I came across a good discussion of how to handle a bad reference in a job-search-related blog.
It highlights a very key point when seeking critique in any situation - don’t get defensive. As soon as you start to try to explain why something isn’t a problem, you shut down the input you might have received. And in this case, where there is already (apparently) a relationship issue, you can actually make the situation worse.
The approach they describe shows you to be a mature professional, and even if it doesn’t change the negative perception of PAST performance, it can help that former boss to see you in a new light.
I wrote a related piece some time back on the more general issue of seeking critique:
And for the blog entry on handling a bad reference:
“You don’t have to be the first to be a success. You don’t have to be unique. You don’t have to be revolutionary. What you do have to do, however, is give people value. Give them a reason to buy from you instead of from somebody else.”
Tim Berry, author and founder of multiple companies, writing in the Entrepreneur.com Blog Network, on “Startups: Unique and Revolutionary, or Forget It?”
This statement is very apt for the job seeker, and for those already in a company, and seeking to accelerate their career growth. The way to get noticed, and ultimately to get hired or awarded a new opportunity, is to give prospective employers value, and a reason to buy YOU instead of someone else.
The only reason I hire someone is because I firmly believe you will solve the problems I face, and achieve the results I need. This is the ‘value’ I seek.
Expressing how many years you have been doing something, all of the credentials you have, and the various duties you have performed over the years doesn’t equate to value. Those are what the unimaginative candidates fall back on, often because:
Unless you get very good at expressing your value in all venues, in a very natural, conversational way that isn’t ‘pushy’, you will always be left wondering why others get hired for the best jobs, or get awarded the most interesting opportunities for which you really wish you had been considered.
One key to doing this is to build a visibility campaign. I wrote about 7 ways you could start to go about this in my most recent issue of Career Tips. Write to me at John@JHACareers.com if you would like a copy, or you can review the contents and selected articles from past issues and sign yourself up at
And don’t forget that you can subscribe to my RSS feed of this Career Accelerator Blog at:
“I have been in my current company for almost three years. Recently I was promoted. After the promotion, my responsibility stayed the same. I was told that there will be some increase within the next year due to the tight budget. I don’t really value this as compensation given the above facts.
I expressed this when the department VP informed me of the promotion before the team meeting. She said that it is obvious that I am not satisfied. Based on her past conversations with me, she felt I always challenged her and wanted something else. She would like to meet with me to know what I really want in a couple of days.
Now I regret my response, since I had already decided to look for another opportunity in other companies. My decision was made before the meeting, since I couldn’t see my future here. I was viewed as a person who is kind of difficult to manage, since I like to challenge things. With that said, why should I make the situation worse? My relationship with my boss (director) is not that great.
What might you suggest as a way to convince the vice president that I am satisfied with the current arrangement? What are the most valuable skills and experience the future employer would like to see from a candidate like me?
Would you please advise the best way to challenge senior management in the future? With my experience here, I now realize that having a good relationship with your boss and working smart are much important than how much you work. How can I have a better result in the future?”
Whether you decide to stay where you are or not, it is important to retain as strong a relationship as possible with your boss and others at your company.
You will be surprised at how you may come in contact with them in the future. I’ve several times ended up working with people again at a new company, with both of us at different levels than before and in different levels of authority relative to each other.
Ideally you would like everyone you come in contact with to think of you as a results-oriented professional they would enjoy having on their team, as that’s how you create the visibility for yourself that generates new opportunities.
Your reputation for being difficult to manage and liking to challenge things may come in large part from the way you present your ideas. You may be doing so too forcefully in ways that challenge the status quo, in effect taking a ‘frontal assault’ approach that raises your boss’s and others’ defenses.
A more effective approach is to be very curious about why things are done the way they are. Ask questions about the goals, what’s led to the way something is done now, brainstorming on how the work can be done in a way that still meets those, but also achieves other critical goals (making operations more efficient, freeing up resources for other critical tasks, etc.).
Often the problem can be as simple as how you phrase the question. For example, asking “Why…” is taken as challenging - it sounds like you are questioning why I’m doing something. Changing the question to “What factors led to this…” makes it less threatening - it sounds more like genuine interest and curiosity.
In your upcoming conversation, you want to focus on:
The discussion about what would make you more satisfied is a longer term question and focus, which gets into career planning.
Frame your answer in terms of your longer term goals, and what can be done over time to help you achieve those. Try to make it a brainstorming session, collaborating with your boss on possible ways to change your job focus, add new types of projects or responsibilities, get you involved in new or different initiatives, etc., over time. Talk about time frames for making some of those changes, and time lines for the longer term goals you want to achieve.
Don’t make any of your requests like ultimatums - “make these changes or I’ll leave.”
After the discussion, you can then weigh in your own mind over the next days or weeks whether the plans are sufficient to make you want to stay, and then you can keep that decision private - no one needs to (or should) know that you are looking elsewhere until the day you accept an offer and turn in your 2 weeks notice.
Excerpted from November 2007 Career Tips. To review contents of past issues and selected articles, visit
“I have one documented reference check on my most recent former boss, which shows that she talked in detail responding to questions about items in my resume with the caller. This is totally against company policy, which I drafted while I worked there and implemented with our department, which is to only verify dates of employment and titles on telephone requests for information on former employees, and not provide any other information on an employee without a written authorization from the employee to do so. She said things like this:
- when asked if I provided full scope recruiting assistance as stated in my resume, she “clarified” that I did not recruit employees, just did recruiting coordination.
This is false, because I had full involvement in recruiting from administering the employee requisition system through placing employment ads to drug screening and employment reference checking to interviewing to preparing job offers to performing new hire orientations.
Why my former boss is doing this is a mystery to me. We did not part on bad terms, and I was specifically told that I was not being cut due to any performance or personal issues. I had seven years of good to excellent performance evaluations and various recognition awards on a regular basis.
Whatever the reason, it really worries and bothers me. It is more and more apparent that I am losing financially by losing opportunities because of what someone is saying about me. I know it is defamation and I know I could go to a lawyer but I’m much more interested in other more creative, positive ways to gain a new career opportunity beyond the reach of this person’s bad intentions.
I don’t know if being proactive and saying that my most recent boss is not giving me a truthful reference and I don’t know why and I don’t want employers contacting her would be something that will cripple my job prospects as much as letting them call and talk to her.
It is looking like the best thing to do at this point is to contact her and ask her not to give any information about me other than verifying my employment, per company policy, possibly through my lawyer. I think it will be better not to have a real reference from her than to have her giving out false information that is costing me job offers. Someone suggested I ask her for a written reference to give employers instead of a call, and I guess I could try that, but I’m afraid she’ll say no because I got a (weak) letter of reference with my severance agreement. I have been more focused on finding ways to tell prospective employers verbally that they do not have my permission to talk to her and explain it in a positive way. I do have plenty of other references from people who know my skills, experience, abilities, interests, character and work ethics, but she is a key, being my most recent direct supervisor for the last seven years.”
That’s a very frustrating position to be in!
First thought - what evidence do you have that it is your former boss’s bad reference that is the problem? Have you been told that by the company after their reference check? Are you certain there isn’t more to it than that, and whatever feedback from the boss is just the easy excuse they use for turning you down?
Assuming it truly is the boss, examine carefully what the boss would be saying about you and why. What, if anything, did you contribute to the situation that might lead him / her to give negative feedback?
Next, think about what you have done or can do to ensure that whatever led to the negative feedback will never happen again. Construct your confident story about the situation, what you learned from it, and how you will deal with these situations in the future. No one expects perfection, and everyone has made mistakes in the past. The key is to show that you’ve learned from it and won’t make the same mistake in the future.
Finally, at the point where you need to share info about past bosses, and there is a possibility of a reference check, share the bad news yourself. If the hiring manager finds this out first from your past boss, he/she is going to feel you were hiding something, and your credibility is shot. Be very up front. Tell them that you didn’t separate from your past employer on the best of terms, and this is why. And most importantly, this is what you’ve learned from it. Convince me that this is a problem in the past that won’t be a problem in the future.
You might also try reaching out to your past boss, very professionally, requesting that he/she not comment on your work (either positively or negatively) to prospective employers. And seek positive references you can get from others that can counterbalance whatever the employer might say.
OK, so now you’ve actually started the job. Look around you. You are embarking on a seemingly endless series of first impressions - and those can have a lasting impact on your career at your new company.
People are making snap judgements about you:
Once made, those impressions are very hard to undo, so go about making the best ones you can up front. In fact, one of the first impressions people will have of you is beyond your control - the memo or email your boss sends out announcing your hire, or what he or she says about you in advance of you getting a chance to meet those people. And what message does it send to people if no announcement is made, and you are basically a surprise on your first day?
Ths provides another reason to reach out to your boss in advance of your start date, as I mentioned in the previous entry. Perhaps you can influence what is sent out, or even whether something is sent out - and at the very least you could get a copy of the announcement.
So what do you want to do to make strong impressions?
Think of this as your chance to go out on a series of mini interviews. Yes, I know, you thought you were done with interviews when you landed this job! But here the intent is a bit different.
When you are interviewing prior to landing the job, it is never in the company’s best interest to air all of their dirty laundry. After all, if you are a good candidate, they want to attract you! That doesn’t mean they are actively trying to hide things from you, just that they aren’t going to make a point of telling you every detail of the negative side of things.
Now that you’re an insider, that dirty laundry can be aired. Your job is now to uncover it so it doesn’t trip you up later. Make a plan to:
This will at least get you started on the road to creating the best first impressions you can…
OK, you’ve let everyone know about your success, your new contact information, and generally ensured that they will continue to be valued members of your network going forward. What’s next?
Now you want to start making the best possible impression at the new job. One way to do that even before you start is to reach out to your new boss and ask about coming in to meet key members of your new work group BEFORE your first day on the job.
Think about it. Most candidates relax once they accept an offer, and use the time until their start date getting everything else in their lives in order. You have a clear opportunity to stand out just by going in to visit during that period.
Imagine the signal this sends to your new employer! You are showing yourself to be particularly eager to get to work, to meet everyone, and to start making a real contribution to the operations. Even if your boss turns down the opportunity, just the fact that you reached out this way starts him or her thinking that you are a real go-getter.
When you talk to your boss, you can ask about information you could read to get a head start on integrating into the new operation:
Think of it this way: Once you start the job, you are going to be making a long series of first impressions with people at your new job. What better way is there to enable you to make the most of those than by jumping in ahead of time (or at least offering to) and showing what a self-starter you are?
Over the next few weeks, let’s explore some of the ways you can make the most of your new job…
Before you even start your new job, you need to think about the networking you’ve done and the contacts you’ve made during your search. Hopefully you’ve kept careful records of who you’ve met along the way, and what advice, leads, introductions or other assistance they provided. If not, then sit down right now and pull out your calendar, cell phone, phone book and email history to reproduce the list as best you can.
I’m assuming you’ve also made a point of thanking all of those people as you went along - dropping them thank you notes or emails after your meeting, and keeping them informed as to any positive developments from whatever advice or contacts they provided you.
Now’s the time to let them all know about the results of your search. Don’t leave them wondering what happened to you! Don’t make the mistake of allowing the network you built up lapse into disuse - after all, the insights, perspectives and resources of your network add to the value you bring to your new employer, and will be critical to your future career development.
Split your list up into at least 3 groups:
If you don’t have your new business contact information yet, you might also do this in 2 steps (a mini-keep-in-touch campaign!). First, send your notes / make your calls to everyone in groups 1 & 2, letting them know that you value them as a professional contact, and that you will forward your new contact information once you start at the new job. Then, after you start, you can send them a second email or letter to let them know the new contact info . If you like, you can hold the #3 list for this second round, when you can include the contact info.
And here’s an article I contributed to that includes a number of nuggets for the new employee:
Here was the first response to my question:
“Do you view performance appraisals as a meaningless exercise, or an opportunity to raise your visibility?”
“Meaningless- sitting on both sides I have yet to see a meaningful experience. The appraisal is written and done. There is no opportunity to gain visibility from the exercise.”
I agree…if you wait until the time the appraisal is written to try to turn it into a meaningful excercise. By then, your boss has already evaluated your performance and reached his or her conclusions.; You may be able to make incremental improvements, but probably not much beyond that.
On the other hand, if you write your own self-appraisal in advance of that time, you have an opportunity to:
-Improve the ratings you receive, and ensure that what you’ve accomplished is well-documented in your personnel files.
-Enhance your boss’s perception of your contributions.
-Better equip your boss to describe to others (the next level up, other key executives) the value you are adding to his or her operation.
What do you do if your company doesn’t provide for self-appraisals?
Why should you let that stop you? What would prevent you from documenting your accomplishments to your boss, and presenting it as something to help him or her in preparing the eventual appraisal.
Just be sure that you give a lot of thought to the self-appraisal, and stay at the high level. Don’t get down and dirty into all of the details of what you did, focus on the high level accomplishments. And get very clear on the results you achieved - what your work meant for the operation and the company.
For more on how to do this, check out this article:
Many people on both sides of the table worry about performance appraisals:
On the other hand, performance appraisals can be an opportunity:
What do you think? Post your comments on this question:
“Do you view performance appraisals as a meaningless exercise, or an opportunity to raise your visibility?”
Do you dread performance appraisal time? Or do you see this as an opportunity to market yourself?
I hope you see it as the latter!
Obviously, you need to be working throughout the year to make sure that you are doing a great job, and that this is visible to your boss, your co-workers, and other key influencers in your organization. Now that you get to performance appraisal time, it’s your chance to do a good summary to cement your performance in your boss’s mind.
Ideal is when you are asked to do a self-appraisal. If not, do one anyway. Put together your thoughts and provide them to your boss ahead of time. Offer it as a way to help make his or her job easier. (Boss’s rarely look forward to performance appraisals either!)
When you go to do your self-appraisal, don’t get stuck in all of the details of what you did. Think about your critical goals, and particularly what will be critical to your boss, and then use that to focus and order your presentation. Then concentrate on what you accomplished, and what results that created for your unit, your department, and your company. You need to articulate that part very clearly, because in the end the results are the ONLY reason your salary is being paid.
Also think carefully about what challenges you encountered along the way, and succeeded in overcoming. One of the most important benefits you bring to your boss is your ability to overcome challenges, particularly if you are able to make it look easy. If you do a great job with that, how likely is it that your boss truly recognizes what you are accomplishing? It’s easy to notice an issue, it’s much more difficult to notice and remember an issue that goes away!
The self-appraisal is your chance to clearly articulate those challenges you dealt with, and remind your boss of all of the value you are adding to his or her organization!
If you’d like to talk more about this, post a comment!