Don't Let a Bad Reference Stall your Career


Dear CareerDoctor,

I have been out of the formal work environment for a few years and am now trying to re-enter the workforce. I had a job interview recently that went very well, but I haven't heard anything since they said they would check my references.

I had a bad experience in my last employment that really demoralised me. I was a Master's degree graduate looking for a career in industry. In the entry-level position I eventually took, I was working with younger, boozing people. I experienced daily insults, discrimination, and lack of support. I felt I was going nowhere within the company, so I left.

I try to put a good face on the experience, but I fear that this company is somehow going to ruin my career prospects. I feel they are now giving me a bad reference. In an interview situation I can gloss over the position, but somehow I feel it would be better to mention the difficulties I experienced.

How best can I speak about this job in an interview, especially if the reference they provide will contradict my version of events?


Dear John*

It's always frustrating to miss out on a job offer after feeling the interview went great -- particularly in your case when you are trying so hard to re-establish yourself after a career break. Let's not jump to conclusions though--you haven't heard from this employer yet, so I'm going to suggest a strategy for managing your current application to what may still be a successful conclusion. However, if as you fear you were given a negative reference and your prospective employer has decided to listen to it, you will need to look at ways to minimise the damage caused by your previous employment.

Waiting to hear back from a prospective employer can seem like an eternity, but you should never lose control of the application process until the very end. Make a point of asking at the end of the interview, or the Human Resources department shortly afterward, how long it will take to receive an answer. As a rule of thumb, if after 2 weeks you still haven't heard anything, you should contact them and find out if they have finalised their decision yet.

If it turns out they have decided not to offer you the position, a recent law in the UK -- the 1998 Data Protection Act which came into force in 2000 -- gives "workers the right to have a copy of the information that an organisation holds about them," reads the Recruitment and Selection section of the Employment Practices Data Protection Code. In an interview context, "this means that when an individual makes a request for access to the [interview] notes, it must be granted unless the set of notes is so unstructured as to fall outside the Act." The Act also gives you access to a reference letter once it has been given to a prospective employer, although the identity of the author may be preserved. (You'll find a digestible summary of your rights regarding references on

Now, if you were given a bad reference, in practice I don't know how easily a hiring manager will tell you about it. So even though the law is on your side, you should be careful not to be too forceful in your request, as you do not want to burn any bridges. Perhaps you could start the conversation by asking for feedback on your CV and performance at interview. This is common practice and provides valuable information for the next job interview. Hopefully, while talking to your interviewers you will be able to get a sense of whether or not it was a bad reference that made you miss the job offer or something else. When you feel the moment is right, you may open the subject by saying that you are concerned that your reference did not do justice to your application.

Be ready to respond if your fears about this reference are realised. You must be upbeat and professional, and assert that you don't agree with how your former employer has described the circumstances under which you left. Without becoming emotional or accusing anyone directly, give your version of the facts. If the position is still open, ask if they would consider taking another reference who can give a more accurate picture of you. More on references later.

If all vacancies are now filled, say how sorry you are that this has happened as you feel you have a lot to offer the company. Be specific here, perhaps mentioning some of your better responses during the interview. Also say how much you would have enjoyed working for them, and ask if they would consider you for future vacancies. Leave them feeling that their first reaction to you (the positive one!) was correct, and that they have missed out by listening to your former employer.

Once you've done all this, take a deep breath and congratulate yourself! Your CV and interview technique are good (although you should still act on any feedback you receive), and you have handled an awkward situation in a composed, controlled manner. In fact, the only thing that seems wrong with your job searching is your choice of reference. So why are you relying on these people to support your application? At best their perspectives are out of date. At worst they are sabotaging your career.

All your references should be aware of each application you make. They should know which skills and experiences you are basing your application on so that they can elaborate and confirm these. They should also be prepared to talk about any difficult issues that may arise on your CV or during the interview. In short, references are an important part of any job-search strategy and need to be cultivated and considered every bit as much as your job search and your cover letter.

Did you contact your former employer before including them as a reference, to discuss this new position and what they would be willing to say to support your application? Did you speak to them about the circumstances under which you left and ask how they would report on this if asked? I would encourage you to have a frank chat with them, and see if you can fix the problem now that both of you have stepped back from the situation.

If after this conversation you still think that using them will be damaging to your application, you shouldn't feel as if you have no choice. You don't elaborate on what you have been doing in recent years, but I'm sure you will know someone who can comment on your personal effectiveness and interpersonal skills ? family, friends, university tutors, or people you have done voluntary work with. As I highlighted in a previous column about choosing and managing references, what you need is an accurate, positive reference. Better to have a good reference from someone with less professional impact (a former colleague or someone who knows you well) than a bad reference from your last employer.

Still, whoever your reference is, you should be open about your work history. Without knowing more about the precise circumstances under which you left, it is difficult to offer specific advice, but I'm a little concerned about the idea of "glossing over" something which your letter suggests had such a profound impact that it led you to leave.

You need to think carefully about how to describe what happened and your reaction to it in a job interview. You should be fair and honest, and ideally try and present both sides of the argument -- perhaps describing the changes that you wanted and reasons why the employer couldn't make them, but without accepting or apportioning blame. You should also focus on the positive outcome; a difficult situation is usually an opportunity to learn about yourself, and make positive changes. Working in an environment which was wrong for you may have made you more aware of your strength and more assertive.

Also, I think the fact that one factor in your decision to leave was a lack of progression is very positive -- particularly if your time out of the formal workplace has included responsibilities (perhaps through voluntary work) and managing or supporting others.

Concerns about references are common but largely avoidable. Select appropriate ones and manage them carefully. As for your previous employment, most people have experienced bad bosses or unpleasant working environments, but these things don't define you or what you have to offer. It's time to leave your former employer behind and move on to a new chapter.

All the best in your career,

The CareerDoctor

* Names have been changed.

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