Don’t Let a Bad ‘Back Door’ Reference Stand in Your Way

When asking former co-workers and bosses about your previous performance, skills, and work habits, hiring managers don’t have to stick with the references you provide.

Thanks to the proliferation of professional networking sites, virtually nothing can stop a prospective employer from calling any of your former managers, co-workers or connections to verify the information in your résumé.

If you’re worried about what might happen if a potential employer starts “asking around,” here are some ways to shut down a potentially damaging reference from an “unofficial” source. 

Control the Narrative

Since everyone you’ve worked with is fair game, try to identify the people who are most likely to offer unflattering feedback if contacted. It could be someone you didn’t get along with, or a former supervisor who was highly critical of your work.

“Review your mutual or shared connections with the hiring manager or prospective colleagues to identify who in your network might be called as a back door reference,” noted Deb Feldman, co-founder of Gray Scalable, a provider of recruiting and HR consulting services for startup and growth-stage companies.

Once you’ve identified some potential sources, attempt to control the narrative and minimize damage. If you haven’t kept in touch, reach out to your former manager or colleague and suggest that, even though you haven’t listed them as a reference, they might be contacted.

Re-initiating and maintaining contact with former colleagues can help you keep your relationships warm, advised Ray Bixler, president and CEO of SkillSurvey. “People’s perceptions change over time,” he explained. “You can help that process along in a cordial way by either walking back something you might have said, or talking about how you’ve refined your skills through new experiences, training or certifications.”

Remind your colleague about your strengths and the things that went well on your watch, such as a dramatic reduction in the frequency of bugs or coding errors. Proactively reframing prior events or conflicts can help change someone’s view of your failures or interactions from negative to positive. This technique (which is often used by professional mediators) assists in clarifying and de-escalating conflict, and also lets your former colleagues know that you are moving forward and growing.

Frankly, most managers don’t want to expose the company to liability for defamation, or disobey reference policies, so they are willing to provide a neutral or balanced account. Keep in mind that if you are terminated or laid off, it may be possible to negotiate a positive recommendation as part of the severance process.

Getting In Front of It

You can also use the interview process to get out in front of a potential negative reference. For instance, if you’re asked about your biggest mistake or failure, prepare to offer specific examples of what you’ve learned or how you’ve grown personally and professionally.

“If you admit that you’re not the same person you were two years ago, stories about negative interactions or poor performance from past colleagues and managers may sound like old news,” Feldman noted.

Self-disclosure is a “micro-skill” that employers value because it requires self-awareness and builds trust. Hiring managers are more likely to give the benefit of the doubt to candidates who are able to recognize their weaknesses and work to improve them.

Balance Negative Reviews with Positive Ones

If you utilize these techniques, but you’re still worried about what your former colleagues might say, try to offset negative reviews by garnering a host of endorsements and positive comments from current and former teammates. Since an endorsement is a two-way street, volunteer to write some recommendations for your connections before asking them to reciprocate.

You can also provide letters of recommendation to prospective employers, or an extensive list of references who will vouch for your qualifications. That may help swing the sentiment pendulum in your favor.

Finally, consider removing a hostile contact from LinkedIn or other networking sites. Cutting ties with an unsympathetic colleague may limit backdoor reference inquiries from a prying recruiter or prospective employer.

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One Response to “Don’t Let a Bad ‘Back Door’ Reference Stand in Your Way”

  1. Good advice. A few decades ago, when I was young and naive and working as a hardware engineer and general all-around electronics tech, I worked for a friend. My friend sold ‘his’ company to some new company. Suddenly, I went from a 10-minute commute to a 60-minute commute (longer if it had snowed overnight), and I found myself constantly putting out the fires inherited by the new ownership, a long-established company, that had aquired the little company I had worked for. Cut to the chase, as every one of us from the old companies employment contract ended, we were each dismissed. Eventually, I found out that the new ownership always gave as negative a reference as possible for us, and for workers that had long-since left the company even before that acquisition. That big company eventuallly went out of business. I went on to returning to universities again, becoming a frshman again, getting a BS in Computer Science, getting an MS in Computer Science, moving twice to another state, and still the nonsense blackmark on my record from that large employer follows me around to this day.