Have you ever hired someone with a bad reference?

I’ve never been overly enthusiastic about references when I don’t know the person providing the reference. Because if I call random stranger and say, “Was Jane a good employee?” and he says, “No. She was a horrible psychopath.” How do I know whether it was Jane who was the horrible psychopath or the person with whom I am speaking?

Maybe it goes back to my time in fast food (1990-1992) when I had a really annoying shift manager. The owner and I lived in the same neighborhood and went to the same church and so I knew him better than the other employees did. One day he said he had an ethical dilemma. Competing restaurant had called him, looking for a reference for annoying shift manager. He said, “If I give an honest reference, then I’m stuck with him, but if I say he’s fabulous he’ll take the new job and won’t be my problem any more.”

Not being well versed on employment law I didn’t offer up the advice I would now which is to go ahead and fire the guy. He was at will to begin with, and furthermore a white male, under 40, living in St. George, UT. No threat of a discrimination law suit there.

Now, given that the annoying shift manager didn’t quit to go to the competing restaurant, I suppose that my boss decided to be honest in his reference.

But, what if he hadn’t?

And furthermore, what if annoying shift manager was actually fabulous shift manager and he lied to the competing restaurant in order to keep him? Hmmm, then what?

So my point (and I do have one) is that references where the parties are unknown to you pretty much seem like a crap shoot anyway.

So, have you ever done a reference check (or had someone else do a reference check and provide you information) and have the reference come back and say the person was horrible and you hired anyway?

If so, how did it work out for you?

I get so many emails from people who have had bad experiences with bosses and now they are terrified what these bad bosses will say. Now, it’s pretty clear to me that some of my beloved letter writers are the ones with the problems. But in many cases it certainly sounds to me like the boss was the problem.

So, is it possible to overcome a bad reference or do you just have to hope that the recruiter doesn’t track down this particular bad boss?

Related Posts

53 thoughts on “Have you ever hired someone with a bad reference?

  1. If I got a set of bad comments from one reference I’d check the second, and ask leading questions of both to try to flesh out what the issue really was.

    If it turned out that both/more than one reference had similar issues then I’d have to decide if that behaviour was something I was willing to manage through with the prospective employee vs the talents/experience etc they’d bring to the role.

    If I got a glowing reference from one, and a glowering reference from another I’d either ask for a third reference, or be left wondering if there was a polarising personality issue. I’d probably choose to reinterview/have a conversation at that point and ask more behaviour event type questions.

    Two crap references, or one crap and one non committal – both from non current employer and I’d be unlikely to employ though. If the prospective employee can’t judge the relationship they have with they nominate to speak for them then what hope have they got of judging effective work relationships in the team environment they would be stepping into?

    1. I think there is a huge difference between references that candidate hands over and references that you track down yourself.

      I agree, if they give you 3 names and those people say bad things, then this person clearly didn’t have the good sense to vet their references.

        1. Just had that experience. ..shocking as wasted hours of 4-5 peoples time. I consistently get to being the preferred candidate then it goes cold….turns out a boss I thought appreciated my work is having a field day putting me down

        2. Just had that experience. ..shocking as wasted hours of 4-5 peoples time. I consistently get to being the preferred candidate then it goes cold….turns out a past boss I thought appreciated my work is having a field day putting me down

  2. I wondered the same. No one really knows that your former boss was a raging alcoholic who soiled your records despite all you have done. I guess this is where networking and building relationships is so important where you can stand on your own reputation and not need much in the way of references. If you are young, you need reference from someone with this same reputation. Managers should weigh in and either refute or defend the source of references too.

    1. When you’ve gotten a new job via networking, and your new boss knows you professionally already, references are irrelevant. Great point!

  3. If I’m calling a reference that is provided to me by the applicant – rather than, say, if the reference is required to be a manager at the prior job – they better be saying nice things. If you can’t find someone with whom you’ve worked professionally to say nice things about you, I would be very reluctant to hire you.

    1. I totally agree here! If you’ve said, “call Bob!” then I 100% expect Bob to say something good.

  4. I’ve gotten very few really bad references … although I did talk to one who told me that the guy had been fired for stealing from the company and went to jail for it (that explained the gap on his resume)! I confirmed that online, and it saved me from hiring the person.

    More commonly, though, what I’ve encountered are lukewarm references. “Yeah, he was fine,” that kind of thing. I used to think, “Oh, this reference probably just isn’t a very effusive person,” but I’ve found lukewarm references do have a pretty high rate of correlation with lukewarm performance, and so now I take them really seriously. I would rather mistakenly pass over a great person than mistakenly hire the wrong person.

    It makes it hard for candidates, I know.

    1. It does make it hard for the candidates. My husband once lost out on a job offer because a former boss was a stickler for rules and would not violate company policy of only confirming dates of service. She told the recruiter repeatedly that company policy was dates of service only.

      The recruiter said, “If you’d been outstanding, she would have broken the rule.”

      In retrospect, we’re glad that happened because that job was in Iowa and if he’d taken it, we wouldn’t have ended up in Switzerland, so it’s all for the best. But at the time, it stunk.

  5. I’m a Corporate Recruiter for a Fortune 50 company and we don’t perform reference checks for those exact reasons. We trust our hiring process to decide who the most qualified candidate is for the role and make our decision based on interviews and assessments. However, if I hear from a current employee that someone isn’t recommended/supported to join our organization based on their experience with them at a past organization, I do give that some weight.

    1. I feel vindicated!

      And yes, if you know the person with the opinion, that changes everything.

  6. Just went through this. Candidate was a recent college grad located in the UK, and she had indicated to me up front that one of her internship references would not be positive. She was right. The internship supervisor (a French national) said in no uncertain terms never to hire the young lady, that she had been immature and unprepared. We almost did not hire. But we received two other references, both positive, and we weighed the circumstances (first internship, away from home, French company, 3 years ago) and decided to take a chance. We are hoping with proper coaching and mentoring, we will be glad we made the decision.

    On the other side of the conversation is the concern for negligent hiring claims if we do hire a walking sexual harassment claim or someone who will rob us blind. I believe in taking all references with a big grain of salt, but not doing them at all seems to be very dangerous territory.

    1. A lot of companies are scared about mentioning things like sexual harassment problems unless there was some sort of official court case involved.

      Good luck with your new hire! I hope she works out.

  7. I lost a job offer due to a bad reference (I managed to get that info out of the recruiter; it was like pulling teeth). He wouldn’t tell me which reference, but I could guess. He did tell me what they said.

    The reference said I “needed direction”. This came from my most recent manager who _never_ gave any form of direction, never set expectations, rarely assigned projects, and mostly seemed to believe I would read his mind and make everything up as I went along. I don;t need (or want) micromanaging of the “how” but a bit of direction for the “what” can be helpful. If you’re setting out on a trip, you at least need to know if you should head east, west, or north.

    I no longer use that references. (and co-workers at the next job were astonished to think that I “needed direction”.)

    1. That’s exactly what I’m talking about here. This is the kind of thing that makes me not like references.

  8. There is a difference between checking references and verifying previous employment. References are those names supplied by the candidate of individuals that can speak to the candidate’s skills/work habits/attitude etc. Calling a candidate’s previous employers to confirm dates and titles and speak to previous supervisors is a different activity.

    In many companies, all calls regarding past employees are handled exclusively by the HR department which typically only provides dates of employment and job title(s). Ex-supervisors are not part of the picture. If, however, supervisors are allowed to talk to prospective employers, it won’t matter if Vicki (above) uses that name on her reference list or not. We had a client with a similar issue with an old supervisor bad mouthing her unfairly. She contacted the HR department at her previous company, and they gave her the name of an HR rep to substitute for her supervisor’s on applications; problem solved.

    1. Sure, but there’s nothing to stop a prospective employer from calling Vicki’s supervisor even if she’s not down as a reference.

      1. This is true. People often think you can only call the references listed, but you can call anyone.

    2. Reference checking and employment verification are two different things. I’ve heard of companies requiring W2s as a form of employment verification. No phone calls needed!

  9. Few years ago we were looking to hire a new manager at one of our bank branches. Young man applied whom we all knew as the manager of the store down the street and a customer of ours. When we checked his references, his current employer told us that he stolen some money although they couldn’t prove it (he said/ she said sorta thing) which is why he was still employed there. We asked him about the bad reference and he chalked it up to him and his boss not seeing eye to eye which is why he was looking to change jobs. And being that his other 2 references were glowing and that we all knew the guy (since he was a customer) we made the decision to hire him. Turns out we had to terminate him for theft.

  10. I remember seeing statistics on the usefulness of various forms of selection methods for getting the right candidate during one of my HR papers and references got similar results to phrenology.
    As someone said further up, checking employment dates and position titles is one thing but relieing on them to make your final recruitment decision is another.

  11. I have retained one reference from a company I was fired from. It’s still recent enough (2003) that employers asking for at least the last ten years will see it. She is in a perfect position to testify to working with me, as we were in the same department, often worked closely together, and was laid off in a meeting in front of everyone, WITH NO PRIOR NOTICE, before I was. She’s also a teacher now, so she has some credibility.

    1. I think it’s important to have at least one person lined up from any recent job.

  12. I was hired after I was given a negative reference, and it was for my first professional job out of college. I was hired for a teaching position, and the supervising teacher for my student teaching gave me a negative reference. This was a complete surprise to me, as I had done well and received praise for my performance in his class. My new principal advised me not to use him and told me what he had said, which was very petty criticism that did not in any way reflect my ability to perform the job duties. He said I used too many “big words” with students (5th graders), but he neglected to mention that I also defined those words if the kids did not understand them. I also walked to the side of the class when they were lined up in the hallway instead of directly in front of the line–I wanted to be able to see the entire line, but he issued that as a criticism as well. Fortunately, my principal gave me a chance and also a glowing reference when I left that job several years later.

    1. Ahh,sounds like a dream supervising teacher. You should stop using big words–we wouldn’t want the children to actually learn something!

  13. Thank you, EHRL, for this post. Thank you, as well, to the hiring managers for your feedback.

  14. If you’ll allow two semi-non-sequiters….

    1) I once told a company calling me for a reference that my former employee was so sweet and a delight to work with, but a total wreck in her personal life, and likely a no-show to work, and that I fired her. The manager replied, “Perfect! She’ll fit right in with everyone else here!” And he hired her. Amazing!

    2) I was listed as a reference once, for a guy whom I never met or worked with. I listened in on his phone interview for one of my clients where I was an HR consultant, and when he applied to his next job (as a veterans hospital administrator!) he listed his sister, brother-in-law and me as his three references. The funny thing was when he called me in advance to ask if he could list me as a reference, I told him sure, go ahead, but I will just tell them you have the bad judgment to list someone with no knowledge of you. “Okay! Thanks!” Interesting post, as usual, EHRL.

    1. I loved your non-sequiters. And at least in the first instance, the guy new what would work well in his culture.

      In the second, that’s all kinds of awesome. I think we should all list Dave as a reference from now on. :>)

  15. I once hired someone with a bad reference. I called her former manager (not listed on the reference page), who railed for 20 minutes about how the candidate had had the AUDACITY to give her 2 weeks notice, without telling them she was unhappy, and giving them the opportunity to make their behavior better. Six months later, they were still really, deeply offended, and gave her a really rotten review.

    After thinking about it for a few minutes, it made me respect her all the more for her polite and non-committal answers about that job and why she had left. She turned out to be a lovely employee – not a single complaint.

    1. Glad you saw through that. Sounds like she had good reason for not telling that boss that she was unhappy.

  16. I recently became a director of a daycare center. We need to hire teacher aides and one applicant listed all personal references. When I called to ask if I could contact someone form a school she worked at she said yes and game me the principal’s name. I called, and the references was NOT GOOD. There is no way she would work well with my staff and families. My question is, do I tell her we already filled the position, or tell her we decided not to hire her because of a bad reference? I don’t want to throw the principal under the bus. I have never had a position of authority before. Thanks for the advice!

    1. Did you make her an offer contingent on references? If so, then you need to tell her that her references were not good and you cannot offer her the job.

      If you haven’t extended her an offer, you’re not obligated to tell her why you’re not hiring her. You can just simply state “thank you for interviewing with us. Unfortunately we cannot offer you a job. Good luck in your future endeavors.”

      Now, should you tell her? I’m torn.

    2. I wonder why a reference does that surely she did the standard call or email request to ask whether the reference was willing to be named so? I just don’t get why a referee would give a bad reference rather opt ou than mess with someone’s livelyhood!

  17. Hi, I am currently hired by a famous grand historic hotel/resort as a commis waiter, I love my job, but the hotel surroundings (hotel is in a country side) are empty with only wast woods and golf courses.
    I have a problem of getting to work on time since I moved out of staff accommondation and now I live 5 kilomiters from hotel and the bus traffic is bad – bus always arrives 10 minutes late after my shift has already started.

    I was lectured about that and now I am cycling to work, but going to work is uphill so it takes me about 30 – 45 minutes. I arrive sweaty, but since I use a lot of perfume noone notices.
    The weather is getting bad outside and I am catching cold, but I have no other means of transport then my bicycle since bus traffic is bad and I have no car or drivers licence.

    I am looking for a new job in a big city now, I already went for one interwiev and they will get back to me this week.

    Because of me being late for all those times and one time sleeping in plus a trouble with the guest, which I handled professionaly, but the complaint went out before I handled it. I was given 3 warnings which are on my file and will last 12 months before being erased.

    I heavent caused any trouble to hotel since I am cycling to work now and I check the order with the guest before it goes to the chef, since it was reception who took the order.

    Now, my question is about references – could I obtain good or bad reference in this case, if I only have worked for them for 6 months or should I continue working for them until my warnings are erased?
    I have a good realtionship with my supervisors and managers plus the whole staff is warm and friendly.

    Many thanks in advance, I will await your answer dear HR Lady.

  18. Hi, we all have been retrenched from a company where i use to work for 3 years, i was part of the last team who was suppose to make sure the company closing process land in a good way.
    Following our retrenchment i went to many interviews but unfortunately i didnt receive any feedback from them while i know my test and interview performances were very good. recently i went to an interview and test the agent really liked me and the company also appreciated me a lot, they requested the agent to call my references and she find out that my last reference was not reachable, she than requested me another and i provided another supervisor contact where she got very good reference, she decide to send an email to the contact on my cv even after she got that feedback. The following day, she phoned me and told me that feedback was very bad and i should remove that guy from my CV he was saying: ” I will not advise you to hire him, he is always late at work, sleeps at work and is short temper”, I was shocked for 3 years in the company i never received a warning for late coming, sleeping or being rude to anyone at work. All my appraisal performance reviews are very good. That guy joined my account few months before the company closes, we never had any fight and he was my supervisor for max 3 months i never had any evaluation with him as my last supervisor even short time he agreed i could put him as reference. I spent 6 months of my life going to interview involving a lot of energy, money for fuel and time to prepare, all this test passed and he just popped in to destroy me at the end. I have been kicked out of my house with bills pending. Today i am going to meet the HR of the last company the agent just sent me for their last decision, i will bring with me other references and my appraisal reviews hoping this will clean me up. I sent many CVs with that guy reference and this will hunt me for long. What can i do to clear this situation? 1. Sue him for defamation? 2. Send other references to all the company where i went for interviews with my appraisal with an explanation letter? 3. Confront him?
    Believe me this is a very bad situation to find yourself in and the NEGATIVE REFERENCE you giving about another person if it is not involving CRIME(law proofs) can have a very dangerous impact on his life and that can clash back on you. I am a father of two, lucky that my wife work as well but her income is just enough for few things, we going through hell just because of one person who knew me for 3 last months of the company closing process.

  19. Hello, I have a relevant question. At my first job as a contract engineer at a large company, I had a moody boss who later on committed suicide. He cut down my 1 year contract in a rage decision to 10 months and left me a bad review. I was doing fine at the company and the only problem was that the company’s products weren’t as great as the competitive company and it really got into him. Long story short, the company has expanded since then but unfortunately because of that bad review I keep getting turned down when I apply to other positions there. Please help! Do I have a legal stand here? Can I ask to see what he wrote in that review? Can I claim that since he wasn’t emotionally stable, his review is biased?

  20. I’m impressed, I have to admit. Rarely do I come across a blog that’s equally educative and engaging,
    and without a doubt, you’ve hit the nail on the head. The problem is an issue that not enough men and women are speaking intelligently about. Now i’m very happy I found this in
    my hunt for something relating to this.

  21. My husband has the worst luck with his references. He has only ever had 2 jobs in his life and the most recent one is the only available for a reference as the prior store burned down and he lost contact with the owner. That prior job reference would have been outstanding.

    Long story short… he works at McDonalds. He’s of course butted heads with some supervisors and employees from time to time but was recently suspended for a petty comment. The suspension wasn’t warranted and we suspect it was really because he just got back from a month off due to injury and WSIB was giving the employer a rough time with what he could do and he had doctor’s notes and whatnot.

    During this suspension he is actively looking for new work and has gotten a number of phone calls, even interviews. He seems set up to get the job until they mention they need to call his prior employer for a reference. After that he never hears from them again.

    He has tried telling some employers of the situation and he said they seemed understanding and all they needed to do was just confirm with McDonalds he wasn’t actually fired or anything for something bad.

    To me it is unfair if they are giving him a bad reference. They don’t like him (a manager made this very clear to him) and yet they don’t seem willing to help him out the door. No one seems willing to give him that chance he needs to get out of working at McDonalds. I personally would put into consideration that the applicant was working at McDonalds for a very long time and it isn’t a pleasant job to begin with, I mean it isn’t like he works an important position for a big company.

    It seems ridiculous that some people who’ve never had a job can land anything but someone with one bad employment experience is branded as a bad employee until they can get somewhere who doesn’t call references.

  22. Let’s say you call someone’s references, and they all have great things to say. Then, you blind call the previous employer, and the reference is less than glowing. What questions, if any, can you ask the candidate to follow up? I feel one bad, blind reference should make me exclude this candidate, but it does make me nervous. What’s the next step?

    1. I had this happen to me. My references were glowing, but the HR person also did a blind call to my supervisor from a previous employer, who had less than kind things to say. So the HR person called me and asked if I could explain my relationship with my old boss.

      The answer on my end was fairly simple; there were no performance issues, but he was offended and upset when I put in my two weeks notice. I then offered to provide another reference from that company if they desired.

      Without providing further detail, they said that my comment made a lot of sense. I’ve never found out what my old supervisor said, but the HR person thought “it [was] hilarious in retrospect”. I received a job offer two hours later.

  23. I have good referencing and have done a variety of roles within the same industry. Along the way as I move about the company, I ask for referees from direct supervisors I trust. I have collected good written references. Recently, a previous supervisor who’d given me a glowing refernce, was fired. I didn’t know about this. But found out that she had given me a negative reference that did not match the written one written years prior. Can I ask the new employer to consider another reference, since I have so many people I have worked for that would certainly not do this and will attest to my work ethic and favourable personal skills? What do we do with supervisors who write great referencing, but years later don’t stand behind them?

  24. I was called to provide a reference for someone who was being offered a job in a different part of my organization. When I called back to provide it, I found out they’d already hired her. However, they still were interested in anything I wanted to share. I was honest that she had some skills, but also some areas for growth. She was hired (and not working for me) so I could rest easy I had been honest yet not cost her the job.

    I just found out that someone disclosed to her that I gave a less-than-glowing reference. She has now shared this with at least one other person in our company for whom I had also provided a reference (though very positive). He now worried about what I’d said about him. Well I don’t regret being honest, it certainly makes me hesitant to answer a reference check in the future, and concerned there are ethics violations.

    1. well,I dont mean to be rude but you had that one coming. When your Conscience pings back like that, its a sign that you did the wrong thing.
      If you cant give someone a good reference, then you shouldn’t give one at all. People are trying to get hired and if you’ve already agreed to help them out by being a reference, then you should go all of the way. Whats it to you that they’re looking to move on with their career?

  25. I witnessed my boss give a horrible reference (swearing and all) in front of the entire staff over the phone to a prospective employer of someone who was fired from my current place of employment. He was not a horrible employee, he was punctual did his job, worked through his lunch. but he had a bit of a temper and mouthed off a customer…in the parking lot. so he was fired and should have been for doing something as stupid as that but it made me think: “is this what he will say about me when i leave?” If my boss has this low of a regard for a former employee that he will be this unprofessional and defame someone openly what is to say i wont get this same treatment? and correct me if i am wrong but this is Defamation is it not?

    would references which are so blatantly one sided be met with criticism by HR or would they just be taken as is?

Comments are closed.

Are you looking for a new HR job? Or are you trying to hire a new HR person? Either way, hop on over to Evil HR Jobs, and you'll find what you're looking for.