Bad job references present a problem – what to say when fired.  Bad references can hobble contenders in a competitive race for jobs.  My clients often ask: What am I to say to new employers about being fired?  Generally, the less you discuss the bad job experience the better.  Find ways to transition the discussion back to the positive contributions you can make to the new employer’s business.

Here are few guidelines:

1. Don’t elaborate, and don’t use the word “fired.” Job ended. Period.

2.  If the employer insists on a reason for why the job ended, simply say:  “I wanted to work in an environment where I could make more of a contribution.”

3.  If the employer persists with a direct question you can’t evade by asking: “Were you fired?” your reply must truthful.  Simply say:  “My boss was very difficult to please. I did my best.  I gave 100%.  I always do.”

4. Don’t blame the company or ex-boss.

5. DO: Be positive, enthusiastic, and upbeat. Do tell the truth, especially regarding your dates of employment.

6. DO: Find out your ex-company’s policy regarding reference information, and encourage the H.R. department to limit reference to confirming only job title and dates of employment.

Bad Job References and Defamation.

Bad job references are a problem for both employers and employees.  Why should an employer be concerned about a bad job reference?  Because employees have legal protections against invasions of privacy and defamation.

The employer can easily go too far in responding to an inquiry.  You should advise the former employer in writing that you revoke any consent to release information except your dates of employment and job title.  Many companies have policies limiting what reference information the company will disclose. These companies know that a bad reference isn’t worth the risk of a lawsuit for defamation or privacy invasion.  Defamations in the workplace can be won by attorneys knowing the nuances of proof. Defamation Law Article.

Compelled Self-Defamation.

But sometimes the employee herself is compelled to say more than she wants in a job interview.   Suppose your former employer has informed you new employer you were fired.  The new employer may press you for an explanation.    A “compelled self-defamation” occurs if the the employee must repeat the false and defamatory reason for termination.  The repeated words from the employee’s mouth are treated as those of the former employer.


Bad references are a risk, but you can mitigate the harm by following a few basic guidelines:  say as little as possible about the termination, don’t bad-mouth the ex-employer, keep the focus on what you can offer the new employer, and be positive and enthusiastic about the future.