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Career Articles > Articles > Bad bosses become bad references

by Terra L. Dourlain, President of Faith, Winter & Grace, Inc.

Does power corrupt or do some people simply turn evil when they are given a managerial role?

We’ve all seen it and most of us have unfortunately experienced it – a bad boss.

Whether your employer is oppressive, ill-mannered, intolerant or even emotionally disturbed, we spend far too much time at work to put up with the stress caused by a bad boss. Typically, the decision to move on and get away from this environment is easy. The hard part is actually doing it and securing another position especially when you consider that this bad boss will be called upon by prospective employers to learn more about you. The reality is that this bad boss is about to become a bad reference.

So, how can you handle this?

Any career management expert will tell you that it is always best to stay employed until you have secured another position. In the case of having a bad boss, this is even more important. You see, a prospective employer will want to speak with your previous bosses whether you list them as references or not. If you are still employed then you can request that your current employer not be called until an offer has been extended. Using this strategy, you can hopefully avoid or at least delay this potentially damaging conversation.

But what if you can’t stay employed?

What if you blow up and walk out?

What if you are asked to leave, are asked for your resignation or are fired?

Now you can not avoid it – your bad boss is now likely a bad reference. But, are you sure?

First, do not assume that this person will give you a negative reference, a positive reference or any reference at all. Many candidates are under the false impression that it is illegal for a past employer to negatively comment on a former employee. The reality is that whether it be legal or not, it goes on everyday. Likewise, many candidates feel that they are protected from being given a negative recommendation by the company policy. Face reality. Company policies are enforced about as much as speed limits. If we do not see a police officer sitting on the side of the highway with a radar gun (and we are running late) we speed. Nothing happens, in fact we get to where we are going on time.

What can you do?

The key to handling a bad separation / a bad reference from a previous company is to not over or under explain the situation to a prospective employer. To assume that this previous employer is "blackballing" you, could be your own undoing. You see, if this past employer is not "blackballing" you, then you are actually bringing up a negative subject to a prospective employer unnecessarily. Likewise, to assume that a negative reference would not be given could be damaging if your past boss is indeed providing uncomplimentary statements as you would not be properly defending yourself.

Knowledge is power. It is important that you learn what this bad boss is actually saying about you. Some level of confidence could be gained by meeting with this individual and asking them what will they say. Current employees of this organization may also provide insight as to how this employer handles calls about you. Additionally, many job seekers take a more aggressive approach and hire a reference checking firm to track down what their former bosses and colleagues are really saying about them.

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