Career Doctor: What to Do When a Prior Employer Badmouths You

By Katherine Spencer Lee | November 2008

I believe I’m well-qualified for the positions I’m interested in, but I think my prior employer is badmouthing me, preventing me from moving forward. Can you give any advice on how to get around this?

Katherine Spencer Lee responds:
Though they usually don’t get as much attention from job seekers as interviews, resumes or cover letters, the right references can be just as essential to landing the position you want. More to the point, the wrong references can derail your otherwise excellent application and interview.

You may not have the luxury of choosing from a large pool of references, especially if your IT career is in its early stages. No matter your situation, getting the best results from references takes a deliberate, strategic effort. Here are some tips to ensure that your references make a strong case for you.

Choose your team wisely
If you don’t already have a list of potential references, create one as soon as possible instead of waiting for an interviewer to ask for it.The request to serve as a reference is an important one; waiting until the last minute to ask is likely to lead to an unprepared, unconvincing endorsement.

Another common mistake is selecting impressively titled supervisors or executives over colleagues who have worked more closely with you and can offer deeper insight about your skills and job performance. Don’t feel compelled to rely exclusively on former managers, especially if you think a former coworker can better speak to your strengths.

Former managers, colleagues, direct reports and even fellow members of professional associations can all be excellent reference candidates. The best ones know you well, will give a positive overview of your performance and will offer concrete examples illustrating your skills and attributes. Like your resume, a reference should provide specific examples of ways you positively contributed to the business.

Familiar references also are likely to be the most responsive to requests from hiring managers. A busy CIO who isn’t that familiar with your work – and who has numerous other reference requests – may be slow to return a call from a prospective employer, potentially damaging your chances.

While familiarity should outweigh prestige, don’t take the concept too far – your old college roommate’s glowing recommendation won’t carry much weight. Your references also are reflections of you, so choose ones who are professional and have strong communication skills.

Communicate early and often
Many pitfalls stem from a reluctance to communicate with your own reference team. This hesitancy is understandable; not everyone is comfortable asking for praise. But inadequate communication between you and your references may be the single biggest obstacle to reference success.

Remember that you are not asking for a favor – you are requesting an honest assessment from someone likely to appreciate your work. Providing references is an expected part of many professionals’ jobs, and most people will be happy to help.

Most importantly, ask every potential reference for their authorization. Failure to make this request is a surprisingly common cause of negative or lukewarm references. A reference who receives a surprise call from your potential employer is less likely to provide a helpful recommendation. Any perceived lack of preparation gives the employer reason to question your confidence in the people on your list.

If you’re short on potential references and have to ask someone who may not be enthusiastic, be willing to have a conversation about whether they can honestly praise you. Consider providing them with a "refresher" about your recent projects and contributions toward departmental or business goals. If they don’t seem willing to make your case, politely move on.

Coach the conversation
Update your references about when they might expect a call. When you’re invited for an interview, contact your references and give them specific details about the job you’re seeking and the skills required for that role. Make sure they have your up-to-date resume and you have their current contact information.

During interviews, listen for points you might like your references to mention during their conversations. For example, if the hiring manager emphasizes the need to communicate well with people outside of IT, mention this to your references, some of whom might recall your performance on a successful interdepartmental project.

Think of yourself as a coach who is preparing both the hiring manager and your references to discuss you in the most concrete and relevant ways. On your reference list, include not only the "who" and "what" (name and title) of your choices, but also a brief description of the "why." For example, "I worked closely with John for three years on projects A, B and C. He can attest to my skills in X and Y, as well as my ability to Z."

Keep your network fresh
Maintaining contact with a list of solid references should be an ongoing part of your professional networking, not a last-minute, nerve-wracking scramble. You never know when you will re-enter the job market, or when a reference might think of you if he or she comes across an attractive opening. Most importantly, if you are already in regular contact with your references, you won’t have to fear their willingness or ability to provide you with an edge over the competition.

Katherine Spencer Lee is executive director of Robert Half Technology, a leading provider of IT professionals on a project and full-time basis. Robert Half Technology has more than 100 locations in North America, Europe and Asia.