I'm applying for a job, and among the questions in the boss's e-mail is:

"How many of [your previous] employers would provide positive references for you?"

Most times, hiring managers ask for references knowing we'll leave out the unfavorable ones, but this time he's implicitly asking about those.

What should I say? The honest answer would be "All but one". But I'd hate to be the only applicant who's being honest. Should I briefly explain about the unfavorable one, even though he didn't ask me to?

  • 10
    I'd be honest "All the ones I'm going to let you talk to."
    – Kilisi
    Apr 5, 2016 at 5:15
  • I recall reading a Forbes (or Washington Post article I think) that states nearly all employer references are bad ones. If this manager was doing interviews for a while, maybe he was asking that just a way to test your honesty since he had so many people shocked by negative references even though they left on good terms.
    – Dan
    Apr 5, 2016 at 15:38
  • @Dan Seriously? Bad in what way, "employee X left and we wanted to keep them..." or "employee X was terrible and we were glad to see them go..."?
    – James
    Apr 7, 2016 at 14:32
  • It's a trap! This is a trick question.
    – Xavier J
    Apr 11, 2016 at 19:51

5 Answers 5


But I'd hate to be the only applicant who's being honest.

If you value honesty, you should love being the only applicant who's being honest. I'm guessing the whole point of the question was to see if you are honest or not.

And if a potential employer doesn't value honesty, would you really want to work there anyway?

When I ask questions in an interview, not all of them will have flattering answers. I want to hear if a candidate will tell me the truth, try to weasel out of answering, or will just lie. I never hire people who lie - I assume that if they will lie during an interview, they will lie other times as well and some of those times might be important to my company.

Just answer his question truthfully. Don't offer explanations unless and until you are asked for them.


That's a bit of a loaded question, of course. But plenty of companies have a policy of not providing references at all beyond confirming employment. So, you really can't expect to predict with any real accuracy what your employers will say about you. You don't really know whether your "negative" employer would give you a negative reference or not, and the interviewer knows this. So, he's probably looking not just for honesty, but insight and a positive outlook.

It seems entirely honest to me to say that you can't speak for any of your employers (because you can't, really), but that you had both positive and negative experiences with all of your employers. Then perhaps say that you're quite happy to talk about experiences at your old jobs, and ask what he would like to know. Then, if you are specifically asked to talk about negative stuff, try to explain it objectively, as miscommunication, divergent points of view, etc. Then highlight what you learned from the stuff. That will convey a positive outlook, someone who is open-minded, coachable, and learns from his mistakes. Take responsibility for your own side of it, don't criticize the other. For example, if you are asked what you didn't like about working at wherever, say something like "I didn't like the way I handled X. I found myself between rock Y and hard place Z, and I did Q about it. Knowing what I know now, I would have done R." This avoids criticizing your employer for putting you between the rock and the hard place, and turns it into a learning experience for you. This is the way that a person with a positive outlook addresses problems that come up, rather than focusing on the mistakes that others made to put you in a difficult position. After all, even if you were completely mismanaged, and your manager was really weak, there are always ways that you could have improved your handling of the situation. This is equally true when you were well managed. If you have a strong focus on how you can improve yourself, you should come out fine answering this or any other tough question you get in an interview.


Since this is a question of quantity, then answer it by providing a number - e.g. "8 of my previous employers can provide positive references."

It's unlikely you have listed all of your employers on your resume. So, you are thinking about this backwards. It's likely you had employers that are not worth listing but would give you a positive reference.

So, maybe answer something like, "More than the number listed on my resume." Or, alternatively, provide a count (as requested) and be sure that it exceeds the number of jobs on your resume.

Someone that asks a useless question should expect a useless answer.

(If the potential employers seriously asks for all employers on your resume to provide positive references, then you can simply decline the job - that is also an unreasonable request.)


This isn't matter of subjective opinion for which there is no objective answer. So all I can say is what I would do, not what you should do.

If it was me, I would be honest and put, "all but one". If he asks, I would try to give an honest but neutral response, and pivot that into a strength.

Something like: "Unfortunately it was a difficult working relationship in a challenging work environment. We both tried to get along, but could never quite sync up. To be honest, I made some missteps, and he did too. I really wish it had been otherwise, but I was too young and inexperienced at the time, and didn't quite know how to resolve the situation."

"The good news is, I learned a lot from that working relationship, and have spent a lot of time and energy trying to make improve my soft skills so that that kind of situation never happens again. Every other manager I've ever had will tell you that we got along great, and that they would work with me again."


He might be looking to see how honest you are as no one is perfect. If you say 'none would give negative feedback' then he'll wonder what else you are lying about. But it's more complicated than that. I suspect he wants to know how you perceive your negatives and what you have done to address them. Are you defensive or did you decide that those previous jobs were learning experiences? And it may be a mix, some negative feedback may be valid and some just due to a bad previous boss. I've received some feedback from a manager where I know he was vindictive (he was with everyone underneath him so it wasn't just me). But from another manager I received negative feedback that was valid and useful. Like someone said, this person just asked for a number from you. Saying that "all but one would give negative feedback" doesn't look great. So in this case, if you are able to, I would explain why you would receive negative feedback and why it would no longer be true about you as you are today (hopefully this is true). And if one manager really would give an unfair response, state that as well and why (in a very professional and non-defensive manner). As long as you don't say every manager who gave negative feedback was wrong, then you are more likely to be trusted in your answers. If I was this manager, I would want to know a) how well you receive negative feedback (because at some point you'll probably be told something you don't want to hear), b) are you a defensive person (defensive people are difficult to manage), and c) how honest are you with others and yourself (can you be objective as well as learn from mistakes).

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