How to Survive a Bad Professional Reference
You aced the application and nailed the interview. They loved you! You’ve made it to the final round of applicants, or maybe the employer has already said they want to hire you. Now, the only thing standing between you and your dream job is a simple professional reference check…
Calling references is often the last step a company makes before a making a formal job offer. The final step, but certainly not a pro forma one. A bad professional reference can derail an otherwise smooth hiring process.
It is unlikely that a bad referral will come from a personal reference. There’s a reason you are use that person as a referral, right? (That being said, make absolutely sure you have a positive, solid relationship with someone before listing them as an elective reference!)
The bigger problem may come from professional references–former employers and supervisors. A bad experience at an old job, or a lingering professional disagreement can have a negative impact that ripples through your career.
So what do you do if you have a potential bad reference somewhere in your work history?
Here are a few tips:
Find out if your past employer gives references
As a policy, some employers do not give references and instead will only verify your dates of employment and formal eligibility for rehire. If this is the case for your bad reference, you’ve lucked out!
Delay the negative
If you’re concerned that your current supervisor would give you a less-than-stellar recommendation, request that this person not be contacted on your job application.
The hiring employer will probably assume that you don’t want your supervisor to know about a pending departure and will defer a call until just before an offer is made. This delay gives you time to make a good impression with the prospective employer.
Address the negative
This tactic above only really works to avoid the potential employer from talking to your current boss. If the bad reference is buried deeper in your work history, it would be inappropriate to check the “do not contact” box. You can, however, write “prefer to discuss in person.” This gives you an opportunity to get ahead of the issue and frame any potential criticisms for your prospective employer.
Outweigh the negative
If you know there’s a bad reference in your work history, try to counterbalance it with plenty of positive references. Give your potential employer a list of people who will sing your praises: other bosses, board members, vendors, volunteers, colleagues, etcetera.
Show integrity and honesty
Given our interconnected world, it is probably inevitable that a hiring manager will find out about your conflicted relationship with a previous employer.
Whether you are preemptively dealing with the situation or responding to an inquiry, make sure you discuss the topic in a professional manner. Explain the conflict in an open, honest way, without criticizing your former employer. In the end, this approach will reflect better on you, both as a person and a professional.