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Explaining A Bad Reference

By Matt Bud, Chairman, The FENG

bad reference

I am always impressed by the eternal truthfulness of the many members of The FENG (The Financial Executives Networking Group). Unfortunately, it is one of the many things about us as financial folks that gets in the way of our finding a new job.

As many of you know, I spent nine years as Chief Financial Officer of an advertising agency. I won’t say from this public platform that I worked with a bunch of liars (please keep in mind that I didn’t say this), but it often felt like those around me were lying even when it wasn’t necessary, just so they wouldn’t get out of practice.

Kind of like on that old TV show “Get Smart”“Would you believe…?”

Anyway, the issue at hand is coming up with an appropriate explanation for whatever negative experience you had at your last job. Perhaps you got into an ongoing argument with your immediate boss. (He wanted to cheat the government or the stockholders and you didn’t think it was a smart thing to do, and you fought about it.) Frankly, it could be just about any topic. The net result is that you are again in the market and you have this little hole in your resume.

Well, join the club. I was out of work for almost two years and that was followed by a five-month stint in a job from “heck.” I really was in need of an explanation for that one!

And, as one of my friends who was a recruiter would tell me, inquiring minds want to know why you left!

My first suggestion is to tell the truth. Now I am not talking about the whole truth. I am talking about the essence of the truth. (As you can imagine, we each in our own way can sure rattle on. FASB what?)

To supplement the truth, you also need to know what exactly your former boss is going to say about you. Sure, you would rather not use him as a reference, and you probably won’t list him, but you need to be concerned that someone who may want to hire you knows him, or knows others who do.

I thought I knew every method a job seeker could use to deal with a bad reference. My favorite is The Preemptive Reference. But my good friend Matt Bud has surprised me with this disarming and smart recommendation. -Nick
So, the approach is to call and ask what he will say. Don’t suggest things for him/her to say. The reason I say this is that in the heat of the moment your carefully scripted response may be forgotten. Call and ask what will be said if he/she is asked for a reference on you and carefully listen to and write down the answer. DON’T RESPOND! First of all, there is no point, and second, that is not how you are going to use it.

If asked for a reference from your most recent employer you are going to repeat the exact words you just recorded (for the person seeking the referral) and then you are going to add that they need to understand the circumstances under which you left. Don’t rattle on at length or you fall into “The lady doth protest too much, methinks” syndrome. Just be matter of fact about it. Hey, you’re an adult and your boss was an adult and you agreed to disagree. End it with, “You may call if you want to, but this is what will be said.”

If they call, there will be no surprises on the part of the person seeking the referral. This is the important part. Since you copied down the exact words, they should pretty much match with the “caught off-guard response” from that individual “with whom you spent so many pleasant hours.” Since there is no difference, their opinion doesn’t matter. You have already explained it away!


Matt Bud is founder and Chairman of The FENG — The Financial Executives Networking Group — a forum where senior financial executives share job opportunities and experiences with over 40,000 members spread across the United States and internationally.

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18 Comments
  1. Matt, an excellent approach. Works well if you had any kind of difference with a boss, even if the circumstances of your departure weren’t dramatic and otherwise explainable.

    BTW we worked together at LHS&B, first name Donna. Glad to hear that FENG is still going strong.

  2. This would be great – if you left on good enough terms that your ex-boss will even TAKE your call. I have worked with some real jerks who made it clear they would do me an ill turn if they ever were given the opportunity. Really no point in even calling one of those types, IMO.

    Others simply would just never respond to ME, but would gleefully give a bad reference if ever asked.

  3. Sounds good in theory, but question it would really work. Will the ex-boss really say the same thing, or even respond?

    Anybody ever tried, and what was the outcome?

  4. Lying? At ad agency? SHOCKED! Is nothing sacred?

  5. I was terminated from a job after a serious difference of opinion with the manager–I was ready to walk out anyway, but this way, I could collect unemployment for a few months. I had a friend call the manager for a reference just to find out what he would say. He did not say nice things, so I called him personally and threatened legal trouble. Didn’t have a problem after that.

    • @Mike: I’ve discussed your technique elsewhere. Done carefully and honestly, it’s a great way to “confirm” your references. I don’t believe in ruses, and having a friend who is a manager at another company check your reference comes close, but I think it’s a legitimate thing to do.

      Glad it solved your problem!

      • I thought long and hard about doing this and asked advice from several sources including our pastor as to whether it was ethical. In the end, I had to do what was best for me and our family to get out of the toxic situation.

    • All they will do then is when called about you say “Mike worked here from Sept. 2, 2016 to July 15, 2020 as a Director of Marketing” followed by silence.

      This is the way their company lawyers tell them to convey the message of bad/horrible reference without saying anything confirmably negative. And EVERY manager knows what this statement means: “Run – don’t walk – away from this candidate.”

      • Hank, that is not actually true in many cases. A lot of larger companies prohibit current employees from supplying references and channel all reference requests to 3rd parties that supply exactly that and only that information. I have worked for two of them.

        Problematic is when companies shut or are acquired several times–your records disappear. I’ve had both and it’s hard to get confirmation except if you’ve stayed in touch with folks.

        • @Dee: All good points!

          Then there’s your former boss who moves to a company you never worked for. How is anyone at the company you both worked for going to stop that former boss from talking a blue streak about you? As I noted in another comment above, this could be bad or good for you.

          In the end, references are a very important form of professional currency. The law is designed to prevent employers from improperly hurting your chances of getting a new job. But without references, we simply cannot judge reputations. Done right, a complete reference is a good thing. People should be proud of their good reputations, and they should worry about the bad reputations they create for themselves.

          I think you always must assume a reference will be provided, because you can never be sure it won’t.

      • @Hank: You might be surprised at how many managers will deliver a very chatty reference if approached the right way. It’s what experienced recruiters and headhunters know how to do. They’ll often get to the reference via a mutual contact who will clear the way. HR managers have back channels they will use to get off-the-record references that will never go into a file – yet hiring decisions will be made based on them, and you’ll never know.

        I don’t say this to justify or criticize such methods. Just to let you know this happens all the time. Never rely on a company’s policy or lawyers’ instructions to assume someone will not give a thorough reference about you – whether honest or not. FWIW, it’s not hard for a seasoned reference checker to tell whether a reference is honest or biased.

        • I have probably told this story before…so ignore it if you have read it.
          Years ago, I worked for a small town company that had a VERY toxic production manager and was a serious skirt chaser to the point of terminating if he didn’t get his way. The owner of the company looked the other way because production and quality was always high. Well, a woman was terminated because she refused his advances, but she didn’t care and didn’t make waves, didn’t really need the job and stayed home with the kids until they went to school a few years later. The manager said he would ruin her life and working career for the refusal. She went back to work for a friend part time and they discussed this situation so he called the company and they had no record of her employment there. HR was new and didn’t know her. Said she never worked there. She still had pay stubs and 1099 forms and tax returns proving her employment. After consulting a lawyer, she decided not to sue and move on because many friends still worked there and the company might have folded over the lawsuit and bad publicity. The manager threw every record of her work history away. In the end, justice was served, he had a stroke, ending in a nursing home and the trophy wife took everything he had and left him alone for the next few months until he died. I could fill a small novel with stories about that manager.

  6. To the best of my knowledge, I’ve only had one past employer contact one of my references. Unbeknownst to me, my reference told the employer that “I would have burned dead babies if he asked me to”. I don’t know if I should have taken that as a good or bad reference. I’ve always listed former coworkers names in lieu of problematic managers or bosses. Truth be told, I don’t think most employers even bother with references anymore, at least from my personal experience.so much of hiring appears to be subjective, do they like your looks or not, do you give them the tingles, etc.

  7. Sometimes even a GOOD reference can go south. At a previous job, one of my colleagues told me that he was looking for another job, asked if he could use me as a reference. I was happy to do this for him. He asked two of us, was interviewing, and then nothing.

    Weeks later, I got a call from someone in HR at the place he’d applied, and I gave him an excellent reference. The HR person then told me that she was very confused and puzzled; she had telephoned for another reference, and gotten a very, very, very bad, negative reference for him. Now it was my turn to be confused and puzzled; I knew the other person he’d asked to be reference for him, and couldn’t imagine her giving him a bad reference. I mentioned the name of his other reference, and the HR person said “Oh, I haven’t talked to her, I spoke with someone else.” I asked her who she had spoken with, thinking that any one of the others who worked with him would have given him an excellent reference. She had spoken with an employee in the school who didn’t work with him (never worked with him), he didn’t report to her, and she had less than zero idea of what he did, what his job entailed, how he worked. I asked HR person why she called that employee, when he didn’t list her as a reference. She said that she didn’t trust the references candidates provided, so she always went around them to get the “real references” on candidates.

    I get why this would be done, because no one is going to provide the name of someone who will give a bad reference. But the problem in this case is that the HR person didn’t know the structure of who was who, who reported to whom, etc. in the School of Nursing. At that point, I had an honest conversation with her, told her that my colleague didn’t work with the Nursing staff member she had randomly contacted (and it was random–the HR person said she’d gone online, looked at the names of staff in Nursing, and deliberately picked anyone EXCEPT the name of the person he’d provided, and spoke with her for the “real deal” on him). I told her that this person was the very last person in Nursing who would be able to provide any kind of real feedback on him because she didn’t work with him, he didn’t report to her, she had no idea what his job entailed, much less whether he performed it well or not. I also told her that she was the reason he was looking for another job–he’d been promised that he could work from home a couple/few days per week, and this other person had a fit because she wasn’t allowed to work from home, so she did everything in her power to sabotage that agreement, and she was successful (my colleague’s boss reneged on that agreement). And now she was doing even more to hurt him professionally.

    The HR person was silent after I’d finished my say, and I told her that she should talk to someone from Nursing (I worked in Public Health), preferably a colleague of his who actually knows him and works with him, and who can add something of value that will help you make a decision re whether to hire him or not.

    Then she told me that she’d called other people in Public Health before calling me, and almost didn’t bother with me, because none of the other people in Public Health even knew who he was, so she figured he’d lied about his employment there. I asked her who she called, and once again, she’d randomly chosen a faculty member with whom he never interacted (even I never met that professor), so it makes sense that he wouldn’t know who my colleague was. The other PH person was the same–didn’t know him. I explained why these people wouldn’t know him, and reiterated that this has nothing to do with him, just that the school is big, spread out in several buildings, running different programs. As for Nursing, the reason the faculty she contacted re my colleague didn’t know him was because they didn’t interact with him either (they only taught in-person undergraduate courses, while my colleague was the staff member handling the online master’s level program and courses).

    Simple explanations, yet HR’s decision to go around and seek out other references almost sank my colleague’s candidacy because another employer’s HR didn’t know the structure (who reported to whom, who did what, and especially, who was nursing a serious grudge/had an axe to grind).

    The HR person did call the people he listed as references, and he did get the job. But he almost didn’t–the HR person told me that she only called me after striking out with contacting other people in PH who were randomly selected by HR. I was the last resort, the last person she called, and I should have been the first one. Ditto for Nursing reference.

    I did tell him what happened, and he was even happier to be leaving before the nasty Nursing staff member could do any more damage to him. And she wasn’t on his list of references!

    • Marybeth, good to hear your war stories again from the trenches.
      I learned late in life to never underestimate the muscle of a simple letter from an attorney when dealing with malicious libel and slander from a former employer, or in other issues in life. It may set you back $200 or so (we’ll, at least where I live, probably more in Massachusetts). Money well spent.
      If anything, it shows you took the effort, and dropped some dime, to let some doucher (pardon my French) know they’ve crossed a line with you. While I’ve not done this specifically with a former employer per se, I’ve known others who have, and it was successful too. I had a former colleague (a good worker) who had his girlfriend call a previous employer for a reference who he suspected was trash talking him, and preventing him from getting new positions. Sure enough, they slandered this guy horribly. His girlfriend recorded the conversation, then called back the former employer, and played the conversation back to them, telling them that they were pursuing legal action. While the validity of this action may not have held up in civil court, just the same, this employer did get a wake up call, for whatever that was worth.
      I’ve actually heard some (small mom & pop) ex-employers give horrible references on several people.
      One wonders if such trash talking is accepted by new perspective employers, or if cooler heads prevail, and it’s dismissed as sour grapes from a former employer/boss.

  8. I got to thinking, it would also depend on if the bad reference was on you or if it’s really the boss is just a jerk.

    For instance, if you did something stupid and got canned or did something bad when you were young and foolish, it’s going to be harder to fight off that bad reference.

    On the flip side, if the place you left was toxic (and possibly might be notorious for being so in the industry) and if you can get several co-workers to vouch for you as references, you may be able to counter a bad reference from a toxic boss or someone who has an axe to grind.

    • “If the bad reference was on you, or if it’s really the boss is just a jerk”. Either way, truth be told, most employers will forget you ever existed, or worked there soon after you left, if not immediately, and either if you left voluntarily, or involuntarily. Been there, done that, and seen it done to others. People worry far too much about employers. Now I’ve seen some low-life’s try, but generally, unless it’s one of their buddies at a new perspective employer’s, their references are flatulence in a whirlwind!

  9. The BEST thing about moving on after a bad job/boss experience is that you get to build new and hopefully better relationships and gather new references.

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