In an ideal world, all bosses would be fantastic, and the only bad references would be for former employees who deserved the bad reference. In the real world, some managers are mean and vindictive and will set out to destroy people who were great employees.
And, let's also face it-sometimes we do screw up and deserve a bad reference, but that doesn't mean we're not capable of doing a different job better than the last one. While most companies will let you give a list of people you'd like them to contact, if your last couple bosses aren't on that list, a good recruiter or hiring manager will likely track those people down. This means that lots of people have a bad reference out there. Here are five ways to overcome these bad references.
1. Find a job in the bad manager's network.
Most horrible bosses are well known by other people to be horrible bosses. This doesn't mean that they haven't pulled the wool over a bunch of people's eyes, but guaranteed there are other people who know that this guy is a complete jerk. If you can find a vacancy in a department where another escapee from this department works (and even better, if that person is the hiring manager!) you can explain, "John Doe was my manager and..." and this person will commiserate with you.
2. Hire a reference checking firm and then send a cease-and-desist letter.
Many companies have policies against giving references at all but don't generally enforce it. But, a letter from a lawyer reminding them that the references they do give need to be honest, can generally scare the proverbial pants off them. If your former boss is lying about you, you can hire a reference checking firm to get an official reference and report back to you. If what your boss said was false, you can have a lawyer send a letter telling them to knock it off. Some reference checking firms have lawyers on staff to offer this service. It costs, but it also works.
3. Admit your faults first.
Look, we're not all meant to be in all jobs. You wouldn't want me as a security guard because I'm far too easily distracted. So, if I ever ended up as a security guard, I'd probably be like, "ooh, shiny!" and not catch the shoplifter. That doesn't mean I'm not fabulous at other jobs, where my talents lie. So, in that situation, I'd say. "I worked for Company X as a security guard, and frankly, I was lousy at that. This is one of the reasons I'm applying for a completely different job where I have a true talent and passion for the work." Then go on to explain why you'd be fabulous in the job. They will probably still call your boss, but when your boss says you were a lousy security guard, they already know that and know it's not relevant to the current job.
4. Overcome your own faults.
Sometimes you have a lousy reference from a job where you didn't do a great job, but you want to stay in the same field. But, if you were rotten at the last job, what can you do to make sure you don't repeat those same errors at the next job?
- Take a class
- Get a new certification
- Get executive coaching. (You don't have to be an executive for this.)
- Be willing to take a lower-level job with a pay cut in order to learn more.
5. Provide alternate references.
Many recruiters who will only look at your list. If you have someone from every company, that may be enough. Make sure you provide the name of someone else you worked with at that company-preferably a higher level person. Talk to these people beforehand.
For instance, as an HR person I had a direct boss who was also in HR, but I also worked closely with many senior people in different departments. If I needed a reference other than a direct supervisor, I'd choose one of the senior people who knew my work and could give a strong reference. Many, many people have relationships like that.
A bad reference doesn't have to be a career ender. Try one or two of these tips if you're struggling with a bad reference.