From the Northeastern Section of the ACS, focusing on career management and development

August 2020
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Reference: How do you deal with a poor one?
Filed under: Interviewing, Public Relations docs, Job Offer (Situations), Mentoring
Posted by: site admin @ 5:09 pm

 ”Hi Dan,

  Just wanted to provide an update [on my
job search.  Several promising interviews.] 
It seems[, however,] that I have a problem. 
After talking with K{name withheld},
… from
W…, I found myself staring at a job
seeker’s worst nightmare… 

A boss [providing] …a bad recommendation
… I need to work out a plan with which to
counter this…”


This was not a situation that could be handled
via the Internet.  We talked.  And after we talked
I reached out to some in my professional
network.  So, this blog entry will talk about
several responses to help LJ sort through
alternatives to professionally deal with
a poor reference.

LJ clarified several issues that had arisen in
their relationship.  LJ offered that the
supervisor indicated that he would
provide a positive reference for the kinds 
of positions LJ sought.  That gave LJ
confidence that LJ could include the
supervisor in LJ’s list of references.

First we talked through what was the precise
nature of the controversy.  The controversy
seemed to highlight the supervisor indicating
what experiments and interpretations 
not expecting discussion
.  In a sense, the
supervisor offering top-down management.  

LJ then provided a specific example of a
starting series of experiments which were
interpreted incorrectly and since corrected.

This is not an easy thing for most people
to take from a less experienced person.

I offered to LJ that there are four general
for which a boss asks for specific
tasks to be done.  They can be displayed in a
2×2 matrix with Urgency and Importance placed
on either axis.  Thus, High and low for each
of the two factors.  Research experiments
could be either High Importance/High
(where it is critical to do it the way
the supervisor asks in a critical time fashion)
or High Importance/ Low Urgency
(where it is most important to do the right 
thing.)  The situation seemd like it could be
High/Low.  So discussion could be
warranted from one point of view. 

However, if the supervisor expected no
discussion and to simply have LJ perform
what he prescribed, there could be a
difference of expectations.

Thus, the basis for the controversy could
be simplified as not seeing the working
relationship eye-to-eye
.  This has led to a
respectful falling out between the two.

Whatever the root cause, have a fair
and truthful understanding for the places
where the reference is currently listed. 
When it is requested, preface the list with
the expected reference.  Alternatively
consider using other references familier
with LJ’s work in place of the supervisor.

Also, if the relationship is cordial, consider
talking with the reference.


Following comments speak to alternate

-  on LinkedIn
-  take legal action
-  find several other references at same place
-  “move on”
-  ‘assistant could have written note, use HR’

6 Responses to “Reference: How do you deal with a poor one?”

  1. site admin Says:

    What can a candidate do when she
    finds her most recent supervisor gives
    her a less than favorable reference in
    writing, despite saying the opposite to her?

    E Brandenburg wrote: 
    Is this recommendation on LinkedIn or
    something else?

    If it is LinkedIn, there is probably a way to
    remove or hide it. I’d look in the help section.

    Otherwise contact the site administrator.

    If this is personal, I guess she should tell
    the guy that it is not very flattering and find
    out why.

    Ask her if she could write something more neutral.

    There is the option not to use it or her as a reference.
    Might require a little bit of finesse if asked why.
    Try to find another reference at the same institution
    that would be a good reference.
  2. site admin Says:
    F Biss wrote:

    Step 1. Hire a lawyer and sue — assuming
    of course that what the supervisor said is

    Step 2. Replace the reference with a more
    favorable/acceptable one and carry on.
  3. site admin Says:
    T Maurer wrote:

    Not sure I understand the entire scenario….
    the candidate is still working for the
    recent supervisor…or has just left, and
    asks for a reference for a new job?

    Unless the candidate has something
    in writing to prove the supervisor had
    given her rave reviews (like copies of
    performance reviews signed by both),
    there’s not much she can do.

    It’s her word against the supervisor’s.

    She can ask the supervisor ‘why?’
    the negative reference, but what
    would that accomplish?

    Sadly, the damage has probably been
    done already if the reference went to a
    potential employer. She can get some
    other more favorable references in her
    favor, but that won’t make the first one
    just disappear.
  4. site admin Says:
    E Bonfiglio and M Hanses wrote:

    I would approach the recent supervisor
    (in person) and bring this to his or her
    attention and get this out in the open
    and discuss it.

    It may not be what it seems, go to the
    source and work it out. If in fact, it does
    not turn out favorable, cut your losses
    and move on. 

  5. site admin Says:
    S Etheridge wrote:

    If this person did in fact say they
    would give a positive I would first
    ask if they are the person who wrote

    It is possible it was passed on to an
    assistant to write and he/she never
    read it before signing.

    If they admit they wrote it ask why the
    change in attitude. She should be
    direct and open but not confrontational.

    If it becomes obvious they will not give
    a good reference she should list the
    HR director as a point of contact not
    the person who wrote the letter.
  6. Anonymous Says:
    H Silverman wrote:

    Here are my thoughts.

    Step one is to go back to his supervisor with
    the information he received from his recruiter
    and ask for advice and help.

    He must avoid being confrontational. His
    supervisor may not realize the devastating
    effect he is having.

    Perhaps they could sit down and work out
    a different wording that would express the
    supervisor’s concerns but could be
    countered with some positive wording.

    Step 2 focus on getting a … position this
    time be sure he and the supervisor are

    Step 3 Can he transfer to another group with
    out losing a lot of time? If so that is what he
    should do.

    I see no way for him to avoid people calling
    his boss for a reference. Do you?

    QUES>So, given these circumstances, what
    should LJ do about his boss’s reference?
    Should he still ask for it?

    HS> Yes, he has no choice.

    QUES> Should LJ do or say things differently
    in his interviews when his supervisor comes up?

    HS> Work out some wording to use in cover
    letters, screening interviews and on site
    interviews to forestall the negative reference
    he is getting.

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