How to Overcome Negative References in Your Job Search

July 15th, 2013
HireVue Team
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You've aced your online interview, you've come in to meet the team, and everything is looking great… except for your references. Perhaps somewhere back in your employment history, things didn't go well with a boss, and you're worried they may not have good things to say about you to your future employer. What do you do?

When you're looking for jobs, a bad employment reference can make things incredibly difficult - even if it's inaccurate or biased. A bad reference may suggest to a potential employer that you are an unsuitable employee. You don't have to get fired to get a bad reference, either. If you leave a job and your boss has a negative impression of you, you could wind up with a bad reference. So know how to deal with the possibility before it becomes a reality.

Verify the Reference

Find out what kind of references you can expect from your previous employers, especially if you left on bad or uncertain terms. Have a script ready and ask a friend to pose as a prospective employer. Your friend can call the human resources department or your old boss to get a sense of what kind of employee you were, and although the tactic has a sneaky element to it, your former employer has nothing to lose, while you, on the other hand, could lose a job offer.

Most Recent Job

A bad reference from a current or very recent employer could spell trouble for you. Prospective employers almost always want to know about your most recent job experience, and usually you can’t hide it, so be proactive. Either way the facts will come out, so know how to tell your side of the story to a prospective employer. Be polite and congenial, and focus on conveying yourself as someone who has learned from past mistakes. Think twice before challenging the validity of the bad reference directly - even if you're in the right, you would hate for your prospective employer to interpret your challenge as egotism or stubbornness.

Older Job

If you have a bad reference further back in your employment history, it's easier to gloss over it. Don’t volunteer the information, though if a prospective employer asks you directly whether they should expect a bad reference, you can say you had a job some time in the past that didn’t end well. In a sentence or two, succinctly lay out the crux of the bad reference, explain what you learned from it, and finish up by noting that your overall record speaks for itself. Additionally, be creative with your resume. If subsequent employers or the passage of time gives you an opportunity to cut off your resume at the point of the bad reference, do it.

Former Employer Outreach

If you're dealing with a particularly negative reference that has cost you multiple job offers, consider reaching out to your former employer’s human resources department. Let them know that their reference is costing you the opportunity to get work - after all, human resource workers tend to have a greater appreciation of the legal risks of defamation and slander. Be level-headed and polite, and ask if you can work out an agreement on a less-negative reference.

Anytime you learn that a former employer has issued a factually inaccurate reference, it's important to call the human resources department immediately to correct the record. If the company has no human resources department, then call your old boss or his replacement — or, if the two of you have too much bad blood, call his boss. Try to proactively approach bad references before they get the best of you – and your future career.