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How to fix a bad reference the hard way

In the March 17, 2015 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader needs to deal with an old boss who’s probably also a bad reference.

Question

bad-referenceI just had an interview where I followed your advice in Fearless Job Hunting, Book 6. I took control, offered to show how I’d do the job, and demonstrated to the manager how I’d take care of one of her most perplexing problems. She loved it, and I think I’m going to get an offer. Sounds great, right?

It is, except for one problem. This manager — let’s call her Ann — knows one of my past employers quite well (let’s call her Brenda). Brenda probably will not give me a glowing reference. I suspect Ann will contact Brenda. How do I handle this delicate situation?

Nick’s Reply

I’m glad to hear Book 6 got you so far! References are a very valuable asset — learn to manage them all the time, not just when they turn into trouble. (See Take Care Of Your References.) Now let’s deal with your problem.

Even if the reference is unfavorable, a smart employer will rely first on her own judgment — and ask you to explain your old boss’s comments. So, anticipate the question and be prepared with a good answer that is honest and not defensive.

Then there’s the tactical approach. Tell the new manager (Ann) what your old boss (Brenda) is likely to say before they talk. Since you cannot block that conversation, own up to the facts and impress Ann with your candor.

The Hard Way
When confronted with a problem like this, I like to take it head-on. Talk to your old boss! It’s the hardest way, and it will force you to develop the best solution. I think it’s the best way. If you leave this to chance, you will have no idea what the outcome might be.

Call your old boss before Ann does. Surprise Brenda and ask her permission to list her as a reference. You might have to swallow your pride, but nothing of value comes easily.

If she agrees, fess up that you believe that, when you worked together, Brenda may not have seen you in the most positive light.

How to Say It
“I know I could have been a better employee, and I could have done better at XYZ. Since then, I’ve beefed up my skills considerably. [Explain how, but keep it brief.]”

This may allow Brenda to blow off any steam about you before she speaks with Ann, and give you a chance to change her mind a bit. If Brenda responds candidly, pose this magic question:

“May I ask you for some advice? I really want continue to get better at what I do. What advice would you give me about improving my performance or anything else about how I do my work?”

Profit from The Outcome
Then be quiet and listen. If your old boss blasts you, or explains that you’re better off not listing her as a reference, then you know what’s coming when the new boss contacts her. Now you’ll have to use the tactical approach I mentioned above: Prepare Ann for what Brenda will say, and explain yourself. You will have profited from the call.

On the other hand, your candid phone call to Brenda might help her see you in a new, more positive light. Discussing how you’ve changed and improved might give her the words she needs to soften the reference when she talks to Ann. Now you’ve really profited from the hard way.

This might work. It might not. I just believe in facing problems like this head-on, and in trying to make the best of them.

Do you see what we’re doing here? We’re trying to influence Brenda to help the new, improved you. In the process, you’re also learning how this may play out so you can better manage your discussion with Ann.

Whatever happens when you talk with Brenda, you’ll learn something, and you’ll be better off for knowing. Be polite. Be respectful. Do not argue. Don’t be defensive. Listen carefully and try to get some good advice. Say thanks and move on.

Congratulations on impressing the new manager. Now get your old boss on board — or mitigate the damage she might cause.

There are other very powerful ways to use references and to parry bad ones. I discuss these in lots of how-to detail in Fearless Job Hunting, Book 3: Get in The Door (way ahead of your competition), “Don’t provide references — Launch them!” and “The preemptive reference,” pp. 23-25.

Can this reader avert disaster? Have you ever turned around a bad reference? Are my tactics risky?

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22 Comments
  1. This is just about the best advice I’ve ever seen on this blog! Top shelf. You ask us if your approach is risky, but I don’t really see how it could be (unless someone badly botched one of these conversations). You’re completely right… The thing about these approaches isn’t that they are risky, it’s that they’re hard. Because they involve having frank and honest conversations with people, and that is not the strong suit of many people.

  2. I once had a case of negative feedback from a new colleague giving bad references about me after he was giving my job by our manager. That feedback was given to several people including the hiring manager of my new job (I was out of a job as he was given mine).
    I called him (we were in different countries) and asked him why he was doing that as he didn’t even know me. He replied “that’s what I’ve heard”. I replied “from whom?”. “From people in different countries” he said. I then pressed him for a thorough assessment of all countries’ people’s feedback on me to come up with an opinion (knowing that I would certainly not please everybody). Net result, he came back with some positive and neutral feedbacks (as expected, but none was negative), changed his opinion and most importantly although not apologizing to me, he did apologize to the hiring manager of my next job to whom he had given negative feedback.
    That manager was positive about me and was following her instinct but was reassured about the changed feedback. She hired me and told me a while afterwards that she didn’t regret it… ;-)

  3. My 1st sentence above should read “I once had a case of negative feedback from a new colleague giving bad references about me after he was given” my job by our manager.

  4. I think a lot depends on the chronology here. If “Brenda” is your immediate past employer, I am totally with Nicks advice of handling directly.

    If “Brenda” is down the employment history list, a more subtle approach is worth considering. One could consider pointing out that you faced challenges working with Brenda, which you successfully resolved in your next position and manager.

    If a manager complains about an employee who has a solid recommendation from next employer, most of us know where to stick that one. Moreover, an employee who has dealt with an employment issue is more interesting to me than the resume perfect candidate. That candidate has issues, you just don’t know what they are yet…….

  5. This can happen internally too. I was once assigned to sit in a windowless cinder-block room, deep within a manufacturing plant, for up to 18 hours a day, waiting for an improbable IT manager’s call. I had to get permission to use the bathroom (down the hall) or to get a meal. When I asked how this arrangement added business value, the team manager (Thing 1) influenced my next performance review to get me fired.

    When I posted for an internal job, Thing 1 tried to sabotage me with the hiring manager. I discussed this with the hiring manager and asked him to talk to my other previous bosses. 3 months later, the hiring manager said that bringing me onboard was the best decision he made. The hiring manager had been to several of my previous bosses, and only Thing 1 guy had anything negative to say. I was in this new job for 12 years until the company was acquired.

    Living well is the best revenge. Thing 1 had a habit of openly badmouthing previous bosses. Eventually he wound up working for one of his previous bosses, and he was fired after 6 months.

  6. What advice would you give me?
    When I gave notice at my last position, my boss said I was the best assistant he ever had. This was a three person office, the boss and his wife who was moody and controlling and unhappy. During my first week of the 2 weeks notice, we all received an individual Christmas present from a vendor. I saw it arrive and heard tbem talking about giving my gift to me. In the end, the wife kept mine and instead of working the last week after Christmas, I mailed my office key to them with a brief note saying it was not right for her to keep my gift. I am now looking for my next position (I have a job) and if the wife answers the phone, she will give me a bad review. The wife also controls boss’ email and fax access.

  7. @Kathy:

    I’ve worked in similar situations and when I’ve referenced working in small companies while in the interview phase at new companies, their collective attitude has been an understanding of how small businesses can be (ESPECIALLY ones headed by family).
    I don’t have proactive advice, but my reactive advice would be to fear not. Simply state the office environment in a polite way and the interviewer should be able to nod in understanding.

  8. Nick, good topic and I fully agree with your response about being proactive in reaching out to Brenda. A few additional comments/twists:
    + TWIST: if your “problem” with Brenda is NOT performance related (like Kathy, above), the situation will likely be even more difficult. I would still reach out to Brenda and try to do the old “let’s let bygones be bygones” approach.
    + COMMENT: in hob-hunting, even more so at the higher levels, you have to assume that the recruiter/hiring manager is going to contact “surprise” references (managers, peers, subordinates that worked at your company around the same time as you, but who are NOT on your reference list). You should constantly expand and manage your reference list.

  9. Terrific advice! Why I read you religiously.

  10. Totally agree – either way the job candidate knows Brenda’s position up-front and can plan accordingly.

    Let’s assume the worst: Brenda is going to do everything in her power to kill the job opportunity (and she as much says so in the phone call). Preparing Ann for the bad news puts the candidate in the driver’s seat because he/she can say “Hey, I’ve talked to Brenda for this specific reason (fill in the REAL reason) and this is what you’re going to hear”.

    At that point Ann may not even call Brenda – or if she does – is going to take whatever Brenda says with a grain of salt (good for the candidate) and is going to see the candidate with much more credibility because the candidate had the guts to tackle the problem head-on in a professional manner.

    Either way, the candidate wins by being out in front of the (potential) problem.

  11. I am going to take the contrarian approach in this discussion for the following reasons:

    “… demonstrated to the manager how I’d take care of one of her most perplexing problems. She loved it, and I think I’m going to get an offer.”

    “Brenda probably will not give me a glowing reference.”

    Regardless of what the reference says, as a hiring authority in this example, I would place more credence in what the candidate did in the interview versus someone’s else opinion. She took on a real problem I had, outlined solutions and that demonstrated true value to me.

    The candidate is assuming that the previous employer’s opinion will carry more weight than her own demonstrated value. Because she said “probably” and not “definitely.” She is assuming two things: A negative reference and the type of relationship between Brenda and Ann. We need more information to analyze this perspective properly and in my opinion, it is lacking in this example.

    Too many of us focus on things outside of our control. We can only control our own behavior. References may be important although in this case, I believe the candidate should place more trust in her own demonstrated abilities than upon a potential negative reference. If she is truly concerned about this reference, Nick et al have outlined how to handle it.

  12. This is a tough one–potential employer reaches out to those who are not on your reference list and they badmouth you.

    Nick’s advice seems reasonable and gets you ahead of the issue.

    I also agree that smart hiring managers will take Brenda’s opinion with a grain of salt.

    I would like to hear how this person handled the situation and the outcome.

  13. @Kathy: I agree with Kev. Just tell the employer what the problem was, briefly, and move on. Don’t dwell on it, and provide other good references.

    Some great stories and advice on the comments – kudos to all. Extra 50 points to Pedro for finessing a difficult situation with what must have been a nice balance of firmness and politeness. I love it when I can “flip” someone’s attitude about me by having a candid discussion. Key to this is, you can’t get angry or defensive – or take the offense. Focus on the facts.

    @Kimberlee, @Larry, thanks for the over the top reviews!

  14. @Nick: this is fantastic advice! I’ve often wondered how to “manage” this kind of reference, that is, when they call someone not on your list or when the hiring manager or HR knows your former boss personally and said former boss is out to sabotage any efforts on your part, which include bad-mouthing you and even lying.

    I agree that the best way is try to get ahead of it, and to tell the interviewer what the problem was without getting into the gory details, no matter how bad it was, then move on. Key is to provide other excellent references so that a “bad” reference will look like the problem was with them, not with you.

    As I read Nick’s advice, my first thought was that calling Brenda is a good idea but that is assuming that Brenda doesn’t call you names that won’t get by Nick’s censor here, threaten you, slam down the phone. Maybe Brenda won’t even take your call. And if Ann and Brenda are best buds, then what? I would hope that Ann wouldn’t let the friendship cloud her judgment, but you never know.

    Of course, if the reference checking they do is limited to calling HR, then what many HR depts. do today is simply confirm that you were employed there and when.

    I, too, would like to hear how the letter writer in this week’s Q&A handled this and what happened.

  15. Good Advice from Nick and nice to keep in the files if ever required in future.

    This did happened to me early in my career. In a contract it was agreed that neither party would disclose or discuss the relationship. It was a pay issue associated with nonpayment of documented hours, not performance. However, the company presidents knew each other and ran in similar circles. When you hear directly from the owner “you are just what we are looking for” and then find out a week later, “it’s not going to work out”, you know what happened. Someone talked, even though against the agreement. It was a good ‘ol boys club back then. How to prove, couldn’t, and had to move into another field for awhile. I was young, naive and accepting of circumstances. I no longer work in that field and have moved into a more advancing and better career.

  16. @Kev & @Kathy

    Great advice from Nick. I had a similar circumstance once. New management had bought out the old owner and missed a few payments on the note. I walked into work one day to discover the old owner back in his office, and that I as well has the top half (dollar wise) of the staff was being let go. (Well mostly. There was this smokin’ hot sales manager …)

    Basically, we were all marched one by one into the owner’s office, and told item by item that whatever we did “we won’t be doing that any more”. This included the sales force in adjoining counties, day-to-day IT maintenance, project management etc. But he did offer to give us a good reference.

    I naturally had a paralegal buddy of mine call over and pretend to get the reference. Turns out he had nothing to say about my skillset, but plenty to say about how I’d had to leave with the other high salaried deadwood. And I had no loyalty to him personally. Needless to say, I didn’t use him as a reference, and only one other person called him.

    Family owned, family run, or businesses where “we are all like family here” are the worst. I mentally, if not actually, close my portfolio and make plans for lunch when any of those phrases spill out of a interviewers mouth.

  17. I did this, I told her my poor attendance was due to my alcoholism which I went to treatment for and I am now sober…. she said my work was great blah blah he was happy for me….said if I needed anything to not hesitate to reach out, so I used her and she gave me a bad reference about my attendence and I didn’t get the job. Guess my recovery is just my secret now.

  18. I am hoping you can help me, I was with a healthcare company for five years and had good 3%-4% pay increase performance reviews every year, along with glowing patient satisfaction surveys for excellent customer service and being more than proficient as a Phlebotomist. My great joy comes from exceptional patient care. I have been in healthcare since high school so I know what a company wants, what a patient wants, and I will go above and beyond what is needed from me without complaint. The position I held before this one I was fired after 10 years. So I did not want to be fired from this job so I resigned. Why don’t I start from the beginning, the laboratory ended up getting a new supervisor I do not even believe she was there six months. Over eight months prior to July I gave notice to my previous supervisor, manager, and lead that I would be taking FMLA for three months starting the 1st of July. (Problem # 1) Two weeks before I was going on leave my new supervisor came up to me and asked if I would cancel my FMLA. I explained to her in a calm professional manner that it took me over eight months to be able to get in and see the surgeon and if I would cancel it would probably be another year before I could have surgery. I apologized to her for not not being able to accommodate her. But really? Now I don’t know if she was informed I was going on leave or if somebody dropped the ball or didn’t inform her or maybe they could not get a replacement to help them out. Now the last two years I was pretty burned out mentally and physically, I worked every other weekend, the whole hospital by myself which is completely unsafe for the patients and myself due to the fact I cannot be in more than one place at a time. Unsafe because of medical emergencies codes, stats and routine draws not to mention on Saturdays the outpatient clinic was open. At the very least there should have been two phlebotomist on a shift especially busy first shift. It was a terrible weekend when I came in at 5 AM I had 150+ draws and by 10:00-11:00AM it was even worse! So the first time in many years I called my lead who is on call weekends to help us, this is her position. First time in many years I called my lead to please come in and help me, I told her I was drowning. Most patients didn’t even have their first 5 AM draw and now orders are being put in for more draws on all the patients. Doctors and nurses were calling and complaining wanting to know where the patient’s lab work was for the morning. The lead refused to come in and help and I will admit I acted completely out of line. She told me she’s tired of coming in and helping everybody that’s all she ever does she’s tired! I hung up on her I was so angry, this is your job this is what you need to be doing patients are yelling at me from all directions doctors are nurses are this is not a desired situation for anyone. I was looking internally for a transfer (over a year) I had quite a few good interviews and then there was the perfect position that I knew I had. (Problem #2)The hiring manager wanted to check my references and to see how well I worked with my supervisor. I had asked the new hiring manager if he could give me a day or so to be able to talk to my supervisor and inform her personally that I was looking so she wasn’t caught offguard when he called to talk to her, he agreed. Now for the last 3 days I could not connect with her either because I was off of work and she was unable to return my calls and she was in closed door conferences. Therefore I felt I had to email her because I still didn’t want her to be caught off guard, I didn’t feel good about that! Although I thought an email was better than nothing. Now I sent her an email on Thursday I was on on the weekend and when I came back on Tuesday my supervisor and I sat down and talked about the weekend that I had from hell. Nothing major was discussed it was a normal conversation there was no animosity. She did make herself available, that if I was having any kind of problem or not she was approachable.(Problem #3) I was hesitant and for the first time ever I decided to confide in management. If I have a conflict with somebody I will usually address them so the problem can be rectified. I definitely did not make a big deal out of it, I didn’t even want this mentioned at all and I made her promise that our conversation was confidential. My lead and I go way back, at this point I have known her for 14 years before working with her, we played baseball together, therefore I didn’t want any conflict, basically I just had to vent and then I knew I would be over it. And my supervisor made me feel that she was approachable that we could talk freely. The next day or two I felt my lead was acting funny with me, not really speaking to me I knew there was something wrong. At the end of the day my supervisor called me over to her, and we were walking out of the lab and walking into Human Resources.She attacked my character my teamwork/commitment and my performance! I guess I don’t have to tell you how betrayed I felt, I was speechless I couldn’t breathe it was as if all the air was sucked out of the room. Now I definitely can and am willing to take constructive criticism in a professional manner. I learned this early on in healthcare that it’s a process to success. If I was displaying a lack of patient care or professionalism of course I would want to be told, I would do the same thing to someone else.The next thing to come up was she felt I was under the influence of drugs or alcohol at that point the only thing I could say to defend myself was go ahead and test me you’re going to be wasting your money on a lie. My supervisor also stated she could not give me a positive reference to the supervisor I interviewed with because of these things. I told her I knew where this was coming from and since I do not have a blemish in my personal file not once in five years except positive feedback and my performance review she completed months before. Apparently she must not of known that there was nothing bad in my file because human resources basically said I could. She stayed and I thought that was the end of it yeah right! it was even worse! She came back made me sign a pip, which I signed because I was told it didn’t matter if I did or not but I did document I did not agree with this and I thought something funny was going on. I now would be gone for three months, two weeks since my leave I get a call from human resources telling me they couldn’t give my personal information out to the police department, apparently they were looking for me. I am now being accused of stealing a coworker’s pursue from her locked locker. When I returned after three months my supervisor never came to me once and had asked me how things were going it’s been two days at this point. And everybody really kind it was funny with me, if you’ve ever been a situation like that you know. On the second date I was asked to take off my lab coat and come to human resources. I now was being accused of being under the influence of drugs and alcohol and they wanted me to go test. I was angry/upset/because I am being framed again. I had to turn in my badge and I was put on suspension until the test route results came back. I again told them they were wasting their time and money. 17days later there are still no results according to HR. I know this is total BS because I work in the lab. So I called HR, my supervisor and the house supervisor and I told them that I ended up calling the doctor at this lab to find out what was going on, I told him that my company is saying they haven’t received results from my test yet. And told me he sent out the results the same day he got the specimen. Now I knew for sure they were trying to figure out how they were going to terminate me. But I had no blemishes on my file, my drug test came back clean like I said at one. So that whole time I was looking for jobs outside of my company and I finally found something. The day I had the meeting I resigned. I did not give notice and I told them that I didn’t feel safe here that I felt that they were going to fire me and they were just looking for some way to do it. So I started another job while I was still with my company so they never called them for a reference.Unfortunately that position was out of my scope of practice I lasted about10 months, it was mutual, no hard feelings and I can use them for a reference. It took me five months to find another position and I was hired by an old high school friend who never did a reference check on me which I didn’t know until I was laid off from this position.This company was from another state and they just didn’t make it, I have a good reference from them also. It has been almost 8 months now without any kind of work/income. So for 2 years I have had only a handful of phone interviews. There should be no reason why I should not of had 30 jobs back to back. I have 17 years experience my resume is good. I feel that supervisor and Human Resources are giving me a bad employment reference and they’re preventing me from working. I have asked places that told me they went with other candidates if it was something I did wrong if it was something in my past and they won’t tell me. I’ve been told mainly they just went with another candidate. I don’t buy it! Is there any way that somebody out there that you may know of that could check my references for me and find out if any of these places and worked are saying anything bad. This company is known to supposedly have a blacklist and many many previous employees are in the same position I am with trying to find work, nurses doctor on different types of caregivers. Should I be telling people I interviewed with that it is a possibility that this company may not give me a glowing review and explain to them that I learned from what went on and then I would’ve done things differently by giving notice. I know as potential employees we’re not supposed to bash our former employer, but this is crap when you’re put into a situation like this and you have to BS your way, so it sounds and looks like you’re not going to talk bad and that you’re able to recognize from your mistakes. I get that and I’m even for that, but when you’re completely railroaded like I feel I was what do you do how do you handle this for the future. I’m freaking out I have a little boy to take care of I can’t even get a job and Starbucks for goodness sake’s. Any advice would be helpful and appreciated, thank you all for taking the time to read the book I just wrote LOL! I just felt to get the full Situation I had to be detailed.
    Thanks,
    K

  19. Is there a way to know if a reference gave negative feedback, despite their positive account of the conversation with the hiring manager?

    • @Chandler: If a manager somewhere were to call the reference to inquire about the applicant (check the reference), and that manager were to share the discussion with the applicant, then the applicant would know what the reference is telling people.

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