Ten Tips for Handling a Bad Job Reference

It is a common misconception that your former employer cannot say anything negative about you. Here's the deal.

Andrea Barger |
Andrea (she/her) is our head of PR at Snagajob, where she’s focused on telling the world how we help hourly workers and employers. Her first hourly job was as a lifeguard.
Categories: Career Advice

Maybe you’ve lived vicariously through a friend who was quick to tell you that “a bad reference cost me a job,” or perhaps you’ve experienced a bad reference yourself and don’t want to face the terror again. Either way, you’ve come to the right place.

Bad job references aren’t as ambiguous or uncommon as they might seem. Can a past employer give a bad reference? Absolutely. Is it illegal to give a bad job reference? Nope. Sure, there are “rules,” in that a past employer can’t disclose confidential information, but other aspects of your job experience can still be shared.

Here are ten tips for handling murky job references.
1. Choose your references carefully
The best way to prevent a reference-gone-wrong is by choosing your references carefully. Now, there is a caveat to this: most prospective employers will ask for 3-5 references. If you only list people from old jobs instead of your most recent position, an employer might get suspicious.

Better yet, they can call that job’s HR department to verify past employment and that you left in good standing with the company. If you’re positive that something bad will be said about you, then you certainly don’t want a potential employer walking into this situation blindly.

While you typically want to choose references with leadership roles who can speak to your talents, you might also consider choosing a trustworthy colleague as a reference from the job you’re worried about.
2. Always keep your references in the loop
Make sure to ask your former supervisors and/or colleagues for permission before using them as references. This practice will also help rule out anyone who doesn’t want to serve as a vote of confidence for you.

While that might seem discouraging, it’s actually better for everyone involved. Think about it — if things didn’t end well, does your previous boss really want to dwell on them anymore than you? It’s much easier to just say “no” instead of having to go through with a reference check.
3. Be honest with yourself
Alright, what happened. Was it you? Was it your employer? Are you blowing this out of proportion? Are they? Regardless, you need to be honest with yourself. Trust us, it will only help you in the long-run.

It’s kind of like coming to terms with a breakup, right? You admit what went wrong (whether it falls on you, your ex-partner, or both) and then move on. A better understanding of the situation let’s you avoid it in the future or, in the case of a potential job, talk about the conflict with grace, ease, and goodwill. A bad reference isn’t necessarily the end of the world, but how you handle the aftermath depends on whether or not you’ve been honest with yourself from the get-go.
4. Be honest with your potential employer
Similarly, your potential employer doesn’t want to be blindsided with the news of a failed employer-employee relationship at your previous company. This is particularly disheartening when you nail an interview. You’re excited, your prospective employer’s excited…

...and then comes the reference check. In a matter of minutes, you’ve gone from the top of the hiring list to the “Do Not Hire” stack. Had you admitted to your interviewer ahead of time that there might be some shakiness from [insert manager here], you’d’ve had a better chance at still getting hired. Honesty goes a long way when it comes to securing a new job.
5. Improve your performance
Was the problem a matter of performance? Improve it. There’s no shame in admitting you weren’t ready for the job you held. Maybe you need more training or an online course that can help you develop stronger skills in your target industry.

If you’re planning on staying in the same industry and skill deficiency was an issue, then building your skill set for an improved performance is crucial. If your last employer deferred to “This isn’t a good fit,” don’t be afraid to call and ask for honest details. Just be respectful: “I’m applying for a new position at ABC Company and want to make sure I’m as prepared as possible for the job. Can you give me a few tips on how I can improve?”
6. Leverage negative remarks to your advantage
There’s always the special case of a demonic former boss who was two cartful’s of crazy. He hired you to do one job, then tasked you with something completely different. She wouldn’t let you do your job because she preferred to do it herself and then claimed you were being unproductive.

Sometimes we just...don’t get along. That’s okay. If appropriate, leverage negative remarks to your advantage. Be open, honest, and explanative with a potential employer. If a reference claims that you “didn’t get the job done” but, in reality, your hands were tied, make sure to bring this up! You’re a hard worker but, unfortunately, Mr. Past Boss didn’t give you an opportunity to exhibit your hard working characteristics.
7. Hash out your differences with a past employer
Peace is good, and you’d be surprised how many people believe in “water under the bridge.” If enough time has passed and you’re comfortable with it, give your past employer a call. Politely rehash the situation and offer your perspective. Ask for theirs. Remedy your differences.

If those differences were completely a result of your own actions, explain to your past employer how much you’ve changed. Rekindling this relationship might help you in the future, especially if you need to use this employer as a reference on job applications.
8. Hire a reference-checking service
If you’re really worried about a past employer’s opinion and unwilling or unable to remedy the relationship, you can always hire a reference-checking service to do a “test run.” This way, you’ll know exactly what your old boss or the company’s HR department is going to say about you if asked.

And if said information is...not so great...you’ll have time to prepare a prospective employer for the news.
9. Correct inaccuracies with the company’s HR department
Let’s look at the glass half full: 9 times out of 10, an employer is not going to dish dirt on you just to dish dirt. While they’re legally able to dispense any non-confidential information about your past performance, they can’t just say anything without proof. Not to mention, saying untrue things about you without having anything to back it up will land them in a lot of hot water.

No one wants a lawsuit over defamation of character. However, if for some reason there are notable inaccuracies in a past employer’s reference, quickly amend these with your prospective company’s HR department. Review the reference in full, explain the situation, and make sure that the facts are all facts.
10. Learn from any mistakes
At the end of the day, your references are all people. People disagree with each other. Arguments happen. Personalities clash. It’s part of life. The best thing you can do if you’ve suffered a bad job reference is to learn from your mistakes.

More likely than not, there’s something you could’ve done better. Being able to pinpoint and accept this is a key component of professional growth. We all make mistakes, but those of us who don’t make the same mistakes are the ones willing to learn from them and be better for it.

A job search is stressful enough without having to worry about a bad reference. If you find yourself in a sticky situation, take a deep breath and don’t let it dissuade you from applying to the job you want. References are part of the equation, but not the full formula. Follow these tips, and you’ll be okay.

Do you have more questions about job references? Let us know in the comments!