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Could a 'dodgy' reference stop you getting your next job?

Frank Hutton
Mr Burns

This is something that has often come up in my work over the years and curiously it has happened twice in quick succession recently.

Imagine a scenario. You left your employer a little while back, maybe the job before your current one, not under a cloud or for any major disciplinary issue, but really because you were finding it increasing difficult to get on with your boss.

Perhaps your company was taken over and a very different style of management arrived. Perhaps there was a change of personnel and your face just didn't seem to fit anymore. Whatever the reason, you've now got yourself a job offer at a new and shiny company. All good.

You know your most recent work reference will be fine, but what about the one from the boss you didn't like much? Maybe the feeling was mutual. Might they spoil your chances of nailing this job?

This puts you in a quandary. Should make some excuse? What can you do to avoid losing this job offer?

Here's some simple guidance:

  1. Providing references for previous employees to potential new employers is a minefield for anyone. Many companies and organisations (especially larger ones) are very reluctant to give anything more than the bare minimum to confirm someone's dates of employment and maybe their title and responsibilities. This is because they are open to challenge (legally) on two sides: from the new employer if the reference proves inaccurate or a blatant untruth (i.e. being too complimentary about the person); and from the employee if the content of the reference is judged malicious or detrimental without factual support. This tends to lead employers to be very careful indeed. Unless you have some real skeletons in the cupboard  i.e. gross misconduct or examples of dishonesty, don't panic. I'd get some specialist advice if this is the case though.
  2. Most reference requests are quite specific in the information required e.g. sickness, disciplinary record, periods of employment and are often directed towards the HR department or person in charge of staffing. When providing names of referees consider using this route anyway. They will answer accurately and impartially.
  3. If the HR route is not available (for instance when the company is smaller), provide the name of the top person in the company rather than your immediate boss. It's possible they may pass it downwards but it may ensure your ex-boss thinks twice before making an impassioned or inaccurate response.
  4. The reality is that many companies don't follow up references as it seems too much of a bother. They've already made a recruitment decision and it will be a pain to reverse it and start again. Some do make 'informal' inquiries at an early stage if they know someone at a previous employer. They should not do this but they sometimes do. There is little you can do to prevent this. But it's rare thankfully unless you work in a very small industry.
  5. Finally, most bosses are not actually that vindictive. Some may be incompetent; others may be downright difficult; but few of them, especially a year or so on, have either the energy or time to spend causing problems for you. You may even be surprised to discover that they appreciated certain qualities in you but they never got round to telling you.

Many, if not most, people leave their jobs because they felt they didn't get on with their boss. But don't be concerned about it affecting your future. Even if you do receive a bad reference, then it's possible your prospective employer will query this with you first and ask for your comments.

If you have any experiences regarding references, good or bad, I'd love to hear them.