Ask The Headhunter: Dealing With an Undeserved Nasty Reference

BY Nick Corcodilos  March 26, 2013 at 10:32 AM EST


Did you ever have a horrible former boss and then worry about what that boss would say as a reference for future jobs? Nick Corcodilos explains how to proactively compensate for undeserved nastiness. Photo by Hans Neleman/Getty Images.

Nick Corcodilos started headhunting in Silicon Valley in 1979, and has answered over 30,000 questions from the Ask The Headhunter community over the past decade.

In this special Making Sense edition of Ask The Headhunter, Nick shares insider advice and contrarian methods about winning and keeping the right job, on one condition: that you, dear Making Sense reader, send Nick your questions about your personal challenges with job hunting, interviewing, networking, resumes, job boards, or salary negotiations. No guarantees — just a promise to do his best to offer useful advice.


Question: I am unemployed due to a “reduction in force” at the small start-up company where I was working. I was fired from my job previous to the start-up company. I had the worst boss in the world. I did a great job that everyone (including the boss at one point) acknowledged, but ultimately I was fired. How should I handle questions in interviews about why I left that job? I’m not certain, but if they call that employer and ask if I am eligible for re-hire, the human resources office would probably say no. Thanks for any help you can give.


Nick Corcodilos: First, remember that your most recent references from the start-up will count for a lot. Pay most attention to those. A preemptive reference could quickly solve your problem. (Please see “The Preemptive Reference.”)

Second, you need to find out what your old employer is saying about you. Please read “Take Care of Your References” for more on this. Companies are pretty careful about giving references nowadays because they can get sued. (If you believe your termination was improper, you really should see an attorney. Even if there’s no lawsuit or cash settlement, you may be able to get the company to “clean up” your file. This could mean a lot to you in the coming years.)

While your old HR office might give out nothing more than your dates of employment, a prospective employer could poke around in other corners to find out why you left the job. (HR people have informal communication channels that they use all the time.) Your challenge is to produce a couple of references from people you worked with at your last two companies who will say good things about you. That will put the story about you in context.

But, you might be able to do even more to de-fuse one vindictive boss.

I once placed a manager whose ex-boss provided this reference: “He’s a bum. He can’t be counted on, doesn’t do a good job, and I’d never recommend him to anyone.”

This individual got the job because I produced a reference who casually explained that the candidate’s old boss was a kook. After delivering positive comments, the reference volunteered, “Oh, by the way. If you talk to your candidate’s last boss, let me give you a word of advice. He’s a kook, and I wouldn’t be surprised at anything he says. He disparages anyone who leaves his team.”

To put a nasty reference in context, you might ask one reference to “provide references” about other references. This might not be difficult if your old boss is known as a backstabber. But enough about direct references.

You asked what to say in the interview about that old job, if it comes up. My advice: Say as little as possible. Focus instead on the job at hand, and introduce what I call “an indirect reference.” We’ll call that reference “John Jones” in this example.

How to Say It:

“I want to work in a company where I’d be proud to be an employee. I didn’t feel that way about that old company. John Jones has told me a lot about your company, and I’ve checked you out through other contacts. What I’m told consistently is that you value and reward hard work. I’d like to show you how I believe my expertise in XYZ could be applied to make your business more successful and at the same time provide me with the kinds of opportunities that are important to me.”

It’s critical that you develop contacts like “John Jones” — credible mutual contacts who know the hiring manager, whom you can quote, and who will stand up for you. An employer will take you seriously if people he knows and trusts recommend you. So, before you interview with a prospective employer, do whatever it takes to make those links to establish your credibility.

That’s how you preempt any negative comments from one bad boss. I didn’t say it was easy. But if you really want that job, you must do the legwork in advance to present yourself as a candidate the employer will want to hire.

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Nick Corcodilos invites Making Sense readers to subscribe to his free weekly Ask The Headhunter© Newsletter. His in-depth “how to” PDF books are available on his website: “How to Work With Headhunters…and how to make headhunters work for you,” “How Can I Change Careers?” and “Keep Your Salary Under Wraps.”

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This entry is cross-posted on the Making Sen$e page, where correspondent Paul Solman answers your economic and business questions