How to Deal With Bad References

References are great when your last boss A. loved you, and B. is completely sane and wonderful. When those conditions aren't met, sometimes references can be a bit of a challenge. Here are three questions from people without perfect references and what they can do about it.

Dear Evil HR Lady, 

Q: I have a question regarding a potentially bad reference. I was terminated during my internship period at a specialty clinic. The owner has a history of terminating her previous intern as well for "personality issues" I was never given a waring or written up prior to the termination. During the internship I was able to gain extensive hands on experience in a specialty area that I would like to put on my resume. I am not using the owner as reference. From my previous knowledge of her and how she has handled business in the past, this would not be a wise decision of me to do so. I have added this internship under "professional experiences" in my resume. I have a separate area for work experience. My question is, would employers still be likely to contact that facility or would they most likely contact my previous employers?

A: Most employers contact the people you have specifically listed as references. Some will go outside. Some will ask why you didn't list your supervisor there and you can give a matter-of-fact answer, like you did in this email. No emotion. No accusations, just simply what happened and that your boss had a history of doing this. If you can find someone else from that facility to list (someone superior to you—a peer of your manager's is best) that will probably avoid any problems.

Q: I worked in a medical office for two years. The doctor kept taking more and more time off and requiring me to do work that I cannot legally do if he's not in the office. When I complained and pointed out that my license was at risk, the doctor's wife—who is the office manager—began to treat me very poorly. She yelled at me, called me a “beast!” I am a nurse practitioner and had worked for a physician for almost 2 years.

Then the doctor got sick and was out for 3 months, and I couldn't contact him at all. I'm required, by law, to have a consulting physician, but I was seeing 30 to 40 patients a day without him. I asked his wife (the office manager) for a raise, as I was doing all this extra work as well as putting my license at risk. I explained that I would have to resign, otherwise. She said I owed it to them to stay and if I decided to leave to give them time to prepare. I later addressed the situation and said I felt I deserve more money for the reasons I stated above.

The next morning she texted me "there will be no pay raise. If you do not show up for rounds today we will consider that your resignation. I suggest you explore other options." FLOORED I said "I will hand in my two weeks today. She replied "as of today I accept your resignation and relieve you from fulfilling your two weeks duties. DO NOT REPORT TO WORK TODAY." I was paid the two days I worked in the pay period and none of my 2 weeks vacation. She is also giving me bad references. What can I do?

A: There's no way around it when the office is run by a husband/wife team. Since your communications have been with her, rather than him, you don't know precisely what he'd say, but I suspect it wouldn't be good. And any reference checker that calls will get the phone answered by the office manager wife, who will say what she wants to say. This is unfortunate.

However, you have a perfectly good reason for why you left without another job lined up. Your license. You need to explain this as neutrally as possible. “I really enjoyed working for this particular practice. The patients were delightful and I was able to use my knowledge and skills to really be of service to the people of the community. Unfortunately, Dr. Jones became ill and unable to work. As you know, as a nurse practitioner, I must have a collaborating physician. Since he was unable to work, I needed to quit in order to protect my license. His wife, Jane, who is also the office manager, was very upset at my resignation. This, of course, is understandable because not only is her husband sick, but now the clinic can't see patients. I'm sick about this, but, as I'm sure you understand, keeping a license is critical! I'm afraid she won't say good things about me, if you call her for a reference, but here are the names of 3 people I worked with regularly as I did my rounds in the local hospital.”

It states the truth, it gives a plausible explanation of why the wife was so upset, and it provides different names of people who are qualified to assess your skills and personality.

However, you may find that the medical community is a small one that talks a lot. They may see your resume and go, “Wow, you worked for Dr. Jones? How was that?” in that knowing tone of voice.

Q: I was fired 2 years ago. I am a pretty senior person based on my position. What will actually happen if I were to ask a reference from the company that fired me?

I have no idea! Call and ask! It was two years ago, so unless you did something spectacularly bad, it's likely that everything will have mellowed. Call you former boss directly and explain that you're job hunting and ask him what he'll say if someone calls him for a reference. If you were laid off, his reference might be a good one. If you were fired for cause, he may be willing to do nothing more than confirm dates of service and titles.

If you don't put down your direct supervisor's name, there's a possibility that a recruiter will ony be able to call HR. Many companies have a policy against giving any references other than confirming dates of service, titles, and sometimes, salary. Managers rarely follow this policy, but HR always does. You can ask them as well.

This article is sponsored by Western Governors University, a nonprofit, accredited, online university. To find out more about WGU’s online degree programs, please visit

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