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Ask Sue
A Weekly Q&A Column About Professionalism, Etiquette and Problems in the Workplace
by Sue Morem

Bad References?

Dear Sue: I'm preparing to reenter the work force after a prolonged absence. I had a rather poor relationship with my former coworkers and supervisors, which I think was due to our age differences. Luckily, I was forced to leave the job before I was fired.

I am a bit worried, though, about what my former employer might tell a prospective employer when calling for a reference. Can my former employer talk about the poor relations we had to prospective employers? I am worried that my chances for getting a position might be ruined if my previous employer decides to badmouth me.

What exactly can an ex-employer say when asked about a previous employee? Are they prohibited from saying anything derogatory? 

- Worried

Sue Says: An employer is free to furnish information about an ex-employee as long as it isn't given maliciously or with the intent to harm the ex-employee, said Marshall Tanick, a Minneapolis employment law attorney.

Employers cannot give out confidential or private data, such as medical records, and as long as any information given is for a proper purpose, the employer is protected from being sued for defamation. The information provided must consist of true factual statements about the employee's performance.

However, an employer could be held legally liable if any false information was provided, especially if it is disparaging or accuses an employee of criminal behavior or immoral conduct, unless the employer believed in good faith that the information was true.

Dear Sue: I was let go from my job 10 months after I began working at a newly created position. The department I worked in had a number of problems, and I had a difficult time getting my staff of two accounting clerks to work for me. I was fired without any notice, and as a result, I seem to have lost my confidence.

I know I should move on, but I have been an accountant for 20 years and have never been fired before. What should I do? 

- Accountant

Sue Says: You should move on and start working again. As you said, the department had a number of problems -- not all of them were necessarily because of you.

I can understand your disappointment with the way things worked out, but there is no reason for you to lose your confidence over this incident. Sure, it's important for you to evaluate what went wrong. Yes, you should look for ways to improve in the future and make sure this doesn't happen again. But there is no reason for you to lose your confidence over this, especially with 20 successful years behind you.

Chalk it up to experience, and look for a new opportunity. Things like this happen all the time -- just be glad it happened now, after 10 months, rather than after investing much more time.

Dear Sue: The company that I worked for recently closed operations and I've been out of job for about three months. I am 42 years old and have a tremendous desire to make a change in my career and start my own business. I've done some research, worked on a few small deals here and there, but haven't made any serious decisions yet.

I am feeling very confused as to whether I should just find a job in the same field I've been working in or pursue my dream of having my own business. 

- Dreamer

Sue Says: Deciding if this is the right time to start your own business depends on many factors. If your desire to have your own business really is strong and you ignore it, you may live to regret the fact that you never pursued your dream. However, without knowing your personal circumstances it is difficult for me to advise you as to whether the timing is right at this time. Only you know if this really is the most opportune time to start a new business.

If it isn't, you can still pursue your dream, but do it slowly while you continue to plan for the day that your dream will become a reality.

Sue Morem is a professional speaker, trainer and syndicated columnist. She is author of the newly released 101 Tips for Graduates and How to Gain the Professional Edge, Second Edition. You can contact her by email at or visit her web site at

Send Sue your questions by clicking here: Ask Sue
For more Ask Sue articles, click here.

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