dealing with a bad job reference

A reader writes:

Earlier this year, I was part of a mass lay-off from a large corporation. At my exit interview, which was less than 5 minutes long, my manager assured me that she would give me a positive reference, and that I need not contact her to ask each time I gave her name as a reference. Although this manager and I had never had a very strong working relationship (she “inherited” me as her assistant when my previous manager left, and I’m sure I wouldn’t have been her first hiring choice), I thought I could take everything she said at the hurried exit interview at face value.

Fast forward a few months, to last week when I was extended an informal verbal job offer. They were ready to put the offer in writing, just as soon as the references could be checked. For the first time in my job search, I provided this manager’s name on my reference sheet. Remembering her mentioning not needing to contact her first, I took that to mean that she didn’t want the additional bother of my call on top of the reference call.

To my absolute horror, the news came back that she had given me an absolutely scathing review. From what little information I got, she painted a picture of the worst employee of her whole career. The hiring manager at the new company said under no circumstances could they hire me in light of this review. The verbal offer was retracted.

I’m still in utter shock, and I don’t know what to do or where to turn. I’ll never win back the respect of the almost-hiring company, but I’m at a total loss for what to do going forward. I clearly can’t ever use this manager as a reference ever again, but that leaves me without a reference for the highest level position on my resume (save for HR employment verification). I stumbled upon your blog only today, have been reading for over an hour, and wish I’d found it long ago. I have nowhere else to turn for advice, and am frankly quite afraid right now. Thank you in advance for any advice you might have to offer.

How terrible. Whether or not this manager had grounds for giving the reference she did, it was unfair of her to mislead you into feeling safe using her as a reference — which she probably did as a way of preventing discomfort for herself during your exit interview.

You mentioned that she “inherited” you when your previous manager left the company. Is it possible for you to track down that first manager and use her instead? If you worked with that first manager for any length of time, you could reasonably explain to prospective employers that she was your manager for much of your time at the company.

Additionally, you should consider contacting the HR department of your old company and explaining that you were recently informed a job offer was being retracted because of a negative reference your old boss gave you, and that this was contrary to her previous promise to you to serve as a positive reference. This will likely alarm the HR department, which is probably far more cognizant of the legal pitfalls in this area than your old boss is (particularly because you can prove you lost a job offer over it), and there’s a good chance they’ll warn her to stop.

Anyone else have advice?

{ 30 comments… read them below }

  1. HR Wench*

    What a complete jerk that manager is. I admit, I am in HR so I am biased about this situation but GEEZ! Even if the employee was a bad one the manager should never have promised one thing and delivered another. It’s just wrong on so many levels. I 100% agree with Ask a Manager’s advice, especially in the last paragraph of her answer. PLEASE alert the HR dept as to the former manager’s idiocy. They need to know what a huge risk that person is causing to their company. Prior to doing that, if it were me, I would be very tempted to contact the former manager myself and ask her (professionally of course) why she did what she did. I just gotta know.

  2. Evil HR Lady*

    I’m with HR Wench on this one. After you’ve contacted HR and found your old manager for a reference, call this woman up and ask her why she did what she did.

    People like this expect that no one will call them out on their bad behavior.

    What a nightmare individual.

    And this is another reason I don’t like references.

  3. Anonymous*

    I’m the person who sent in this question. I just wanted to thank you and your readers for the good advice and support. It calmed me down enough to take positive steps one at a time.

    The first thing I did was set about assembling a stronger reference sheet. I took this manager off it and got back in touch with some more old bosses. I wish I’d done that a long time ago, but they’re onboard now and ready to give me good references. I’ve also noticed increasing requests for “peer references,” so I’ve gathered a number of those as well.

    What I haven’t done yet is call HR to report the bad reference that caused me to lose an offer. If angered, she has the power to insist that her direct reports not to give me a good reference (or a reference at all), and one of those people is my new primary reference at that company. But my resume is drawing lots of attention, and I don’t think it will be very long before I’m safely in a new position. At that point, I’ll report the bad reference.

  4. Anonymous*

    This is a scenario I fear. I was recently let go after less than two years for a “poor fit” – reality was that I was quite competent but that I was not able to get along with this particular manager. Now that I am out looking, I found a new position that looks very promising. However, I was told that I had to give out two references from the company that terminated me for “poor fit”. To do this, I have to sign a release to allow my references to speak outside of “name, date of hire, and position”. Much to my shock, it releases not only my references, but everyone else in the company to openly speak about my performance in the company – including the manager that dismissed me. This means that any company that requires a manager’s name and contact info can get the “dirt” and I have no recourse. I am looking at a job search that went from difficult to utterly impossible. Any suggestions?

  5. Ask a Manager*

    Hi Anonymous,

    What a difficult situation. It’s usually worth a call to your old employer to ask if they’d be willing to reach an agreement with you on what they’ll say. You might be surprised that they’re willing to work with you on this. For details about how to approach this, see this post, which talks in much more detail about this topic. Good luck!

  6. FlaGirl*

    I experienced a very similar problem, in that I resigned from a job where the CEO didn’t like me for reasons I never could figure out but definitely couldn’t tie to my job performance. In fact, my immediate supervisor gave me a very nice written letter of reference. I recently had a verbal job offer, then it was withdrawn after they checked references and someone (not my boss) at the organization said that they “would not rehire” me. I was devastated because the job offer was a really good one, located close to my family. I’ve been so concerned about what to do next to avoid the same thing happening again. I will call the HR department, advise them of what happened and use the “slander and defamation” card if necessary. I know for a fact that there is no evidence in my personnel record that would support a negative reference.

  7. MMM*

    How awful!! Unfortunately I just found myself in the same situation. I don’t know exactly what was said, but it was a big enough concern that a verbal offer was withdrawn. I’m going to contact the person who gave the negative reference, but my question is, do you think there is an appropriate way to address this with the potential employer??? Is there any way to rectify this situation and gain back the job offer??? I don’t know of ANY problems with my past employers, and I have NO IDEA why I was given a bad reference!!!


    One out of three employees have either quit or got fired from their last job in the last ten years. This leaves a lot of people who cannot make a 'great' resume without praying to the employment gods that nobody will check up on their job references.

    I myself had to quit a job of almost 4 years because of a new boy manager who pushed me beyond reason. I got tired of spending half a interview trying to explain why I walked off a job.

    If you have a blemish on your resume, your best bet is outsourcing your job references. Don't let a blemish on your resume deny you a income and a life.

  9. Anonymous*

    I am in a similar situation. I lost my potential offer due to the reference. I worked for around a year in my previous company. But, I worked under two different managers for 3-4 months each. I was laid off later. The first manager is good, but he is completely not willing to give reference because he said he didn't interact with me much. 2nd manager is a horrible corrupted woman. Once I was under her management, my life in the office turned into a nightmare. I was under a lot of harassment from another co-worker, I believe this person is related to this woman manager. I told her the situation about the harassment, but this 2nd manager insisted on laying me off.

  10. Genny*

    I worked for my previous company under two different managers for a few months each. I was laid off after a severe harassment. 1st manager is good but not willing to be a reference at all because he thinks there is not much interactions. 2nd manager is a corrupted and unfair manager. I was under this increasing harassment from another co-worker who I believe is related to the 2nd manager. Because this person knows nothing about the field and her level of knowledge is lower than a sophomore. I am someone w. a higher degree and some previous work experiences in this field. But, that person is offered the same title as a I am. The 2nd manager chose to lay off me instead of that person despite that fact I told her how much I was harassed. I located a new opportunity, but after passing interviews, background check, employment verification, education verifications. The company insisted on having an ex-manager for reference. I cannot provide it. Then I lost my offer even though I have provided 4 good other references.

  11. write Congress! take action!*

    The other aspect of this is that now employers are forcing you to sign agreements for background checks and other types of agreements that allow them to dig as far as they want to into your background including checking your history of workman’s comp claims. Maybe it’s time for some new employment laws to prevent potential employers from forcing you to sign these types of pre-employment agreements. It’s turning into Brave New World were technology is in a sense “micr–chipping” people for life. I wrote my Congressmen to create laws to stop companies from being able to have applicants sign away all their rights for employment screening. It’ s one thing to run a Cori check in certain types of employment once you get a job, but now it’s becoming standard. If a background check is run they can tell everything from your friends to every job you’ve ever worked. Try lying about references then…they can tell!

  12. write Congress! take action!*

    by the way- outsourcing a reference is paying a company to give you a phony reference – like I said in my previous post- if they run a background check – they’ll figure it out because the references won’t match your background report and they’ll wonder why. Also reference companies can not say they are from your prior workplace by law they must create a fake one. So just make sure you never blink sideways or irritate a boss because big brother is watching do we really want this? Again I suggest take action take back some employee power – write Congress – it’s as fast as writing a post or reading these comments

  13. Veritas99*

    Interviewed for a new job, and gave them 3 references with my resume. Then, I was offered this dream job 2 days ago by this company. Today, the employment agency called to say they revoked their offer and cancelled the contract with the agency because they said I had received a bad reference but will not say from who. I am horrified and sickened, I have never had a bad reference before! I talked to all my refs, and a couple of potential people who could have been asked; they were not even called! The agency thinks the boss there is personal friends with ‘someone’ at my former employer and that person gave the bad reference. I called the HR Dept. to put a bug in their ear to see if they can flush out that person. What I worry more about is that it will happen again. My name is already mud with the placement agency and a few others that I told I got a job then had to call back to say it fell through. They all want to know why of course and I don’t want to say a bad ref; I know they checked with my preferred list but still. I am not even sure if this bad ref is a smoke screen for some other issue like ageism or maybe the initial offer was more money than the execs wanted to spend. Is this legal anyway, to be so fluffy about a bad reference that costs me a job?

    1. Grace*

      I have hired a reference checking service, with certified court reporters (their transcripts are admissible in court), to call
      my former employers and speak with my references and ask them questions. (The service says they’re verifying my references and they ask various questions about me.)
      I had left a job over third-party sexual harassment that was directed at the women of our office and our women clients –
      and we’d all complained.

  14. Anon*

    Feeling pushed out, under valued and insecure in my job I looked for alternative employment and was offered a really good job; 2 actually, but I could only choose one so I chose the job I thought might have more opportunity to progress into management. It was a permanent post, more money and prospects for my future; somewhere I hoped that I could settle and work long term.

    I first realized that something was wrong when there was a delay in the offer of employment letter and another of my referees was approached for a 2nd reference.

    I was contacted by HR of the new organization to be told that the job offer was being withdrawn due to a negative reference supplied by my manager. I asked for a copy of the reference, this came a week later. It was very difficult reading as the manager had made malicious statements covering all aspects associated to a job such as working as a team, colleagues and clients etc

    It has put so much strain on me and my family, not only am I without a job, I now have to explain to potential new employers why I’m out of work and looking for a new job. How do I do this without revealing the manager thought badly of me, and this will affect new job offers.

    I have had a lot of legal advice and guidance however it comes down to civil law/tribunal which cost money and the risk of further damaging my professional reputation and integrity. The organization I worked for was 3rd sector charity; there is no ombudsman or route that ensures the organization takes responsibility or can be held accountable for the managers actions, apart form the board of trustees but they are and have supported the manager robustly in fact the trustees involved are aware and condone the managers behaviour.

    Over the past 8 years I have worked hard to develop and grow personally and professionally, mostly working part time for an organization and part time self employed as a Counsellor. I have past employers and colleagues that can give me positive references but to progress I need to refer to the work I did in my last post. I feel stuck and broke!

    1. Grace*

      I don’t know which country you’re in, but in my part of the United States a letter to one’s former company XYZ on
      from an employment attorney works wonders. See if you
      can’t get an employment attorney to resolve it behind closed
      doors for you.

  15. Anonymous*

    Ok, I need some advice here. I am at a point of complete frustration with work and life at this time in my life. I will start by saying this. I have worked for Law Enforcement at a high level for my entire career. Since barely out of high school at 19, to 26 years old which I am now. I recently resigned on my own terms about two months ago. The agency that I worked for singled me out in a lot of situations. I am not going to play the sorrow violin for myself, because I made some young immature mistakes early in my career. Having said that, those mistakes would stay with me for the remainder of my career and ultimately lead to my resignation. At my exit interview, I was told by the top supervisor for my agency that I had an “open door” meaning that any time I felt I wanted to come back to that agency I was welcome. The problem I was having with the agency was that I felt it controlled my whole life in such a way that I was stressed, depressed, and had constant anxiety. I felt this way because I was disciplined and transferred to another sector 120 miles from home because of something that occurred off duty. I was intoxicated one night and could not find a ride home, so I called an on-duty police officer I was friends with to take me home. This was the alternative to driving my own vehicle impaired. When my agency got wind of it, they immediately took action and told me I violated the departmental policy on the “code of ethics”. They labeled me immature and put me on a year of demotion to a lower rank. They also docked my yearly pay $6,000.00. I struggled with this for a while and was even sick at my stomach. I felt like I was wronged and that I never did anything unethical. The agency I worked for is very big on “appearance”. Anything someone does off duty they insist is a direct reflection on the department. I was told not to return to the bar I was at that night off duty, and not to drink when I was off duty and in public. I am unemployed right now living on the pension I received for my paid leave from the agency I was employed. I recently was offered a job with a local agency and it sounded very promising. My initial plan was to get into a private sector company and out of Law Enforcement altogether. I turned down the job I was offered as a personal trainer because I was promised a job with this local Law Enforcement agency. I waited 2 months while they kept my on a string telling me “we are checking your references and we will be in touch”. I was finally called in for an interview yesterday. I have over 5000 hours of Law Enforcement training (more than 3 of their officers combined). I was “lectured” in the interview and told that I needed to reconsider working for the agency I resigned from. I was told that I received an outstanding review for my work performance, but I was “immature and failed to follow the rules”. I was a top performer in every category of every month at every place I worked in this agency. I was told in the interview that every supervisor he talked to said they would love to have me back, and they loved me to death. They offered me a non-sworn position as a detention officer for a 6 month probationary period to “evaluate my performance”. They also told me that I may not even be able to be on the road for a year to 2 years. I am deeply disturbed by this. I feel like my life is still controlled by my old agency, and that the new agency is taking their side and making me feel like I am restricted to work for my old agency solely. I turned the offer down and I am waiting for another offer now. I need some help here. If any of you were an employer, would you hire someone that received an “open door” reference from a past employer” That received an outstanding review for work performance? And lastly, would you hire someone that made a few young mistakes at 19 years old fresh out of high school? I just feel like there is a big problem with the way this was handled. Thanks for any advice.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      There’s a lot here, but if I had to guess, I’d say it’s a big problem that you haven’t taken responsibility for the mistake you made at the old job. You say there’s no ethical violation, but (1) asking an on-duty police officer to spend his on-duty time driving you home, (2) because you were drunk, and (3) didn’t think to just call a cab, which is what any non-police-officer would have had to do, and (4) presented this as your alternative to driving drunk, as if otherwise you would have had to drive drunk are all problems … and I suspect that until you understand that and are able to take responsibility for it in a genuine way, this will continue posing problems for you.

      1. KellyK*

        Yeah, I agree with this. I think it’s inappropriate use one of your friends as a ride home while they’re working. Really, regardless of what their job is, but particularly when they’re a police officer. It’s not fair to the agency that’s paying them for that time or to the public that’s depending on them to respond to emergencies.

        Usually, I’d agree with you that it’s not your employer’s business what you do on your own time, but you made it their business by calling an on-duty officer for a ride. So I totally understand their telling you not to get drunk in public. That’s not overly controlling of your life; that’s a reasonable reaction to the decision you made.

        I’m going to assume you’re not in the US, because if this happened when you were 19, and the drinking age is 21, I’m surprised you weren’t fired on the spot.

        1. Jamie*

          I’m confused by a lot of this. I don’t know how you tap into a pension at 26. I don’t understand the role of the agency – is this a security guard employment agency?

          Regardless of the specifics – a career in law enforcement will come with greater scrutiny of your personal life than most other jobs. That’s part of the deal.

          I also don’t understand the chagrin of working out a probationary period…there is a lot of missing information here – but I second the sentiments of Alison and Kelly that you need to own your mistakes before you can move past them.

          Calling an on-duty cop as your personal taxi service isn’t something for which you’d get an accolade for being safe. It’s misuse of resources. Your alternative wasn’t to drive drunk – it was to call a cab or someone not on the public clock at the moment.

    2. Grace*

      Anonymous (December 28, 2012 10:36 am)
      Why don’t you go to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings for 30-days (or more). It sounds like your drinking has impacted many areas of your life.

  16. sly*

    Can anyone give me advice please ? I resigned from my last job after 3 years as a foster carer for an agency. There were issues on both sides, which was resolved on both sides. Long story short, Both my manager and supervising social worker came to see me for an exit interview and both made it very clear in a ’roundabout’ way that they didn’t want me to leave. They both enthusiastically told me they wold give me a reference. Since then I have been offered a lovely new job based on acceptable job references. A new manager at my previous company who started after I left has given a reference on behalf of my old manager who is off sick. The reference is extremely negative and misleading , and she as good as said that if I had not have resigned that they would have tried to sack me anyway. I have of course now had my new dream job offer withdrawn. What do you think ? Would really appreciate goood feedback and advise.

  17. Lily Towers*

    Hi there,

    I am just going through exactly the same, although I haven’t resigned just yet. My move over to the L.A. was declined on my reference which is incorrect and misleading. This started because I made a complaint regarding comments that were negative and detrimental to the children in my care, which resulted in non-inclusion and discrimination. I made a complaint to the L.A. which is being dealt with independently and(Ofsted have become involved) and I am now taking action regarding my reference.
    How have you gone on since your comments?

  18. Mary*


    A few years ago, I was doing an internship with a reputable company, that I thought was going well. After awhile, my manager started treating me differently. It was after a major event that my manager could not attend on account of being sick. I took over, and made the event work fantastically. I’ll admit, my in college immaturity played some part in my inexperience in an office environment. I don’t know how to overcome this obstacle. I feel that it has prevented me from finding a good, full time job, and I had done some work on a start-up before going back into full time search. I discovered that the had an opening, and my old manager is long gone, but her opinion of me persists. How can I let prospective employers know that I am a good worker, and I’ve matured since college?

  19. Gary Stiller*

    Tell those nasty ones that they need a good reference from Jesus, so they won’t be shut out of the kingdom that will come

  20. Gary Stiller*

    If it’s an unjust reference the need to know and acknowledge, then repent. It’s not a light matter because its affects someones future and their family.

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