Most job seekers have compiled a list of references who can vouch for their job performance. Ideally, the job seeker will have asked their references if they can speak to their abilities and the result will be a glowing recommendation. But this is one area you cannot leave to chance. Most prospective employers will contact the former employer whether or not they are on "the list". A bad reference can and will prevent job offers so it is best to be prepared.
So, what do you do?
- First, be sure that the references you are giving are the right ones. Call each of your references and explain the job(s) you are interviewing for. Be sure to identify the skills that will be needed for the job and remind them of how you have demonstrated those skills in the past. Ask if they would be willing to give you a positive reference. If the answer is no or if they are hesitating in their answer, do not include them on your list.
- Analyze your work history. If there is a negative assessment outstanding, you need to address it immediately. Was it a personality clash or was it poor performance? If it was a personality clash, call the person directly. Explain to them your situation and ask them to agree that in spite of your differences, the job was done and done well. You can say, "my former manager and I did not have great chemistry but I'm sure she'd agree that the job was done and done well".
- If a bad reference is due to poor performance from your most recent job, come clean with the prospective employer. Tell them the job was not a good fit for you and offer 2-3 other references who can vouch that you have demonstrated the skills they are looking for. Do not sound negative or defensive. Try saying, "that particular role did not play to my strengths and as a result, I was not able to create the track record I would have liked. This position requires the skills I excel at and I can provide several other references who can vouch for me." This approach may be viewed by some as risky but if you left your former organization for poor performance, the prospective employer will most likely find out.