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How to Explain Why a Previous Manager Is a Bad Reference in an Interview

by Ralph Heibutzki

Few situations feel more nerve-wracking for applicants than trying to explain why a former manager might be a bad reference. However, your options aren't as dismal as you think. Hiring managers don't always have time to research every candidate, and even if they do, you must always redirect the conversation back to your outstanding qualities. No matter what your old boss says, you still have to prove why you're the right person for the job.

Confront the Problem

If you expect a bad reference, confront the issue before the interview. Contact your old boss, or human resources division, and ask whether you can develop a mutually agreeable response for future reference checks, the HCareers.com website said. Most companies are happy to see you move on, so you have nothing to lose by trying. Also, double-check reference policies. If your ex-employer can't go beyond verifying employment dates, remind him that it's in his own best interest to follow the policy.

Deflect the Issue

If your requests for neutral references don't get anywhere, you'll need to develop responses for awkward questions that may come up. CBS MoneyWatch website columnist Mike Zimmerman recommends focusing on your work, rather than the personalities involved. For example, if an interviewer digs into problems with your ex-boss, simply acknowledge the situation, but stress your respect for him, and proceed to the work that you did together. Your positive stance may even prompt the hiring manager to disregard a former supervisor's negative comments.

Keep It Brief

Keep all responses brief. Long explanations only highlight unpleasant situations that you don't want to emphasize, such as getting fired, the CareerCast website advises. Even so, it's possible to craft a response that won't sink your chances of getting the job. For example, if you were downsized, a recruiter won't hold that situation against you. If your firing was performance-related, say that the job no longer suited your interests -- or you wanted new challenges -- and move on to the next subject.

Offer Alternative Views

If the interviewer continues to push for details about a past negative work situation, U.S. News & World Report career columnist Alison Green recommends offering alternative viewpoints that provide a more balanced picture, such as those of former clients, customers and co-workers. If necessary, bring old performance evaluations, so a hiring manager knows you've done good work in the past. However you choose to respond, avoid striking a defensive tone. Acknowledge that you didn't see eye-to-eye with Manager X, but let the recruiter know there's another side to the story.

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