Can a Bad Reference Cost You a Job?


can a bad reference cost you a job

If you apply for a job, and make it all the way through the interview process and onto reference checks, you may feel like you’ve got the role in the bag. 

And while a reference check can be one of the top signs that you’ll be receiving a job offer, it doesn’t mean that you’ve got the position locked up yet. 

In fact, if you list a bad reference, or one that you’re uncertain what they’re going to say about you, there is real potential that they could cost you a job.

To that end, this article is going to unpack what a bad reference is, if a bad reference can cost you a job, and how to avoid a bad reference in the future.

What is a Bad Reference?

A bad reference is a person that you listed on a job application that can hurt your chances of getting a job offer if they are contacted about you.

Note that a bad reference could be someone that speaks highly of you in general, but may have feedback about you that would hurt your changes for a specific job. 

Can a Bad Reference Cost You a Job?

Yes, a bad reference can cost you a job. 

While I personally have never not hired someone due to a bad reference, I have had managers who haven’t hired people due to concerns that came up in the reference check process.

Can a Company Not Hire Someone Based Upon a Reference?

can a company not hire someone bad reference

A company can choose not to hire a potential employee based upon a reference.

Reference checks are a part of their hiring and diligence process and it is perfectly within their right to decide not to hire someone based upon concerns that come up in the reference check process.

Will a Bad Reference Ruin My Career?

A bad reference may cost you a specific job but, in general, should not ruin your career.

For the most part, you generally will want to be able to provide three to five relevant references for a job application (most commonly, a company will only request three). 

So if you find that one of your references ended up being a bad reference that cost you a job, simply replace them with someone else on future job applications and you likely won’t run into that issue.

Do Employers Actually Call References?

In general, yes, employers actually call references.

While I couldn’t find a statistic that stated how often employers call references, in my experience as both a hiring manager and a job searcher, references that were provided on a job application were almost always checked.

That’s supported by other career experts and resources, including here, here, and here.

Also, this video from A Life After Layoff provides some more detail from an HR perspective about whether or not companies actually do check references:

Can I Use Fake References?

If you’re worried that you have a bad reference, and don’t have a good reference to replace them with, I would strongly advise against using a fake reference.

Candidates get rejected about 10 – 20% of the time after a reference check. Most often, the reason for a rejection is that a candidate provided a fake reference that was discovered when they were vetted.

So, no, do not use fake references.

How to Avoid Bad References?

Here are some tips and best practices to help you avoid listing a bad reference on your job application:

  • Give all of your references advanced notice that you’ll be listing them on a job application
  • Confirm that all of your references are comfortable acting as a reference for you for the role
  • Only provide references that can speak to your abilities to do the specific duties of the job


Can a bad reference cost you a job? Yes, they certainly can. So make sure that you’re taking the appropriate steps to only provide quality references for a job.

And even if a reference does cost you a job, it certainly doesn’t mean that it will ruin your career. Just replace them from your list and with what you expect to be a strong reference.

With a list of positive references, you could be well positioned for you next job offer, which often comes one – three days after reference checks are completed if all goes well.

About the author

Dan Slocum

Dan is the founder of Best Fit Work and is a business professional with over 10 years of experience. He has been a hiring and people manager on multiple occasions, and has also gone through the hiring process himself at a variety of different companies. Dan writes to share content, tools, and resources to help people discover and thrive in their own best fit work.

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