How should you handle a bad reference?

Suspect an old employer may give you a poor reference? Here's what you should do.

When it comes to your professional career, references play a significant role in securing new opportunities. However, what should you do if you suspect that you might receive a bad reference from your last employer? It can be a challenging situation to navigate, but it’s important to remember that it’s not the end of the world. In this blog, we will discuss some practical steps you can take to handle a bad reference and improve your chances of finding new employment.

Assess the situation.

Before jumping to conclusions, take a step back and evaluate the situation objectively. Determine whether your assumption about a bad reference is based on concrete evidence or just speculation. Reflect on your performance and any potential issues that might have led to a negative reference. Understanding the reasons behind a possible bad reference will help you strategise better.

Focus on self-imporvement.

Instead of dwelling on the negative, use the situation as an opportunity for personal growth and development. Identify the areas where you think you need improvement and take proactive steps to enhance your skills. This could involve taking additional courses, certifications, or volunteering in relevant projects. By showcasing a commitment to self-improvement, you can counterbalance any negative remarks from your previous employer.

Seek alternative references.

While it’s essential to have references from previous employers, they aren’t the only ones who can vouch for your abilities and character. Consider reaching out to other professional contacts such as former colleagues, supervisors from previous jobs, mentors, or even clients. These individuals can provide a balanced perspective on your skills and work ethic, helping to offset any potential damage caused by a bad reference.

Assess the situation head on.

If you have a strong suspicion that your last employer might provide a negative reference, it’s wise to address the situation proactively. Schedule a meeting with your previous employer or the person who will be giving the reference. Approach the conversation with professionalism and ask for feedback on your performance. Express a genuine desire to improve and request suggestions for how to overcome any perceived weaknesses. This open dialogue demonstrates your willingness to learn and grow.

Showcase positive references & achievements.

In addition to alternative references, highlight any positive feedback or achievements you received during your previous employment. This could include performance metrics, awards, commendations, or positive client testimonials. When you present a well-rounded picture of your abilities and accomplishments, potential employers are more likely to focus on the positive aspects rather than a single negative reference.

Leverage your network.

Networking plays a crucial role in the job search process. Reach out to individuals in your professional network who may be aware of job opportunities or have connections within companies you’re interested in. A personal referral can carry significant weight and help counterbalance a bad reference. Utilize platforms like LinkedIn to expand your network and make new connections that could lead to potential job leads.

Be transparent with future employers.

Honesty is always the best policy. While it can be tempting to hide a potential bad reference, it’s crucial to be transparent with prospective employers. Explain the situation concisely and focus on the steps you’ve taken to improve and grow from the experience. Demonstrating your self-awareness and ability to overcome challenges can be impressive to potential employers.


Receiving a bad reference from your previous employer can be disheartening, but it doesn’t have to define your professional future. By taking proactive steps, focusing on self-improvement, and leveraging your network, you can mitigate the impact of a negative reference. Remember to stay positive, showcase your achievements, and be transparent with prospective employers. With determination and perseverance, you can overcome this obstacle and find new opportunities that align with your goals and aspirations.

For further support on how you should handle a bad reference, or to discuss taking the next steps in your career, contact the Harrison Sands team today 0113 487 2161