View of hands of a business man reading a reference amid a pile of job application paperwork.
Image: © xixinxing/

What to do if a former employer won’t give you a reference

7 May 2019

Applying for jobs is daunting enough without the revelation that a former employer doesn’t want to provide a reference. Here’s what to do if you find yourself in this situation.

A good reference can really seal the deal during the job-seeking process and tie off the positive impression you’ve already made both with your interview and résumé. For this reason, preserving relationships with previous employers is vitally important.

Yet for various reasons, sometimes the relationship between you and an ex-boss can sour to the point that they may be unwilling to give you a reference moving forward. It’s a pretty mean-spirited move on the employer’s part, given that they are the one in the position of power, but it does happen. While references are customary, they are seldom obligatory.

It’s a difficult situation to navigate. On the one hand, you can’t lie on your CV. Even if you tried to omit the previous employer entirely, the gap would raise questions. So what do you do?

Lean on your other references

If you’re worried that one of your previous employers may provide a bad reference, you can rest assured that your other sterling references should assuage any worries your prospective hiring manager has. Most managers appreciate that life is complicated, professional life included.

Even if you’re in a position where an employer is refusing to give you a reference, you will almost definitely have someone else in your career history willing to sing your praises.

If you think you have more than enough positive references, you could likely omit the negative reference from your reference list. You don’t need to provide contact details for everyone you have ever worked for, after all.

Get a reference from someone else within the company

Barring exceptional circumstances, you likely worked with multiple people in your previous firm. In all likelihood, the issues with a referee are probably isolated to one individual in particular. The solution there is to just find someone else who worked with you in a sufficient enough capacity that they could speak to your competency.

Your prospective hiring manager will be receptive to your argument that the person you have down on your CV is the person best poised to advise others on your skills.

If the company is on a directive not to provide a reference to you outright, consider seeking out a manager or someone you worked closely with who has since left the company. This person, now no longer with your former employer, won’t feel the same pressure to not give you a reference.

Be honest and unemotional

Emotions will likely run high if you’re in the situation where you’re trying to tie off a job offer and think an employer you have bad blood with may spoil your chances. Though easier said than done, it is vital that you remain level-headed.

If all else fails, you should honestly explain your situation to the interviewing manager. As we’ve previously pointed out, people are human and our lives are complicated. A good hiring manager will appreciate this.

However, if you enter into the discussion inflamed and with guns a-blazing, this will project the worst possible image. You risk presenting yourself as reactive, volatile and unprofessional. You could end up confirming the negative things your previous employer has said, which is honestly the worst possible outcome.

How you handle this situation could speak as much to your professional mettle as the reference itself. If you are clear, communicative, confident and obliging in these discussions, you could even turn this situation around in a way that impresses the hiring manager.

Eva Short
By Eva Short

Eva Short was a journalist at Silicon Republic, specialising in the areas of tech, data privacy, business, cybersecurity, AI, automation and future of work, among others.

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