Overcoming Bad References

Q: I got fired a few months ago, and I think my references are getting in the way of me landing a new job. What should I do?

First, let’s look at this from the other side of the desk. The worst job any manager has to do is to terminate an employee. Termination is not only a distasteful job for a manager; it’s an admission of failure to hire and manage productively; something that doesn’t look good on their performance reviews. A manager who consistently makes bad hires or who loses employees through poor management skills or because of inadequate performance effects his own reputation. Think of the analogy of the coach of the ball team. Ultimately, that poorly performing team will result in the coach losing his job. It never happens without warning and, like it or not, you had some role in the termination and bad reference.


So, if you have been terminated with cause, the first step is to take responsibility for your actions and recognize your own role in the events that have occurred. If you don’t take responsibility for inappropriate performance or behavior, the result will be continuing terminations for cause and a truncated career that ultimately will make you unemployable in your chosen profession.

If you can take responsibility for your actions, you have a chance to clean up the mess and move forward. If the reader can recognize that the manager had to terminate him, perhaps because of excessive tardiness and time off, he may be able to go back and clean up the situation. But it does require a clean understanding and acceptance of the causes of your dismissal. Given that, you can call up the prior employer/boss and say something along the lines of, “Mr. Jones, this is Mark Stevens. I’m sure you remember that you had to terminate me about eight weeks ago. I’m calling to apologize. It was a very awkward situation at the time, and I really wasn’t taking responsibility for my actions. I’ve had time to think about it, and I realize that you really didn’t have any choice in the matter. So I wanted to call and let you know how sorry I am for what happened and to let you know that looking at the situation calmly, I had a great opportunity working for you and I really gained a lot from the experience.”

Almost any manager will accept such a mea culpa. You can then go on to ask, “Mr. Jones, I’m looking for a new job, and I’m wondering what you might feel comfortable saying about me in a reference that won’t stop me from getting a new opportunity.” You have a good chance that given your recognition of wrong doing, the manager will give you, if not a glowing reference, one that at least won’t stand in the way of you getting a fresh start. When you do get that fresh start, it’s important to have learned from your mistakes and to change the behaviors that have plagued your career up until this point.

On a practical note, we should also recognize that references don’t get checked nearly as frequently as we might imagine. First of all, employers need your written permission to check your references (1972 Fair Credit Reporting Act). You normally give this permission when you fill out an application form and affix your signature to the bottom above that tiny block of type you can’t read.

So, not only does an employer need permission to check your references, they have to find the time to actually do it. In a post 9/11 security conscious world, employment and salary verification, professional references, along with criminal and driving records are increasingly checked. Today, offers are typically made contingent upon completion of thorough background checks. It’s important to know this because any fudging of employment history or untruths about your salary is cause for dismissal, and then you’re in the same boat as our reader who got dismissed for cause; and just as you need to know your financial credit history, you need to verify your professional “credit.”

If you are concerned that references or background checks in any of these areas might be dogging your job search, there is something you can do about it. You can get your own references checked for you. Such a check will tell you how many calls it took to get through, the tone of voice of the reference and their answers to a comprehensive professional or executive reference check.

When you check your references, 50% of the time you’ll be able to set your mind at ease. If on the other hand, there is something being said about you that’s clearly impeding your search, you will know what it is and be able to strategize tactics to overcome or circumvent the problem.

In cases where the reference is unwarranted, you’ll have objective third party verification of the situation, and some ammunition to seek counsel, if conversation fails to serve.

When you do discover problems, move slowly, carefully and diplomatically and a good percentage of the time your reference problem can be solved.

Join Martin every week to learn more about writing a killer resume, getting more job interviews and turning job interviews into job offers at his free weekly webcast, Mondays at noon central. Details: http://my.knockemdead.com

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  • Anonymous

    I know this post is almost 2 years old, but I find my self in this very situation- “unemployable in one’s chosen profession” I am a Nurse by profession and have been for 32 years years. Way back in the day we were taught ethics, credibility, do what is right and do what you learned correctly. I have seen over the past few years- an anything goes practice in nursing, its a do what ever will get one out of doing something the correct safe legal way because that is too much work. I have spoke up to the person doing it and that is what is being considered”bad behavior” I have seen delays intreatment because of either not enough staff, don’t know or just plain don’t want to know, I speak up and I am the one canned. I also find that when I speak up to my boss- my boss doesn’t know it was wrong!! I don’t go out of my way to report things, I speak up when my back is to the wall with the boss. I had foun myself almost panicing when I do find something wrong, for fear my own ethics are going to come in conflict with what I know will be the out come when I do report. I might add that Nursing is a female dominated profession- the females who gravitate to nurse are the ittle people who want to feel important. I have since gone back to get more college education but I suspect this will not help but only make the feelings of some little nurse feel even more threatened. I can’t help what I know and I am sick and tired of apologizing for it but I also need a job.I am damed if I and damed if I don’t. and unemployable
    Unemployed RN