We discuss references here periodically — most recently, in We don’t need no stinking references.

While many companies dismiss references as an afterthought, and job hunters think they can get by without them, I believe references are the coin of the realm. Employers shouldn’t hire anyone without checking them (though by “checking them,” I don’t mean that rote telephone query most HR folks make), and job hunters should be suspicious of any company that doesn’t check them.

In the January 18, 2011 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader worries about his last boss torpedoing him.


You’re supposed to say, “I left Company A because I wanted a more professional environment,” when the truth really is, “Company A fired me because we couldn’t deliver a product and because the boss refused to invest in some critical tools and training.”

When a reference says, “We fired him because he wanted some expensive training, and couldn’t learn certain technologies,” that leaves a person who is trying to leave an unprofessional environment in a terrible position. Any advice in dealing with that? Or are people basically doomed if they work for a scum-bag employer who doesn’t treat them like professionals?

Nick’s Reply

Here’s the short version of my advice: (For the entire column, you need to subscribe to the free weekly newsletter. Don’t miss another edition!)

This is where other references come into play. A reference call is about you, but if it is handled deftly, it can also be about your other references.

At least one or two of the references you provide to the new employer should be (other) managers or employees at your old company who know the old boss’s attitude and behavior. Make sure they know the old boss might try to torpedo you.

The reference explains you did a good job, discusses your skills and talents, and endorses you. Then the reference explains how unfortunate it was that the lack of necessary tools and resources made it impossible for you to do the job you were assigned.

“I felt bad for the guy. He used all his skills to work around the lack of resources, but I’ll be frank with you: His boss found it easier to blame him than to buy the tools we needed. I think it’s a shame the company lost a great worker due to poor management. I’m going to miss working with him, but our loss is your gain. If you run a good operation, this candidate will do a phenomenal job for you.”

The reference counteracts the half-a-story that the old boss provides. This is subtle, and you must handle it with care… You cannot count only on your boss to be your reference. You might be surprised at what helpful references your associates can be, if you tell them the whole story.

I’ve used this method when delivering references about my candidates to my clients. I don’t try to hide the bad reference. But I make sure to provide a reference about the bad reference, who in turn casts doubt on the negative comments, and reinforces the candidate’s better qualities.

Put an unavoidable negative reference in context, and help a new employer see you in a positive light.

Sometimes you know that a former boss is going to torpedo you on a reference call.

Should you try to prevent a company from calling your old boss? Sure, but the call might be placed anyway. Your objective should be to counter the bad reference by providing references about your references.

Have you ever done that? Have you cultivated professional associates who would stand up for you in the face of such an attack? If not, start now. How have you prepared to defend against unfair negative references?

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  1. Very good advice, Nick!

  2. Good idea!

  3. Nick, another preemptive strike is to utilize sites such as LinkedIn for positive recommendations from present and former colleagues.

    The other issue in this discussion is the ability of someone with a grudge to post negative comments about you via social media. Which further reinforces having a few others online ahead of time to show the hiring authority.

  4. Always good advice to cultivate other sources for references because people come and go and can’t always be reached. A few of my mentors have passed away through the years.

    And some organizations have policies against giving specific information.

  5. Just a thought: Sometimes, the old boss was right and the job seeker is rationalizing. I have to wonder if the job-seeker who wrote in has been brutally honest with himself about what happened.

    If that is the case, the challenge is different: How to acquire that level of self-knowledge, and how to then use it as a strength in an interview. For example:

    “At the time, I have to tell you I was pretty angry at my manager. I asked for some fairly expensive training, he turned me down on the grounds that he thought I should either know how to do the work or should take responsibility for learning it on my own, and from there our working relationship went from bad to worse.

    “In retrospect, I don’t think I made my request as effectively as I could have, and when he turned me down I let my resentment get the better of me instead of doing everything I could to master the technology. Some lessons are more expensive than others, I guess. I’ll just tell you, that’s one mistake I’ll never make again.”

    This would be as high-risk an approach as I can imagine. On the other hand, for some job seekers there might not be any better alternative.

    Especially if a job seeker’s best references are people who come across poorly enough that when they say something good, it’s a negative all by itself. (Extreme case: “Oh, yeah, Bob’s a great guy. What a party animal! I once watched him finish an entire case of beer by himself in an hour, and you wouldn’t have known it by looking at him. Or at least, I couldn’t, but I was pretty wasted myself, dude.”)

    Not offering this as advice so much as the starting point for a discussion.

  6. It is important to make a distinction between reference checking and employment verification. Most companies have strict policies regarding who can communicate with prospective employers about former employees. Quite often this is an HR function only, and they may not respond to phone calls, requiring a request in writing, sometimes with a copy of the candidate’s signed release.

    We have had clients who have had difficulty getting around a former supervisor whose negative comments were undermining their job searces. Giving the name of someone in HR in place of the boss’ has worked in many cases.

    I recently did an informal survey of 12 HR managers. In all cases, only an HR rep was allowed to speak on the company’s behalf. All would only provide dates of employment and title(s). Only one of the 12 would respond to the question ‘Is the employee eligible for rehire?’

  7. @Chris Walker: Very good information “from the trenches!”

    Providing an HR name as a reference is a good way to try to avoid a manager’s negative comments, but I don’t think many hiring managers would would accept that. But since HR often does the reference checks, HR might not mind talking to HR!

    While many companies have policies that forbid anyone but HR to provide references, most managers I know will do it, though carefully. I find that the more seasoned the manager is, the less likely he or she is to “follow all the rules.” To many managers, references are an important part of doing business. After all, they’d like to get candid references about people they’re going to hire.

    Which oughta tell you something: Unless a manager really wants to torpedo someone, they’re more likely to decline to give a reference about someone they don’t respect (i.e., “citing the rules”), and more likely to give a reference for a former employee they like. Then there are managers who toe the ethical line: They may ignore HR’s rules, but they will provide an honest reference, one way or the other.

    You just may not know what kind of manager you’re dealing with. So all these ideas are important to consider.

  8. I had a similar experience as a contractor for a tech company. I was handicapped due to restrictions on documentation, tools, and general access because I was not an official employee, for a very complex computing device. Yet I was expected to fix bugs right off on a system I knew hardly anything about. So I was terminated a little over two weeks later because I wasn’t “learning their systems fast enough”. Despite 25 successful years experience working on computing systems. But no one at my earlier “permanent” jobs expected me to start pulling rabbits out of a hat right away, because as former engineers, my managers understood there is a learning curve.

    Luckily, the brevity of that incident let me ignore it during my subsequent, and successful, job hunt.