Fight Bad References The (Hard But) Smart Way

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flickr: Omar Omar



So you’re applying for that new job after leaving your last nightmare of a workplace. You know this new gig will be perfect for you. They seem to like you through the interviews, you love them and you’re pumped about the work…and then at the end of the last interview, the manager says, “Everything looks great. We just need to check your references…”

If you left your last gig because your manager was a tyrannical, egotistical failure, you’re pretty sure they’re not going to say anything nice about you. Could your crazy ex-boss actually torpedo your chances at this new job?

The answer is yes, of course, but how do you solve this problem? Telling your interviewer “Well, my last boss was crazy” is not going to endear you to them, even if it’s totally true.

Nick Corcodilos, author of the Ask The Headhunter newsletter, has a perfect solution.

Like most of Corcodilos’s advice, it’s not easy to implement. But it’s really the most graceful way to get yourself out of this bind.

Don’t talk bad about your boss; get your other references to do it for you.

He says:

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.

So, the new employer calls that reference and asks about 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.”

Yes, this takes effort and tact, and it might not even work. But, short of begging the bad reference to back off, there’s no better alternative when an old boss is likely to hurt you. 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.

See what we mean? Definitely not easy. But worth it for sure.