Is your old boss wrecking your job hunt?

September 1, 2011, 4:27 PM UTC

Even a lukewarm reference from a former employer can be enough to cost you the job you want. Here’s how to handle it.

By Anne Fisher, contributor

FORTUNE — Dear Annie: I read your article about quitting over ethics, and I have a somewhat related question about my own situation. I was recently forced out of my job, following a dispute with my boss that was partly about ethics. I spoke with both an attorney and the local labor board, and because of the unusual circumstances surrounding my firing, they both think that I could win in court if I decided to sue the company, but I’m not interested in a long, costly legal battle.

However, I did work out a separation agreement with human resources. One of the provisions in it states that my former employer will not discuss the reasons for my departure with people who ask for a reference. I suspect my old boss is violating this agreement, because I just had a job offer withdrawn after the hiring manager contacted this person. Keeping in mind that I really don’t want to sue, what can I do about this? –Norm

Dear Norm: This problem is a lot more common than you might think. Even without a separation agreement that specifically prohibits a former employer from badmouthing an ex-employee, most big companies have blanket policies in place that permit references to confirm nothing more than dates of employment and job title.

Unfortunately, like so many corporate policies, these are honored mainly in the breach.

“About 99% of the time, people we call for a reference don’t even ask who we are before they start talking,” says Heidi Allison, managing director of Allison & Taylor, a firm that specializes in finding out what people’s references are actually saying about them.

People’s tendency to reveal more than they’re supposed to isn’t new, but Allison notes that it’s gotten worse since the recession started. “HR departments now have a lot of young, inexperienced staffers answering the phones. Sometimes when we’ve been referred to them by managers we’ve called, they’ve read us someone’s entire personnel file verbatim — the good, the bad, and the indifferent,” she says.

“Or some companies have no in-house HR department at all anymore,” she adds. “So a request for a reference gets shuffled around to employees in other areas. They’re busy, it isn’t really their job, and they may not be familiar with company policy, so they have a tendency to say whatever pops into their heads.” Yikes.

Even a less-than-enthusiastic tone of voice or a terse “no comment” can be as damaging as a negative remark. So how can you make sure the people you’re giving as references aren’t sinking your prospects?

In your case, where you have reason to believe your boss is violating your separation agreement, a possible solution is a cease-and-desist letter, written by an attorney on your behalf, reiterating the terms of the agreement and requesting that the boss abide by it.

You say you don’t want to sue anyone (which is smart), but your old boss doesn’t know that, does he? So a stern letter from a lawyer may be enough to make him think twice about his response to the next prospective employer who calls asking about you.

Another tactic that works: Put your cards on the table.

“When an interviewer asks you for references, you can say right up front, ‘My former boss and I didn’t see eye to eye, so if I may, I’d like to give you contact information for three other people who can tell you about my performance, just so you get a balanced picture’,” Allison says.

“That way, even if your old boss is undermining you, the person who calls him for a reference doesn’t get an unpleasant surprise — and you don’t appear to be trying to hide something.”

Alerting an interviewer ahead of time that a particular manager might not be your biggest fan is a relatively low-risk way to go, Allison adds, because “almost everyone has reported to someone, sometime in his or her career, where the personal chemistry just wasn’t great. If they really want you, they’ll hire you anyway.”

Of course, this approach assumes that you do have other erstwhile bosses and colleagues who would be happy to give you a glowing recommendation. Before you give out their contact information, it never hurts to call them and ask if they’d mind talking you up. You can even coach them a little on which aspects of your past performance you’d appreciate their mentioning.

Luckily, there’s a good chance that, with a few friendly ex-coworkers in your corner, you don’t need your old boss at all. A few days ago, curious about how crucial a former boss’s recommendation really is, I asked executive recruiters Korn Ferry International to conduct an informal online poll of managers visiting the firm’s web site.

The question: “When you are considering hiring someone, is a reference or recommendation from the person’s last boss an absolute prerequisite?”

You may be cheered by the result: Of the 252 managers who answered the question, 89% said “no.”

Talkback: Have you ever worked for someone you would hesitate to give as a reference? Have you ever given a negative reference to someone else? Leave a comment below.