Reputation Question: When your reference is BAD

I have a great question from a friend and JibberJobber user, I’ll call him [Name Redacted]. His question:

Jason, I have a less than great reference. The issue is that it was a government job and if someone asks when I worked there, there is sort of like a check box that says something like “separation for performance.” The superior did this to many people, and was actually fired in part for it, but those who were hurt by it are in the city’s record and they don’t think through the implications of that on the record.

What do I do? Especially if I am going to be checked out for a similar job?

This is probably one of the main reasons employers can’t give much more information than to answer the almost-useless question: “Did [Name Redacted] work at your organization between these dates?”

Advice #0

This is legitimate advice, although I think it is too much work. But, it might be necessary since we are talking about city records and potential government employers, who might care about this.

I remember back in, maybe it was around 2004 or so, HR told the entire company that we were not allowed to say anything more than yes or no to that question. We were not allowed to talk about performance, reason for separation, “would you hire them again,” etc.

Lawsuits, my friends, lawsuits.

I’m not suggestion [Name Redacted] sue the city because lawsuits are just plain sloppy. They are expensive and time consuming and emotional and just painful (unless you are the lawyer). Having said that, it might make sense to get some legal council to see what can be done to remove that information from the city records. My first guess is that the city won’t even share that part of your past history… and that people might not even ask for it. But it could impact looking at other government jobs. If you want to stay in that sector, perhaps talk to the city to see if something can be done.

By the way, you can pay a firm ( – I met them at a conference once a million years ago) to call and do background checks as if they were a future employer, and then tell you what came up in those calls. It’s a pretty cool service. They also have a service called “Cease and Desist Letter for Bad Job References,” which probably won’t help in this case but it might.

Advice #1

This is what I would normally advise people to do.


This advice is two-part, both equally important.

First, bury everything you can.

This advice comes from years ago, when I was asked about other negative stuff you might find in a google search. I know this isn’t a google search, which is why I put Advice #0 above, but I think the idea is still relevant. Figure out everything you can do to have POSITIVE things show up before people find the negative things.

This might mean you get lots of LinkedIn Recommendations that talk about your professional competencies… everything from your hard skills to your leadership skills and integrity and ethics. If I were looking at someone’s stuff (resume, profile, portfolio, website, etc.) and I see a lot of positive talk about this person, I’m going to concentrate on that stuff.

Back to the google example, if you had something bad showing up on your first hit, first page, you would want to have 20 or 30 other pages show up and push that first hit down to page 3 or 4. Most people don’t read all the way to page 4… they’d just see a bunch of other pages of really flattering things.

Do this with stories, articles, blog posts, testimonials, etc. Make no mistake, this can be a big job. Some people actually hire firms to do this for them… these firms use SEO and design and writing and other tactics to push bad stuff off the front page.

The second part of the advice is to ADDRESS IT. Head on.

You have to be extremely careful about how you do this.

Have you heard that you shouldn’t bad mouth a previous employer? It really does make you look bad. But just because I’m saying you have to address something doesn’t mean you have to bad mouth the person.

Now, my tendency, as the interviewee, is to tell you the whole story about how I was wronged, and how stupid the old boss was. That is exactly what you SHOULD NOT do. Don’t use the interview to vindicate your honor. That’s not the purpose of the interview… it is to get closer to a job offer. Stay focused on that purpose, and tuck those urges to find a sympathetic ear aside.

Here’s how I might phrase this… you need to wordsmith your own response, then edit and edit until you get what you need, then practice it so you don’t sound jaded.

Note I would ONLY say this if it came up:

“Oh, are you referring to the “separation for performance” on my record from Gotham City? Yeah, that was an interesting situation. Turns out my supervisor regularly marked her team members with that, and abused it to the point where she was terminated for it. It was an unfortunate situation that hurt a lot of my colleagues, and it’s been hard to rectify this with the city. But, I have a number of references from people I worked with at the City, from my colleagues to my supervisors managers, and even internal customers. I’m happy to provide those to you.”

Or, you have those posted somewhere.

Man, just writing this makes me mad… there are some seriously stupid people out there that have had too much power, and abused it.

Another way to address this head on is to use the “bury it” idea and post those references on your site (or in your LinkedIn profile). You might have to keep names off, and just use partial recommendations, but you could say something like:

“My colleagues from the City, from the Director to people who worked side-by-side with me, say I’m dependable, have integrity, and an excellent team player. I was well-known for getting the job done right the first time, and would regularly be brought in to impossible situations to clean them up.”

It would help if you had any element of that from past coworkers… but you get the point.

So, without knowing more about your situation, or how this is coming up in your job search, that is my advice. I’d definitely do #1, but if it continues to be an issue I’d definitely see what you can do with the city to rectify it, even if that means getting some coworkers together and using a lawyer.

Good luck!


1 thought on “Reputation Question: When your reference is BAD”

  1. Jason – I see I got your question of the day. It is a tough issue – compelled to add – I was in one of 450 schools in queens and 1 principal was fired after both union, community, political, and a teacher rebellion happened. She used to see who was at union meetings – and I think that was my crime since I was untenured. They lost 75% of science teachers the prior year in the largest JHS in Queens.
    But I am stuck with it. Trying to see what I can do through the union – but they play a fine line with being naughty or nice with the city. A terrible spot.

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