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EMPLOYMENT ADVICE COLUMN: Handling a bad reference

Dear Joanna,

I’m very worried about the last five job interviews after which the recruiters have asked for my three

work-related references. In each case, I have been rejected and have not received the job offer. These

opportunities are exactly in my field and I meet all the qualifications required. I’m speculating when I

said that I might have bad references! How do I check this out and overcome these possible negative

references in my job search?

Signed: Reference Blockage

Dear RB

I found the best advice on as well as the employment counsellors at JVS.

When you’re looking for jobs, a bad employment reference can make or break the final job offer, even if it’s inaccurate or biased. Here’s what I would do:

1. 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.

2. Most recent job. If you use your current boss as a reference, you could be in trouble. Did you ask permission to use him or her as a reference? What was the response? What was is or was your relationship like ? 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.

3. Older Jobs. 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.

4. 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.

5. Bring in new fresh references. Find opportunities (volunteering or consulting) that can help you meet and use new and positive references. Never stop networking, even with current and former co- workers. Consider with their permission using them as references.

Hopefully you have build some solid connections with your co-workers or even a manager from another department. See if you can use them as references.


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Joanna Samuels, M.Ed., CMF, CTDP, RRP, is a certified Life Skills Coach, and certified Personality Dimensions Facilitator who is an employment coach-job developer at Jewish Vocational Services (JVS Toronto), and part-time instructor at George Brown College. EMETemployment, a division of ©Jewish Vocational Service (JVS Toronto) is a free confidential employment support and referral service for job seekers from the Jewish community.  In addition, EMETemployment offers employers recruitment services at no cost. For more information, please visit