Job References: My Boss Won’t Give Me a Good Reference
A reader asked what to do about a boss who at first was willing to give a good reference and then informed him that he changed his mind. And there are also circumstances where you can't ask your current boss for a reference, whether they tell you so or not.
So what can you do if you are ready to start your search for a new job, but your most recent (theoretically best) reference is one that you either can't get or don't want to ask?
What if your reference list needs to omit your boss?
In the case of my reader, he had a job opportunity in another city and already sent them his references, including his current boss. Does he have to stick with what he sent, or can he still change it and leave his boss off the list? It depends on your particular situation, but given the opportunity to politely provide an updated reference list (before they've been called, of course) it might be worth a try. You could add a note about preferring that your current boss not be called. (That's a fairly common request.) Here's a sample references page format to use that includes space for notes:
NOTE: It's important to remember that some employers may want to talk to your most recent boss anyway, especially if you don't have enough good references that speak to the skills and qualities you'll need for the new job. But usually they'll honor this request since hints of leaving can be awkward.
Are you sure the reference won't be a good one?
If at all possible, have an honest talk with your boss about this. Be frank about your concerns, and see if you can help him decide to give his reference in a way that may include any of his doubts if that is what he feels he must do, but also shows you have strengths. And even if he does offer a weakness or two – when I did reference checks, I usually probed for that – weaknesses are not necessarily deal breakers, as long as they aren't the main part of the picture. This article might help you think about the way to frame your discussion before you speak with him:
BUT … if he gives you the impression that his reference will not be good over all, then you probably should leave him off if at all possible, adding a note as explained above.
What if a reference is not all that great
Your best plan of action is to make sure you've checked with your references and include only those you know will be strongest, providing a clear, up-to-date reference list to make contacting them easy for the reference checker. But sometimes there will be a reference who offers weaknesses. Is there anything you can do about that?
While you can't control what a reference actually says, most will go out of their way to make you look good. Still, if you're worried about a particular incident or weakness, you can always proactively use your interview to help strengthen your case. For example, if you get the greatest weakness question or one about obstacles / challenges, this could be a perfect opportunity to show how you really handle things. Addressing this well ahead of time should help lessen any impact a single reference might have, as long as your other references say great things.
A bit more you can try
If you do have strong references other than your less-than-supportive boss, and find out that the company wants to talk to him or her anyway, then it might be worth speaking candidly to the person you connect with most in the new position. Explain the situation to them. Just remember not to blame. Be honest (without too many details), and show how you've learned from this and why the new job is a far better fit. I'm not saying this for sure guarantees negative comments will be ignored, but it's worth a shot if all else fails. Just so you know, some current bosses say they're happy to help, but underneath (or even up front) they may be a bit annoyed you're leaving them. That could lead to less than a positive reference, although rest assured that I've also spoken to many current bosses who were indeed supportive.
A few more thoughts
Since there's a lot you can't control in the interview process, your best bet is to do what you can ahead of time to assure that your references will be on your side. So please create a professional-looking list with references you've carefully vetted beforehand. (See link to references sample above.) Just know that if the rest of the package you present is very strong and you do your best to build a solid connection during the interview process, a weakness mentioned by only one of your references (unless it is something horrendous), should not be the reason you don't get the job. I hope that helps. Good luck!