Thursday, March 22, 2007

Stressed Out by Bad Reference

I have a long question that is stressing me out. I was let go from my position of 9 months, at the end of January. I live in FL, an at-will state, so when asked why I was being let go, the manager told me she didn't feel I was improving fast enough for her, and she couldn't trust my work. This was an entry level position, and when I was hired they specifically told me they would provide training. Their training was the previous employer coming in all of ten minutes, and 8 of those minutes she spent recounting her vacation. This manager and I never really meshed, and though I tried everything, she ignored all the positive comments about me, and I believe purposely intimidated me.

Well, I am trying to move on from that, in a completely different direction career-wise, but she is still my most recent employer. I recently applied for a position, and found out through a friend of mine that the other director, whom I've never worked with, said I simply "couldn't cut it" and when asked for specifics said "well, I didn't work with her that closely but the consensus is she just wasn't cutting it." I've tried calling the managers, to settle on something, but she is not returning my calls or taking them.

I also tried getting someone else to give me a reference, but this is a very small company and the person I worked with said she didn't feel comfortable giving a reference because the manager typically handles that.

What can I do to get around this?
-- Nicole

by John West Hadley, Career Search & Career Enhancement Counselor, “Helping Job Seekers Who Are Frustrated With Their Search”

Nicole: I can certainly understand why you are stressed out! This is s very frustrating Catch 22 type situation. Despite everything, you need to find a way to take the high road and present yourself as a consummate professional who is disappointed that things didn’t work out with her past employer but who is looking forward to making outstanding contributions in her next opportunity.

Try dealing with your challenge as 2 separate issues:
1. What do I do about the bad references?
2. How do I answer “Why did you leave your last employer?"

For the bad references, even though FL may be an “at will” state, that doesn’t mean an employer has carte blanche to badmouth you to others. Many companies, particularly larger ones, have policies that state that managers should not provide references. They fear that a past employee who feels that they are being maligned may sue the company. You may be able to play on that fear to at least get a neutral response to reference requests.

Here’s one possibility: Try writing a polite, professional letter laying out your case for why you feel the termination wasn’t a reflection of your job performance and potential. Don’t bother to argue that you shouldn’t have been terminated; simply present what happened in an objective manner. Acknowledge that you understand they may have had a change in plans that made it difficult to provide the training they had intended for helping you get up to speed. Explain that you aren’t requesting reinstatement, but would appreciate it if they would cease providing negative information in reference checks, since your termination clearly wasn’t related to any performance issues. And be sure to cite the positive comments you received during your 9 months of employment.

Send the letter to a senior person (the person in charge of Human Resources, for example), and copy the manager who has been giving negative feedback on you. And indicate a date on which you will follow up if you haven’t heard from them. And if you don’t hear from them by then, and aren’t able to reach the head of HR on the phone, then you might send another copy via registered mail.

You may also want to talk with an attorney experienced in employment law to see what he/she would recommend. Perhaps a simple letter from the attorney along the same lines as the above would have the desired effect.

Now, work on your answer to the natural question, “Why did you leave your last employer?"

You need to be as honest as you can be without openly badmouthing your past employer. Think carefully about your answer and practice it with others, asking them to be brutally honest in their feedback. Work on it until you can deliver your message professionally and without negative emotions.

Provide the simplest possible answer. If the other person insists on probing further, share a bit more, but resist getting into a long story. Stay very professional, upbeat, and confident in your ability to provide great value to a new employer. At its core, your story might be something like: “The company hired me with the intention of providing training for the role they wanted me to fill. After a few months, there was a change in direction, and they decided they didn't need me after all."

If you find that you are confronted with the bad review from the past manager, you might try coming back with “Frankly, I'm surprised that she would have said that. During my 9 months with the company, I recieved a number of positive comments on my work." Then show or quote the comments that you received.

If pressed further: “I have no explanation - I'm as mystified as you are. If you don't mind, I would prefer to focus on why I would be an outstanding candidate for this opportunity."

By the way, if you aren’t successful in eliminating the negative references from your past employer, then in any interview where it may be at the point of reference-checking, you may want to reveal something about the situation before they would find out on their own. You don’t want them to think you were dishonest with them because you didn’t share it.

Finally, think about anyone else from another company who could serve as a reference to your work quality and ethic. This could be a past employer, a co-worker, a vendor with whom you worked, or even a client. Make sure to include such people in every reference list you give out.

Good luck!

For further help on your search, I invite you to check out the articles available on my website at

Susan Ireland’s Two Cents
Here’s some advice from a blogger, Andy, on how to handle the fired-from-last-job issue: Career Advice: Interview the Company:

The HR person was impressed with my openness about the matter and told me my attitude about it indicated self-confidence. Indicating self-confidence is a good thing if you're talking to a human resources person, so I thought I'd pass this tidbit along: If you've been canned, bring it up!

Andy, goes on to tell the story of how he got hired, fired, and moved on.

Job Lounger, do you have a question? Email ( it to me and I’ll post your question and an expert’s answer here in The Job Lounge.

1 comment:

Marcia, Your Confidence Coach said...

these are excellent ways to handle this. one other thing that might be helpful is to state that at your other job you were under the impression you were doing well. however, your manager did not see it that way. therefore in the future you will check in more frequently to see if you are doing what is required and make any corrrections as needed. all you want to do is get the job done and be an asset to your company.