Job seekers, here is how to defend yourself against a bad reference

Posted April 20, 2018 by


If you are going to interview for a job, or if you already have, you are one step closer to when that employer will call your references. They will likely call all the references you provided, but don’t assume they will only look into those people. If you’re worried that the employer will contact someone who has a biased or negative perception of you, we have some advice. You can prepare for it and defend yourself appropriately.

First, if you’re worried about the potential new employer spilling the beans at your current employer, recruiters get this. They understand the negative impact of spoiling your secret to your boss. Some job applications build in a box to check that says “please do not contact current employer until the offer stage.” If you are afraid of your boss finding out that you’re considering leaving, check this box. If you don’t see this box, you can write this exact phrase into your references document.

Be transparent, and find a counter-reference

A different concern, however, is if you know someone will provide negative information about your performance or character. In many cases, however, you probably don’t have to worry. When the recruiter or hiring manager does call your current employer, it’s not uncommon for them to contact your HR department only to confirm your employment there. Jeff Dunn, Campus Relations Manager at Intel, says that “Realistically, most companies, to avoid liability, give very little information, good or bad, these days. They will confirm dates of employment, title, salary that the applicant has listed.” That is, your current HR department may not say anything at all about your performance or character because they don’t want you to sue them if you don’t get the job.

Not all HR departments have that fear, however, and your employer might not even have an HR department with someone trained in human resources practices. “If you are certain that you will get a negative reference from a past employer,” says Dunn, “you could choose to explain the circumstances of you leaving (for example, professional or ethical differences).”

Being transparent about those differences might be enough, if the problem isn’t very big or if you’re particularly convincing. But getting a “counter-reference” could be even better. Joanne Meehl, Job Search Queen® at Joanne Meehl Career Services, says a counter-reference can speak to that negative perception. She advises finding “a senior person who knows the high quality of your work. This is likely someone no longer at the company.”

Meehl suggests that you have your counter-reference initiate a call to the hiring manager, “telling that person “I know Candidate A’s and the high quality of her work…but I think her manager had an awful lot on his plate and somehow did not see A’s contributions. I’ve observed A’s work and attitude and she’s responsible, knowledgeable, and gets the job done. I know she’d be great for your role, and didn’t want the lack of a strong and positive reference to get in the way of you hiring her.”

If you ask someone to be a counter-reference in this way, make sure they understand you don’t want them to talk badly about the other reference. They should focus on advocating for you and highlighting your skills. Adding more negativity to the situation might cause the hiring manager to think that hiring you might cause more drama.

Use a negative reference to your advantage!

A bad reference might be a blessing in disguiseThere is another way to think about this. Think about what your potentially negative reference might say about you. Are they about qualities or behaviors that just didn’t fit the company culture, and would those same qualities and behaviors fit better at this new employer? Meehl offered this story about one of her clients:

Bob (not his real name) KNEW his boss would give a bad reference but it actually helped him that he did: The owner of Company A had hired Bob to make changes at the company. When Bob tried to do so, he wouldn’t let Bob make the changes. (Company Founder Syndrome!) So the only option was to part ways and the owner gave Bob a few weeks to do so. The hiring team at Company B insisted on speaking to Company A’s owner. Bob feared this, knowing the owner of Company A would be very negative about him. 

But the team insisted, and made an appointment with the owner of Company A, who, as predicted, badmouthed Bob. But all the things he said about Bob were EXACTLY what Company B wanted: he was someone who took charge, who wasn’t afraid of making and executing tough decisions, he was too bottom-line oriented, and so on. It only confirmed to Company B that they were about to pick the right guy. After leaving the meeting at Company A, Company B made the offer to Bob.


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