How do I get around a bad reference from my last job?
April 3, 2008 6:40 AM   Subscribe

How do I avoid my previous workplace ruining my job prospects?

I was due to start a new job today. Yesterday, they phoned me and told me my offer of employment was withdrawn due to unsatisfactory references - they couldn't tell me themselves what was said in my reference as 'it's confidential to the person who wrote it'.

Of my two references, one was my previous job, the other the one before that, which I know would have been an excellent reference. I left my last job partly because I wanted to do something else, partly because I'd had performance issues after a period of illness and began to feel that however much improvement I tried to make, I would still be penalised for small issues that were not taken up with other members of my team because I'd been subject to disciplinary action. I had several issues with some of the complaints they had against me, and also that they left my disciplinary case evidence and medical history out on the office printer over the weekend (our office was staffed 12hrs per day, 7 days a week). However. when it comes to a reference I'm not given the right to give my version of things, hence my job being turned down.

I can't do anything about the job I was offered now, other than what I did do - burst into tears and then aggressively cooking lasagna for my birthday party that evening. But this may prove to be a recurring problem. I'm looking into enrolling with some temp agencies and applying for jobs at the moment, and many of them will ask for a reference from my last job. It may be possible I can put down someone I did some freelance photography work for as an employee reference as I was paid for it and it was used for publication, but it might not be. Has anyone been in this situation and how did you resolve it?
posted by liquidindian to Work & Money (17 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
(asked on behalf of my girlfriend, who frankly doesn't deserve this shit)
posted by liquidindian at 6:41 AM on April 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

You need to talk to the person at your last job which you used as a reference. Did they know you were listing them? Perhaps you need to get a reference, instead of a coworker at the last job, an outside client or someone else who will portray you in a positive light.
posted by notsnot at 6:48 AM on April 3, 2008

Visit an employment lawyer and have them send a cease and desist letter to your previous employer. Hopefully that will be the end of it. If not, your lawyer will have some ideas.
posted by grouse at 6:50 AM on April 3, 2008

The time to address stuff like this is in the interview for your new job, which is usually (in my job hunting experience) before the references are called. In most interviews I've had, they'll even feed you the line: "Why did you leave your last job?" That's the perfect opportunity for you to preemptively explain. Be honest about what happened (it is a legitimate-sounding excuse), be regretful that things worked out the way they did, and make sure you remain positive (this is NOT the time to start trashing your previous employers, even if they legitimately did screw you over.) A great strategy here is to explain what you've learned and how you've grown from what happened to you: you become not just a potential problem employee, but someone who gains strength through adversity. Try and turn it into a positive.

Even if they don't ask you that question, there'll almost always be a time when you get to ask questions or at least direct the conversation a bit, and that's when you get to try and spin things your way a little. But if you let them hear about it first from your bad reference, then you've probably lost that job.

Of course, if the interview never happens because of this (i.e., they check the references before the interview)... then, sadly, there's not a lot you can do. Job hunting can get political, and definitely isn't fair. Shake it off as best you can, make some lasagna, and move on. But you will get past this stuff in time. I was fired from my job 5 years ago (which, despite some dirty politics, was probably fair: I was young and angry and in the end, didn't work very hard or do a good job). And yes, it did follow me for a while... potential employers never loved the fact I got canned from my last job. It'll suck for a while, but once you get that next job... the last one becomes way less important. I've moved on to my 2nd job since the firing, and in the interview for this one, it didn't come up at all. Good luck!
posted by captainawesome at 7:00 AM on April 3, 2008 [2 favorites]

If you want to find out exactly what the reference said, just call them up and pretend to be a prospective employer yourself.

A lot of companies refuse to give references (they'll only confirm dates that you worked) for legal reasons, which would seem to imply that there is some kind of legal liability in giving a bad reference, so you might consider talking to a lawyer.
posted by delmoi at 7:14 AM on April 3, 2008

It's been rare for me that anyone specifically asks for references from certain employers. More commonly, they ask for 3 references (no relations). I never give them people from my current employer because, obviously, I can't have someone calling up my present boss and asking for a reference. I think this bind is so common that folks don't always expect a reference from your most recent employer. Don't offer them that one. Find others. And contact the folks you want to use beforehand and ask "would you be comfortable giving me a good reference?" Be sure to give them every opportunity to say "no." This lets them off the hook if they're not completely enthused about supporting you, and it also sends the message that you expect something really good from them.
posted by scarabic at 7:17 AM on April 3, 2008

Oh, and I'm terribly, terribly sorry. This sounds like an incredibly aggravating situation for you.
posted by scarabic at 7:18 AM on April 3, 2008

This may be of interest, reagrding your gf's access to her ref. Basically she should be able to get a look at it if it is stored electronically, and maybe in some other cases, the bottom link on the page also gives some legal guidance as to what may and may not be put in a reference. You may be able to find more on your legal rights to get hold fo references at the pages of the Information Commissioner. It's basically a Data Protection Act issue.

She may well have a legal case if they have said something misleading and she can demonstrate this, but they can give bad references if they can back it up, i.e. if its factual. If not then they are taking a rsik and you can sue them.

Some advice here on dealing with bad references.
posted by biffa at 7:24 AM on April 3, 2008

nthing an employment lawyer.
posted by onepapertiger at 7:47 AM on April 3, 2008

Captainawesome's advice is spot on; it deserves that best answer status that you've given it.

I'm in a somewhat similar position to your girlfriend. Capitainawesome hasn't however flagged the ‘chicken and egg problem’ which pre-emptively raising this issue causes. Namely that your girlfriend is going to have to flag at interview the fact that she's damaged goods. Employers hate this and tend to be risk adverse.

This means that where there is any kind of competition for a job, that your girlfriend will have already ceded a considerable head start to any other competing candidate. Mitigation strategies would need to be industry specific, I suppose. For the creative arts, perhaps acquiring a hot, new in-demand skill?
posted by dmt at 8:09 AM on April 3, 2008

You can always ask that prospective employers not contact your previous employer. This probably will not look good to them, but it could be better than them contacting your previous employer. Make sure to give a truthful, but not unfavorable sounding reason. You might cite privacy concerns, as an unfavorable reference does fall into that category, and their lack of care with your medical information does even more so. But, it might be better to go with something more diplomatic that doesn't try to completely place the blame on them. I would also make sure to add that prospective employers can feel free to contact you for proof of employment there. I suppose paystubs or tax forms would work... Or you could just contact your previous employer and let them know your prospective one will be calling, and you only want them to verify that you worked there, and when. If they go against this request, then its definitely time to lawyer up.
posted by gauchodaspampas at 8:10 AM on April 3, 2008

Call your previous employer's HR office and tell them you prefer that they not give a reference, other than verifying dates of employment. Then put it in writing by letter, too.

Get a friend to call and do a reference check. If they are really trashing you, you might be able to get their HR dept. to restrain them. You might even want to talk to your previous supervisor and say, "Look, I had some troubles, recognized them, tried to deal with them, and eventually left. I did my best, and the least you can do is give me a neutral reference." It's cheesy of somebody to hurt your job prospects.

I had a supervisor who was totally tactless, and would give what she imagined was a 'good' reference, and say rather horrible things. "So-and-so? Yeah, she doesn't have the best social skills, but she's good at writing; or Well, he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time, but he tried hard." I listed her name as previous supervisor, but gave HR's number and address, so that my written notes saying No Reference would be followed. They would only say "We are only able to verify dates of employment." I got another previous supervisor at that employer to give me a good written reference.
posted by theora55 at 8:15 AM on April 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

I recommend not explaining your side of it, and instead finding a way to sidestep having them as a reference (as scarabic and theora55 suggest).

As someone who has been in on a fair number of interviews, we look askance at people who say bad things about their previous employers. Were they truly "overly demanding" or was the applicant just lazy? Were they "hard to deal with" or does the applicant just not have the social skills? We have hired at least one person who did this, so we're not blindly following a rule, but we did briefly discuss "would this person end up with a really negative assessment of us too?"

I mean, from what I've seen, it's unprofessional even to complain (in public) in an office setting. Moreso the more formal the setting. So, if you do decide to do this, translate it into office-speak. "Over time, it became clear it just wasn't a great fit. They have someone great doing the work now." (See how concerned about their well-being you are?)
posted by salvia at 9:19 AM on April 3, 2008

Don't ever give a reference that you're not sure will give you a glowing review. You need to find people that will gush about you.
posted by nomad at 9:54 AM on April 3, 2008

But the thing is, sometimes, they force you to give the names of all your former supervisors (not as references) and their phone numbers. And they aren't actually references, but former employers that the hiring agent asks to provide you with a reference.

posted by onepapertiger at 10:23 AM on April 3, 2008

(Ex) employers have to stick to the facts when providing references, otherwise the (ex) employee is quite within their rights to challenge them legally. Most organisations do this by providing minimum information - start date, end date, right to work - or if there are specific issues, they can refuse to provide a reference; the historical practice of lengthy positive or negative personal references is incredibly rare.

I assume you/your girlfriend are in Reading, UK? If so, it may be worth her time contacting the Citizen's Advice Bureau - they'll know the full facts.
posted by highrise at 10:42 AM on April 3, 2008

I have come across this situation just this morning. My previous manager treated me like shit and instead of confronting it, I left and took another job. Since then I was successful at interview for another, more senior job. The interview went well, obviously and the reference from my current manager was good, however I was required to list the previous manager as a reference and today I had letter telling me that I was not being offered the job, with no further explanation. I have contacted the HR departments and they say I have no right to see the information and having looked around the web this seems to be correct.

Not very helpful, I know.
posted by Fat Buddha at 8:27 AM on April 8, 2008

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