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How to Deal with a Bad Reference

Dear Joan:

I was up for a job with a hospital; I had first and second interviews and they checked my references. Apparently one of my past employers gave me an unfavorable reference. I honestly have no clue which one because I didn't think I left on bad terms with any of them. I always gave about three weeks notice.....

The sad thing is that my current employer gave me a raving reference (I know because he told me and one of my co-workers was right next to him when he did it).

So when the H.R. person from the hospital called and told me I was basically flabbergasted! She said she couldn't tell me what the unfavorable reference was or who gave it! Is that true? If it is; how can I or the hospital, for that matter, even be sure the past employer's reference is even accurate?

The H.R. person even basically told me not to even bother applying for any more jobs there. Why don't I have the right to refute what the employer said? I'm just supposed to sit back and let that employer ruin any chance I have to better myself and my career?

Please let me know what my rights are here. I don't want to file a lawsuit or anything like that; I'm not that kind of person. I just want to know what was said and who said it. If it ends up true I will own up to it; but if it's not true I want it known by the hospital and I don't want it to happen again!

Answer: You arenít going to like my answer. If you get a poor reference, the responsibility for figuring out who gave it is yours and itís your job to eliminate that employer from your reference list.

If you choose to work with a staffing firm, sometimes they can be useful in this regard, since part of the service they provide to their clients (employers) is to pre-check references for job candidates. Be open with them about the situation, but understand if they sense any anger, or think you may retaliate in any way, they will be hesitant or unwilling to share any information with you.

Iím not surprised that the hospital didnít tell you who gave you a negative reference, they donít want to get into a he said/she said. They will simply move on to another candidate. References are confidential conversations between two employers for the purpose of checking out an employee before he or she is hired, so betraying that confidence isnít likely.

Even if you did figure out who it was and went back to the hospital with your side of the story do you really think it would make you look good? Do you think the hospital would want to take sides? They have no way of evaluating whose story to believe and they are most likely to think, "We donít want any part of this. Why would we want to hire an employee who is in a potential legal situation with her former employer?"

Itís great that your current employer gave you a glowing reference. Current employers carry a lot of weight. Hopefully you are still employed and there are no hard feelings about your desire to seek other employment. In fact, if you are doing that well, perhaps they will take steps to keep you.

Regarding the rest of your reference list, you may have some luck calling each of them and asking if they were contacted by the hospital. If they say they were, you can ask them what questions they were asked and see if they will share how they answered. In the past, when I have been a reference, Iíve been called by the job hunter to inquire how the reference check went. You donít need to go into any details about the bad reference incidentóin fact, I wouldnít say anything about it, since you could taint them for future references. Instead, your purpose would be to sort out who to remove from your list.

In the future, before you ask someone to be your reference, spend some time with that person and ask him or her, what kinds of things they would say if they are ever called. You canít guarantee they will honor their word, but it may prevent this situation in the future.

- Joan Lloyd

Do you need answers to tough job hunting questions? Are you looking for some added punch to help you stand out from the crowd? Joan Lloyd's has developed job hunting tools that can help you to maximize your job search:

Savvy Negotiation Strategies to Get Paid What You're Worth on a New Job (Detailed, special report)
Easy, Step-by-step Guide to Using the Internet to Land a Great Job (Detailed, special report)
The Resume That Opens the Door and the Interview That Gets the Job (68 page booklet)
How to Get Your Dream Job (VHS video)

Joan Lloyd has a solid track record of excellent results. Her firm, Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding. This includes executive coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, customized leadership training, team assessment and teambuilding and retreat facilitation. Joan also provides consulting skills training for HR professionals. Clients report results such as: behavior change in leaders, improved team performance and a more committed workforce.

Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (800) 348-1944,, or

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