Ask an Expert: I'm Afraid to List My Former Boss as a Reference

Several AOL readers wrote in to say they did not have a good working relationship with their former supervisor and they are concerned about using them as a reference on a job application. It's the classic catch 22. If you don't list the supervisor as a reference, the hiring manager may wonder why. If you do list them as a reference, the former supervisor may say something damaging to your candidacy.

What can you do? Here are a few suggestions.

  1. Contact your former human resources representative. Just because a prospective employer asks for references doesn't mean your former company will actually give one. Many companies have very strict policies about what employees can and cannot say about a former employee. Check with human resources to see what your previous employer's policy is. They may only offer basic reference information such as dates of employment and job title.
  2. Build a portfolio of other, stronger references. If you absolutely can't use your former boss as a reference, have plenty of other positive references to offer a potential employer. By showing that you have had strong working relationships with other bosses and colleagues in the past, you may mitigate the potential damage caused by one poor reference or at least be able to show that the damaged relationship was an isolated incident.
  3. Hire a reference check service. If you are worried about what a previous boss might say about you, get a reference checking service such as Allison & Taylor to do a background check for you. This was you can find out what a supervisor would say before you list them as a reference. If the reference is negative, you can have a lawyer send a cease and desist letter to top management at the company. Frequently once this is done the problem is solved.
  4. Explain any special circumstances. Sometimes difficulties with bosses occur due to special circumstances. Perhaps you fell out of favor after accumulating several absences that were unavoidable due to a family or health issue. Or you had recurring car trouble that caused you to be chronically late to work. In situations such as these, it may be in your best interest to explain the circumstances and explain that it was an isolated issue that has since been resolved and won't happen again.
  5. Stay optimistic. Frequently even if you had a poor relationship with a previous boss they won't give a damaging reference. Bosses need to be careful of saying anything that could be construed as a defamation of character, and many bosses realize that a poor relationship with a subordinate often reflects badly on them and their managerial capabilities. Often this type of boss says very little during a reference check that would actually be damaging.


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