I worked for a small business for several years. Over time it became quite obvious that my manager (who was also the business owner) was unprofessional in his conduct towards employees, specifically previous employees as he took it as a personal insult whenever an employee left the company - any time a previous employee used him as a reference he would make it an opportunity to give them the worst personal reference possible which I had witnessed personally.

I eventually left the company under what seemed cordial terms, only to find out that he was talking about me in a disparaging manner behind my back. Thankfully the job I left for was through some personal contacts so I didn't really need to use him as a reference, but looking forward as I am about to go into a new industry, his reference matters - especially as I was at the company for several years, basically most of my working life thus far.

How do I handle this in my resume going forward? If I put him as a reference in my resume - I no doubt will have to explain the situation, but I don't imagine it would sound too credible. If I list a coworker, then I am being dishonest. If I note that I worked there, but I don't list him as a reference, especially as he is a recent employer then that will arouse questions as well.

So, what would be the best approach?

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    Have you tried engaging your previous employer with respect to the negative feedback he's been handing out? Asking why and specific scenarios he wasn't satisfied with? If he's unnecessarily bad-mouthing you like you say, you'll find him grasping at straws or not having anything tangible to say at all. Having such communication documented may come to your aid somewhere down the line; it may seem underhanded but being able to show that someone "is out to get you" may become your saving grace
    – kolossus
    Commented May 4, 2014 at 17:05
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    When you say "reference" do you mean a personal reference or someone who will verify your past employment status? Commented May 4, 2014 at 19:12
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    If he has been "bad-mouthing" ex-employees when asked for references, he could very well be opening himself up to multiple libel cases.
    – HorusKol
    Commented May 4, 2014 at 23:47
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    bad mouthing in references easily qualifies as defamation in the US. Which is why most corporate employers have policies that when asked they only confirm whether or not they previously employed you. Commented May 7, 2014 at 18:14
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    References do not have to be managers. Don't even consider using this person as a reference.
    – HLGEM
    Commented Dec 8, 2015 at 20:38

7 Answers 7


The short term solution is "references available on request" on the resume. Never let people just randomly contact your references with your knowledge and without your ability to provide context.

The effort to contact a candidate, ask for their reference info, then contact 3 or 4 references and ask sensible questions and take notes can easily exceed an hour or two. In that amount of time I could interview you. So if you seem like a good candidate, I'll probably interview you and then ask for your references if you make it to the "good" pile after the interview. I think I'm pretty representative in this. Recruiters are often rabid about demanding references early and often; this seems to be primarily driven by their desire to use that contact info to find leads more than to vet you.

So, you're in the interview, everything is going great, and the interviewer says "oh, I will need those references if you have them handy." The moment of truth. I would have with me slips of paper with the reference info. Each would say the company, the general contact info for the company, and then one or more people with a role and some contact info specific to that person. I would hand them over with an explanation for each.

Here is for my first job at ABC. I worked for Peter Smith, who has since moved to another company so I've included his updated information.

This allows them to contact ABC for generic "HR records show" kind of reference, and Peter Smith for "I liked this employee" kind of reference.

Here is for my second job. This one's a bit tricky, it was a small startup and Steven Jones, who I worked for, tends to give everyone horrible references as revenge for leaving. I know that's hard to believe, so I've also included two coworkers, Sue Able and John Baker, with their current contact info, so they can confirm that for you. I'm sure you'll want to talk to Steven but I hope you won't give too much weight to what he says.

Not dancing around it, and able to back up your claim.

Here is for my current job. I would prefer if you don't contact them right now, because they don't know I am looking for a new job. Once we agree I'm a good fit here, and you're ready to make me an offer, if you want to make it conditional on a good reference from them, I'm fine with that, but I would like to be the one to tell them my plans.

This is also very common.

Then immediately after the interview (like while you're headed home from it) contact all your references to let them know you have given out their names and to expect to be contacted. As a reference I always appreciate that heads-up.

If someone gave me these I probably wouldn't even contact the alleged nutbar until after I'd talked to the coworkers - if they confirmed the nutbar story I wouldn't call to hear the rant.

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    I was once in a situation where I quit due to sexual harassment (which, for reasons that seemed good at the time, was never reported). Unsurprisingly the boss who harassed me was not inclined to give me a good reference after I'd refused his advances. I had a few coworkers who had seen what was going on and who were happy to be my references - in one case even corroborating my story when asked by a recruiter. After some years, I had enough more recent experience that I never needed to refer to that company again.
    – Jenny D
    Commented May 5, 2014 at 9:27
  • Never, ever put a former boss or colleague in a bad light on a resume, or in an interview. Even if you can back up the claims, you are better of finding somebody else that can speak up for you regarding that specific job. Putting someone in a bad light can make you seem like someone who choose to bash people instead of working out your issues with them.
    – Sharain
    Commented May 5, 2014 at 12:41
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    @Sharain I see a difference between a long rant about a former boss, or labelling them, and a single descriptive sentence about one behaviour. I believe it's possible to say that you don't think someone's reference would be accurate without getting into "blaming my old boss" territory. Commented May 5, 2014 at 14:43
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    This is one of the best answers I've ever seen on this site. Perfectly written. Commented Oct 25, 2017 at 14:25

Simple - you do not use him as a reference. If a potential employer insists on a manager reference from a previous job, use another manager. If you have no other manager reference to use, use a coworker reference. Do not, in any circumstance, put anyone on your reference list that you even suspect may give you a negative review.

I doubt a potential employer would directly ask you why you didn't list a specific manager from a previous position as a reference, but if they do, you can explain that you don't believe the specific manager would give a review that accurately reflects your performance. You can offer one or more references from the same company that you know would give you a good review.

Remember that if you work in an industry where references from previous employers are a crucial part of the recruitment process, it is your responsibility to build your professional network so that you have references to draw upon when you are looking for a job. Not everyone you meet at work will like you. Some will even strongly dislike you for reasons out of your control. When that happens, you must cross those people off your potential list, and look for others.

  • if you work in an industry where references from previous employers are a crucial part of the recruitment process then sue. Not everyone will like you and some will dislike you, but no one can defame you without risking litigation. It actually sounds like an easy case to prosecute.
    – emory
    Commented Nov 7, 2015 at 11:47
  • Do companies check if co-worker was a manager or not?
    – bobo2000
    Commented Sep 21, 2017 at 13:13

I have had reasonable success using "references available on request" and explaining the situation when asked. It might also be useful for you to use a co-worker from that workplace as a reference, since they will corroborate the problem with asking the manager/owner.

I'd focus on being successful in the role for a number of years, any achievements you can point to (especially anything visible from outside the company), and any paperwork you have from them. Yes, this is one of the few times that "employee of the month" certificate has value, in case someone wants you to show that you did really succeed. Assume that anyone who rings that person will get a really sad story about you, and try to avoid it or mitigate the fallout.

It's impossible to hide the company you worked for in your resume, so don't try. If the company is still around an interested potential employer can, and will, look them up on the web and ring the boss.

I have one job where my exit interview was the final straw that made the CEO review my team leader and department. The result was everyone getting made redundant, so I don't have any positive references from that job. The CEO is happy to say "I didn't think anyone there was performing and Mσᶎ convinced me that I was right"... not really a useful thing to tell a potential employer. I've sold that to those employers as "I quit because I wasn't able to achieve what I wanted to and was honest when the CEO probed me about exactly what was happening in my team. That, combined with his existing suspicions, lead to an investigation that wound up the team". Interestingly, one potential employer rang that CEO and later said to me "he said you were refreshingly, if brutally, honest"... then hired me. In retrospect I should have gone over my team leader earlier (and I've said that in interviews since).

So, final point: prepare a "what I learned from that job" story.


There are two kinds of reference checks. I asked in a comment:

When you say "reference" do you mean a personal reference or someone who will verify your past employment status?

And you replied:

well someone who will say I worked there, and give an accurate description of what I was like working under them.

These are two different functions, and it's ok (and normal) to separate them. I've just accepted a new job and I was asked for the following during the process (and this matches what we did at my previous employer):

  • Personal references: these are people you choose who can speak to your good qualities and answer questions. I just served as this kind of reference for somebody last week and the hiring manager had a half-hour conversation with me. This is fairly typical. You choose the people who will best represent you, ideally a mix of peers and leads/managers.

  • Employment verification: these are people at your last N places of work who can verify that you worked there, when, and in what position (job title). It's normal to list your HR person here, but some other supervisor-type person will also suffice. (I used my VP, for whom I directly worked for a time, but could have used an HR person.)

When prospective employers call your personal references they'll ask all sorts of questions about what you're like to work with, how well you do your job, what you're particularly good at, where you could improve, and so on. When they call for employment verification, they'll ask to confirm that what you said about having worked there is true.

If you can't list an HR person for the latter (maybe you didn't have one) and have to list your manager, I wouldn't worry too much -- the person calling him isn't going to be asking the questions you're worried about and might not even take note if he volunteers such assessments. In my recent experience, personal references were checked by the hiring manager but employment verification was done by a third-party firm that does background checks.


"How do I handle this in my resume going forward? If I put him as a reference in my resume - I no doubt will have to explain the situation, but I don't imagine it would sound too credible. If I list a coworker, then I am being dishonest. If I note that I worked there, but I don't list him as a reference, especially as he is a recent employer then that will arouse questions as well."

You've tied yourself nicely into knots and you've done a great job of talking yourself into a situation where you're powerless and you're damned if you do and damned if you don't.

The key premise is that you are NOT going to use the manager as a reference unless you're feeling suicidal. Use present co-workers as reference - better a reference that's somehow problematic than a reference that you can predict with the certainty of Death itself that it is going to be bad. Your problem is not as much that the reference is going to be bad as when he is going to smear you - Yes, your credibility could be trashed by someone with zero credibility if the smear is powerful enough.

Contact your former co-workers i.e. those who already quit and especially those who have senior positions or management positions with their new employers, and ask these former co-workers to be your reference. If you lost touch with them, try to track them down through Linkedin, Facebook, Twitter and Google. The fact that these references are far better than your boss is well worth the effort of tracking them down.


In many places in the world, ex-employees won't even give a bad reference if it is fully justified, for fear of having to go to court - which can be costly and there is always the chance of losing a case even when you were perfectly right. Typically, your reference will say "we confirm that pi31415 was employed at our company from June 2012 to October 2015" or something similar, and that's it. The minimum they are required to say, avoiding any risk of going to court.

You can't prevent a malicious previous employer from giving bad references. You can take them to court when he or she does, especially if you don't get a job because of that bad reference, and in many places in the world this is likely to make you some money and be very costly for the company, unless they can prove that the bad reference was justified - and sometimes even then.


If your former employer tells any objective lies about you, you have an opportunity to set this right with a civil court lawsuit.

At a company I used to work for, after my coworker (a contractor) left, her former manager called various temp agencies in town and told them "don't hire [the coworker] because she is a thief and a liar." The coworker took the manager to court for slander and won a settlement based on the potential lost work caused by the slander. If I recall correctly, the judgment was $2500 a month paid directly to the victim for 20 years, and the manager's two personal houses were attached (so if she failed to pay, the houses would be seized). All it took was a few people at the temp agencies being willing to testify in court as to the slanderous statements the manager made.

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    $600,000. A lot of money. For trying to utterly destroy a person's livelihood. Can't see I feel sorry. Just hope she enjoyed the feeling of power over the ex-employee when she called these agencies, and that she got $600,000 worth of enjoyment out of it.
    – gnasher729
    Commented Dec 9, 2015 at 12:10
  • And it's going to be difficult selling those houses while they're attached, too.
    – EvilSnack
    Commented Sep 13, 2023 at 12:37

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