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Unfortunately, I have not been able to stay on good times with colleagues at my previous workplace.

There were many problems, including several major re-organisation over the 7 years I worked there, including replacement of managers. There was also a high prevalence of theft, and I was wrongfully accused enough times that I quit in order to study.

Several years later, I've recently applied for a position overseas. They contacted my previous employer for a reference, but apparently I was badmouthed by a manager there that I had worked with for a short time. I was surprised that they'd spoken to this particular manager, because I'd intentionally not named them as the reference.

While I don't know the reason in other cases, I've had other potential opportunities turn cold after the initial interview. Is there a problem with using my previous employer for a reference? What can I do to stop this from happening?

  • Hi Daisy - thanks for posting your question - I've reformatted and restructured your question a bit, but I've tried to leave the core of it intact. Feel free to rollback if you think I've misrepresented your question – HorusKol May 30 '16 at 0:01
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    "I'd intentionally not named them as the reference." Doing this without providing another manager for that job pretty much guarantees that they'll contact him (as long as it's not your current job). It's a giant red flag and the hiring manager will want to know the story behind your reason for leaving it off. – Lilienthal May 30 '16 at 8:58
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    Is there anybody at the previous job that you're on good terms with? If you can provide even a random coworker as reference, it's much less likely that they'll try to contact the manager. – jpatokal May 30 '16 at 11:42
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If the manager at your previous employer is indeed badmouthing you, they are acting quite unprofessionally and could even get themselves into a lot of trouble. However, finding out exactly what was said and then taking action over could easily be more trouble than it's worth.

If you have had employment elsewhere and are on better terms, I'd use them as references, and do not include any details about this particular employer.

You say you've been studying for a while since leaving the problem employer - are you able to get a tutor or lecturer to act as a reference?

If you are in contact with one of the managers that left during your time at the previous employer, there is nothing wrong with using them as a reference instead.

If you are stuck with using a current manager at your previous employer as a reference - be up front with your new potential employers that the environment and management turned sour after several reorganisations and the reference may reflect some bad air between you. Although, be careful about making any direct accusations or saying anything specific. Tell the potential employers that you are looking for a better working environment, and want to put your bad experience behind you.

  • @JoeStrazzere - Of course "the truth" is often very nebulous, which is why most employers in the USA won't allow managers to be used as a reference. Instead, they are told to refer the caller to HR who seldom provides more info than dates of employment and if they are eligible to be rehired or not. When I use previous managers as a reference I always ask them first and then they only agree and make it very clear to the caller that they are acting as a personal reference and not as a manager at the company. As such, I've had a couple who requested that I only list their personal phone. – Dunk May 31 '16 at 19:23
  • @JoeStrazzere - There's some truth's that are obvious or at least seem that way, but assuming that a person has done nothing unethical and isn't so abysmal at their job that there's no room to quibble then giving an opinion on someone's qualifications as would be done by a manager giving a negative reference leaves a lot of ground between "the truth" and reality. It's that truth in-between that could cause issues for a company if someone was inclined to take that route with an aggressive lawyer. Just because you know the "truth" doesn't mean a judge/jury will agree with your truth. – Dunk May 31 '16 at 22:37
  • @joestrazzere I'd refuse to answer - because while the no is implicit, it closes the obvious follow-up that follows a straight no. – HorusKol May 31 '16 at 22:51
  • @JoeStrazzere - I'm not sure you realize that there's a glut of lawyers in the USA. About 1 lawyer per 300 people. That means there's a lot of underworked lawyers willing to sue over just about anything because they know that it is usually more cost efficient for the defendant to settle the case than fight for what they know to be "the truth". I guess you and companies you have worked for haven't been bitten by this type of petty lawsuit abuse. Many companies have and it is far safer for the company to provide only the facts and nothing more and only from HR. – Dunk Jun 1 '16 at 22:19
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You should avoid giving a employer as reference that you know is badmouthing you. A bad reference in most cases is enough to get your resume binned and destroy your further chances at a position. References are expected to be generally positive, and people usually only list those where they know they at least won't get badmouthed.

You should definitely stop using that employer as a reference.

  • 7 years isnt a small amount of time. It big empty space in a resume. – kifli May 30 '16 at 8:19
  • @JoeStrazzere yes but it doesn't look ok. You will have high chances to be asked. I was asked for 1 empty year in my resume. – kifli May 30 '16 at 14:37
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They contacted my previous employer for a reference, but apparently I was badmouthed by a manager there that I had worked with for a short time. I was surprised that they'd spoken to this particular manager, because I'd intentionally not named them as the reference.

It's not unusual for a potential employer to use a "back-door reference" when checking references. It's possible that this is how that particular manager got involved.

That happens when the hiring manager or recruiter or HR rep happen to know someone in the reference company. They contact their friend and ask about you. Sometimes that turns up more revealing reference information (from the hiring company's point of view) than the references which are hand-picked by the applicant.

As a hiring manager, I've spoken to friends at companies where an applicant used to work. In my case, the references all ended up being good ones.

While I don't know the reason in other cases, I've had other potential opportunities turn cold after the initial interview. Is there a problem with using my previous employer for a reference?

Unless someone is willing to tell you, there's no way to know if your references are the factor causing opportunities to "turn cold", or if it's just a case of a poor fit for the job, or something else. If things turn cold after a single interview, it most likely has nothing to do with references. Usually, you haven't even given them your list of references at that point in the process. (There's no need to supply references until asked).

Still, if you have enough references, there's no reason to include one particular employer in your list if you think they are the source of your problems.

Dig hard through your past and include only the people who will give you glowing references. (Make sure you contact them first, so that you know what they will say about you.)

List your best references first. Many companies won't bother to check more than two or three references anyway. So list your most glowing references at the top, and the very good but not glowing references at the bottom. Omit everyone who won't say good things about you.

For this particular problematic company, try to list someone else there other than this one former manager (if you can find someone there who would say good things about you). If you can't find anyone, then just avoid that company from your references.

What can I do to stop this from happening?

In the US at least, you can't stop someone from answering questions asked of them during a reference check. Your local employment laws may be different.

If you have some folks in your past who won't say great things about you, simply don't list them, and hope for the best.

How damaging is bad reference to a new position?

It can be pretty bad, depending on the particular circumstances.

One of the questions I ask when I'm checking references is always "Would you hire [applicant] again?" If the answer is no, I'll dig in for more details. But by itself, that is usually a big red flag.

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