Burning Reference Bridges: What Not To Do

I recently worked with a highly skilled candidate with a resume that read like a dream for any potential employer. For the sake of this post, let’s call this candidate Tom.

Tom had worked for his previous employer – Company A – for five years. On departure, he decided to tell Company A’s management exactly how he felt about working conditions there. Let’s just say, in Tom’s fairly strong opinion, “his employer had it coming”.

In 2017, this would come back to seriously backfire on Tom.

Having moved on from his less than happy work within Company A, Tom had been working in another company, Company B, for four years – but now he was looking for further career advancement outside this business. He came to us, looking for a position with Company C.

At interview, Tom was well spoken and well presented, and he had the exact experience we needed to fit Company C’s requirements. Tom left the last interview with the client excited to know he was the preferred candidate and that his dream job and a pay rise was potentially right around the corner.


We asked for a reference!

Tom couldn’t give his current employer as they weren’t aware he was looking. This wasn’t a problem; the issue for Tom was that the only reference he could provide was his manager at Company A, whom he had given a fairly hefty swipe to on departure. He reluctantly passed on the contact details – and at this stage, Tom’s application came to a grinding stop.

His previous manager at Company A refused to provide a reference.

Tom had worked for nine years and yet no manager could, or would, recommend his work. Furthermore, due to the manager at Company A refusing to provide a reference, a level of concern was raised for Company C that resulted in Tom not getting the job.

Tom was understandably upset about the outcome but took away many lessons from the process:


  1. Exit a business with your long-term goals in mind. Be pleasant and respectful. If you are asked for feedback at an exit interview, ensure you stay professional and focused. If there were issues, don’t communicate on a personal “he said/she said” level about them.
  2. Stay in contact with your previous managers or supervisors. Your manager may leave the business and it is important that you know where they are. LinkedIn is a good professional network for this.
  3. Ensure your previous manager is aware you have given their details for a reference, and brief them on the position you are being considered for before the recruiter makes contact.
  4. Most Recruiters will ask for a reference from your manager or direct supervisor, not a peer. It is a potential red flag if your reference isn’t someone who directly managed you.
  5. If you suspect you may receive a negative reference, be honest at interview. It is better to let a potential employer know there was conflict then have the surprise at the final stages.
  6. Ask an industry specific recruiter for advice. That is what they are there for.

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