bring extra money into the practice and every idea was declined although I knew they would work I just couldn't allow the Dr to keep blaming me for lack of income therefore I resigned. Curious as to why I'm still unemployed the first thing that comes to mind is my last employer was being disrespectful so when I applied for a position at my sister job she notified me that they called and the Dr stated "he's not giving me a reference because he has nothing good to say about me" and before that my coworker said "do not use her cus she can not tell a lie" Omg is what I said since I worked there for 6yrs and I've never did anything to either of them. Is what they both said actually bad or am I tripping?


babyrose 4 years ago

I was forced to resign yesterday after I stood up to this bully. I am 55 years old, in relative good health and have an interview on Tuesday(I am an RN) This boss was a bully from day 1 and I lasted almost 4 months. She forced me into resignation,,,wrote 3 pages of non-truths about me.I was their Marketing person and I can tell you,,I do not want another sales job..I feel so good about being away from this toxic person and evil environment. Any suggestions on how to deal with this negative write up? I really want to get a lawyer involved. No one likes this person.She is not a nurse and is on a power trip from her big title..it is so sad that some people stay in miserable jobs because the boss is so corrupt and evil...the biggest bully I have ever met...thanks in advance for any advice


ellie 4 years ago

has Happy foods in chicago ever given bad referrals?


Sonia 4 years ago

My name is Sonia and I am from United States. I have worked for Frank for over 10 years without promotion,leave or any good benefits. He treats me like hell and promises to make my life a more living hell in Boston if I ever got out of his Advertising agency,making sure I do not work for any other firm in Boston for the rest of my life. I am a single,widowed mother of two kids and I can't afford to lose my job. i was so down cast and i felt the world has come to an end for me being stuck in this old,unhappy and unfulfilled job but my friend told me about a spell caster that helped her sister out in getting her relationship back,a good job and favor in any of her endeavor but at first i was scared but i have to give this man a trial because I needed a promotion badly and one was coming up at the moment. I ordered a spell from this great spell caster that made me a happy woman. I became Frank's favorite just three days after he cast my spell. I have been promoted and enjoying every part of my job for six months now. I want to testify to the good works of the Prophet of Goddess and I will forever be grateful to his good works because he restored my lost happiness in my job and i am happy today because of his good work. Contact him in any problem on his website www.prophetofgoddess.com or prophetofgoddess@yahoo.com or spells.prophetofgoddess@gmail.com. He is always there to assist you.


martin1313 4 years ago from FLORIDA

I have my boss forcing us to promote on facebook, is that legal?


poor guy 4 years ago

I worked for this


poor guy 4 years ago

I worked for this drug company for 6 years then they changed the management and she was a total bitch kept writing me off and telling me i suck and my hand writing is shitty I was working for the other lazy tech who was in facebook and on the phone texting in the bathroom while i was typing rxes like crazy and handling phones insurances and cash register while she was spending her valuable time in bathroom my boss was aware of this but she never bothered every year i got 2 stars out of 5 and the other worker got the same amazing? when i told her why you gave the same rating to her as u gave me she said that i am not supposed to ask about anyone's rating i mean what the hell can i sue this company? I worked my ass off and at the end they kept giving me bad reviews


joe 4 years ago

can a manager ask you your age once you have accepted the job


Say Yes To Life profile image

Say Yes To Life 4 years ago from Big Island of Hawaii

Nicole - you asked how you can know if a former employer has given you a bad review. The way to find this out is to have a friend call in and ask for a reference. I've done this for a friend; I've even done it for myself, in cases where they wouldn't recognize my voice.


Say Yes To Life profile image

Say Yes To Life 4 years ago from Big Island of Hawaii

Nicole - you asked how you can know if a former employer has given you a bad review. The way to find this out is to have a friend call in and ask for a reference. I've done this for a friend; I've even done it for myself, in cases where they wouldn't recognize my voice.


bad choices 3 years ago

I filed a complaint with the eeoc because of how my past employer handles things differently acroos the border between blacks and whites and in the mist of me filing the complaint I found another job that still required me to hav to visit one of there departments. I hav been to that department around two or three times since I was giving the oppourtunity to resign and then two weeks later my new boss calls me telling me that my past employer call him and told him that I was not allowed at their faculty because of their policy against the reason I resigned. Granted this call was made after they had received ky paper work from the eeoc. My past employer proceeded to ask my new boss if I had told him the reason why I had left that company asking if he did a back ground check on me. Even though I had been 100 % truthfully with my new boss my past employer continue to tell him my reasoning behind leaving even though I was given a choice of being terminated or to resign and if I resigned then it would jot follow me. I choose to resign because I had a degree in what my chosen career is but yet and still it is following me. My past employer also told him that I was bringing things 2 work that I was not suppose to and ky new boss asked did they prosecute m for it and the past employer told him no because they could not prove anything. I feel like because I filed a claim against them that they tried to get me fired from my Jew job and telling me that I am not allowed on their premises was only. inorder to retailiate against me because n


3 years ago

Is it illegal to post on my previous employers facebook page - bad things about the business? I am referring to roaches in the popcorn seed, rats caught in traps, left there for over a day to die - right next to the candy, etc?


Josephine 3 years ago

You can obtain this information from the Freedom of Information Act and request the reference that is negative.


joy 3 years ago

my life is full of joy because Dr nanadu asked me to be happy What happened to me is not what i can keep only to myself but to also tell the world so that those that were once like me will get there love ones back and been happy once again. I and my lover had some issues which leads to our break up since after then my life has never been the same i tried all method to get him back but they were just waste of effort and waste of time. But one day during my search on the internet i came across someone testimony about Dr.nanadu was able to bring back my lover within 48hours. With the great thing that happened in my life i decided to tell the whole world about this great man called Dr nanadu. For those in need of anything he told me that in his temple there is know impossibility now i believe him so much friends if you need help to bring back your ex lover kindly contact him via email: nanaduthegratespellcaster@yahoo.com And i promise you that your lover will definitely be back to you.


cfab62 3 years ago

Without speaking about my particular situation I must say I wish there was an objective way to get references. There are many bosses that lack integrity, are spiteful, dishonest, grudge bearing and envious of a former employee's potential. How can it be that someone's career and the ability to provide for self and family be left up to a secret conversation between two people one of whom may have a negative agenda? This happens more often than is known. I think references should be standardized and a copy of a completed reference given to the prospective employee. This would make it honest, fair and above board. It is difficult for a prospective employer to hear an employee has no redeeming qualities but takes a leap of faith and employs him / her anyway, that would be reckless. The prospective employer has no way of knowing the character or motivations of the former boss on the other end of the phone or fax machine.


williamhaze09@gmail.com 4 weeks ago

a lot of people dont really believe because you have a record doesn't make you a bad person,and regardless something i did far back as college shouldn't hunt me for the rest of my life.but the system is wrong about this and this need to be said.in my case after my DUI case and after college,i noticed each time my employers did a background check i was been let-go,i became really depressed,i couldn't work at the place i deserve or desire because of something i did years ago,which doesn't define who i am today.till a friend from work who had a similar experience told me i could have my records disappear,sounded like magic right? well it wasn't. she introduced me to a group of elite who actually got my records clean and each time any of my employers check my past records now,its clean,you can try out hackhemp@gmail.com today to have your records deleted .you can thank me later.they guarantee 100% money back.this really helped me

a lot and i think it can help someone here too.

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