How to Handle Bad References From Employers

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Are you concerned about getting a bad reference from one of your previous employers? It can happen, even to the best of workers.

Sometimes, your perception of your performance will differ from that of your boss, or you’ll find yourself in a place where you’re unable to do your best work for one reason or another.


Whatever the situation, it’s crucial to minimize the chances that your negative experience will follow you to your next job.

A negative or even lukewarm reference can knock you right out of contention for a role. But with a little preparation, you can avoid getting a bad reference—or contain the damage when the situation is unavoidable.

How to Handle Bad References From Employers

What can you do to prevent your references from hindering your job search? The safest way to avoid having your search sabotaged by an unexpected bad reference is to carefully pre-screen your references.

If you are concerned about what a previous employer is going to say, line up some other references who will attest to your qualifications for jobs. Explain the circumstances, in advance, to potential reference givers and ask if they are in a position to support your candidacy by providing a positive recommendation.

It is critical to give them an out so that they don't feel obligated to provide a reference, and perhaps provide a less than fully laudatory recommendation when contacted by a prospective employer. It can be best to make your request by email so that they can consider it objectively without the pressure of a face to face interaction.

Get the Reference in Writing

If you ask a potential reference to put a general recommendation in writing in advance, you will have a better idea regarding the tone and focus of their recommendation. The incorporation of recommendations into LinkedIn provides an opportunity to test drive potential reference writers.

The best way to get recommendations is to give them. Try writing a few recommendations for LinkedIn contacts and then ask your connections to reciprocate on your behalf. If they’re less than enthusiastic – or if the finished product does a so-so job of selling your candidacy – you’ll know not to ask them to recommend you to potential employers.

When You Are Worried About a Negative Reference

Unfortunately, screening potential references isn’t enough to protect your reputation with hiring managers. Why? Because many human resources (HR) departments will ask to speak to former employers, whether or not they’re formally listed as a reference.

Get Positive References

If you are worried that a previous manager might provide a negative reference if contacted by an employer, the best strategy can be to provide as many other positive recommendations as possible to counteract the impact, or perhaps make it unnecessary for employers to seek input from that manager.

Discuss With the Manager

Or, if you are certain that the manager will still be contacted despite not being on your reference list, you can be proactive. Reach out to the former manager, and explain the situation—that you know you didn't part on the best terms, and would not normally put the person down as a reference, but that you believe the hiring company will be in touch anyway.

Many people will be willing to let bygones be bygones, and you may be able to negotiate to a reference that you both feel comfortable with.

Use Other References

In some cases, you might have a better relationship with your prior manager's boss and can enlist their support. In other situations, you can tap a combination of colleagues at your level, customers, and staff who reported to you in order to fill out your roster of references.

Checking Your Own References

Some candidates will have a trusted friend, posing as a reference checker or a background checking service, reach out to a possibly troublesome previous supervisor to ascertain how they might respond to a check. Others hire a reference checking service to discover what past employers are saying about them.

Candidates who discover a potentially damaging reference might then initiate dialogue with the manager in an attempt to negotiate a more positive recommendation. If that effort is unsuccessful, you could consider contacting the HR department of your former employer to mention that your search is being adversely impacted by a former manager's negative recommendation. In some cases, HR will advise the manager to avoid such references as a matter of policy to avoid legal liability or negative publicity.

Negotiating a Good Reference

If you leave an employer under difficult circumstances, it is sometimes possible to negotiate a positive recommendation as part of the severance process. In addition, many employers also have a policy of providing only bare-bones information about previous employees, regardless of whether they left on good terms.

Of course, the best way to avoid negative recommendations is to cultivate positive relationships with managers, whenever possible, and to resist the temptation of saying anything negative when leaving a job.

Key Takeaways

Bad References Can Happen to Anyone:Don’t assume that you’re safe because you weren’t fired for cause. Find out what potential references will say before passing along their contact info.

Make Sure Your References Are Solid: When you ask for a reference, be sure to ask if your contact feels that they have positive things to say about your work.

Negotiate a Good Reference: Even if you leave under less than optimal circumstances, you may be able to negotiate a good reference from your boss.

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