We recently had an inquiry from a candidate wondering if it was possible to obtain a reference letter from an employer who had recently terminated him.

Reference letters are tricky things. Candidates sometimes like to have them as positive reviews of their work from former bosses that they can show to prospective employers. The trouble is, in many fields those future employers don’t actually find them that interesting.

The fact is, no one would submit a negative letter about themselves with an application – so by default all reference letters are positive. Recruiters are far more interested in speaking directly with your former employers and asking their own questions than they are in reading a letter that you have pre-screened.

As for requesting a reference from an employer who has terminated you – well, obviously you wouldn’t do that in a situation where you were fired for cause. You only want to solicit references from workplaces where you were successful, left on good terms, and most importantly – where that employer would be happy to work with you again. If for any reason they wouldn’t want you back, they’re not likely to refer you to someone else.

The other difficulty with references is that, due to some recent lawsuits, more and more organizations are setting up policies against giving them at all. In these cases, HR departments will only confirm the length of your employment and what your position was.

Employment lawyer, M. Norman Grosman says, that such references “which simply confirm employment, are of little utility in seeking alternative employment.” He suggests that if your former employer has such a policy against personal references, you request a couple of modifications to the standard ‘name rank and serial number’ which may make them for useful for you:

  • Ask if your former employer can include your reason for leaving. Stating that your “position was eliminated in August 2011, due to restructuring”, can give you an understandable ‘no fault’ reason for being back on the job market.
  • In addition, see if your former employers can make it clear that the reason they will not give more substantial, qualitative references whether in writing or not, is because they have an established policy prohibiting this. This way prospective employers know that your former boss isn’t reluctant to refer you personally, but is just following established regulations.

Another way to get references is from your manager (speaking personally- not necessarily on behalf of the company), from your team members, partners and clients. Future employers want to know what you’re really like to work with, so having a selection of credible people who can speak to your work habits, accomplishments and character can go a long way to helping you get that foot in the door.


Norman Grosman tackles your employment law dilemmas regularly on Workopolis. More information about him and his legal services can be found on his website grosman.com