When a Bad Reference is a Good Thing For Your Career

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  • Getting a great reference from your employer is an essential tool in your job search and an asset in managing your career. I even believe it is a right, assuming you were a good employee to have access to timely, thoughtful references. So, it would be natural to assume that if one of your references didn’t wholeheartedly recommend you for a job, it was a bad reference. Actually, they may have done you a favour. When is a bad reference a good thing?

Why job fit matters with employer references

There may be times in your career when referencing does not result in you winning the job. It would be natural to blame your reference. Think carefully before you do so. As you probably know, job fit is an important factor when companies select who to welcome to their teams.

There are different aspects to job fit. Beyond whether you can do the job at the level they are expecting, here are some other elements of job fit.

  • Work personality is one. Work behaviour is another.
  • Fit into a certain sized organization with its corresponding operating realities.
  • Fit into an organization going through a particular kind of change - rapid growth or turnaround being two examples.
  • Fit in terms of the culture of business and the markets served.
  • Fit in terms of the kind of business relationship the CEO or hiring executive wants with their executive.
  • And the specific context and demands of the role. 

Fit is vital to job success. That's why companies want to hire people who can both do the job and who fit.

More importantly, you want to put yourself in situations where you are set up to succeed. Landing a job that isn't a fit is not a good thing.  If your job reference, who presumably knows you well, feels that there is a mismatch, they may have done you a favour. Rember that an experienced recruiter or hiring manager may share or emphasize with the reference some difficult aspects of the job, or highlight a concern they have about your fit with their job. Your reference probably highlighted your strengths and workstyle truthfully based on their knowledge of you. 

Fit is a necessary element to both parties. 

How to decode and analyze a bad reference when you didn't get the job

It is very possible that there was a bona fide reason why someone was chosen over you. It may have been about the experience, or it may have been about fit. When this happens, I recommend doing nothing about it except moving on to the next opportunity. An experienced recruiter or hiring manager asks questions designed to get real information about how you operate. You could have a 100% positive reference from someone, but the information provided may not be what the hiring company is looking for. This is a fit issue.

There are situations where what is coming up in referencing is something you might want to think about doing something about. For example, some executives find themselves blocked at a certain level because of an issue with how they manage teams, or how they relate at senior levels. If you suspect that there is something developmental you can work on, think about doing that.

Of course, it is also possible that someone gave you a bad reference or a negative part of an otherwise positive reference. It happens. If you feel sure about your reference list, this probably isn’t it. However, you can elect to re-arrange who is on your list if you suspect that someone isn’t delivering what you had hoped.

If you aren’t certain who it might be, and you feel compelled to follow up, you can try a debrief with the reference. A question like “did any issues come up that might be helpful for me to be aware of?” could uncover something useful and explain what happened. However, if you value your reference, be very careful to do this in a constructive rather than accusatory tone.

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