How to Explain a Bad Reference to an Interviewer [Pro Tips]

    Getting a bad reference can make you feel like you’ll never get another job again. Don’t worry, just follow these tips to explain your reference.

    Typically, you’d only put someone down as a reference on your resume if you know they think highly of you. But maybe their opinion has changed since the last time you spoke, or maybe you’ve only had one job and it ended on bad terms.

    Either way, a bad reference is never good. Having to explain why your former employer spoke poorly of you can be very difficult.

    But there are ways to handle the situation that can prevent you from losing out on a great employment opportunity, and we’re going to talk about them.

    Read on to learn how to explain a bad reference to a potential employer.

    Be Straightforward

    You may not know for sure you even have a bad reference until a potential employer calls you out on it. That’s not exactly the type of surprise anyone likes while interviewing!

    That is why you must prepare to explain negative references. If you already know you had a job that wasn’t the best fit for you, the criticism won’t be entirely shocking. 

    If you hem and haw when a prospective employer asks about the bad reference and avoid it or deny it altogether, it will be hard to recover from that. 

    Be straightforward and explain your side of the situation openly. Practice how you will explain what happened by following the rest of our tips …

    Acknowledge Your Faults

    Before you start interviewing, think about the events that lead to the bad reference in the first place.

    Were you perpetually late? Did you call out sick regularly?

    Most people do not form a negative opinion on someone without reason, so the best thing to do is own up to your faults. We all make mistakes, but if we do not acknowledge them, we cannot learn from them, which is a wasted opportunity for growth.

    You may think the bad reference is bogus, but saying that will make future employers question your maturity and ability to accept criticism.

    Do a bit of introspection, honestly reflect on your past, acknowledge your faults, and then be sure to.

    Be Humble

    It won’t help to say that your former manager disliked you from the start, even though you were a perfect employee.

    No one is perfect, and acting like the bad reference is someone else’s fault will not help your chances of getting a new job. The employer will no doubt discard your resume and wish you good luck in your future endeavors. 

    Try a different path before you burn another bridge. If you have a feeling a former employer will provide a bad reference, contact them beforehand. If you genuinely humble up and talk out old issues, they may be more inclined to provide a good reference instead of a bad one.

    And you never know, it could have all been a misunderstanding!

    Recognizing your own faults is a sign of intellectual humility, which in itself can impress your interviewer and help you put a positive spin on the situation.

    Demonstrate Growth

    Learning to take your licks and deal with negative criticism is a part of life, and it happens to everyone. Change a negative into a positive by thinking about all the ways you’ve grown since that last job. 

    Maybe you have:

    • Had a tremendous work experience and a great relationship with an employer.
    • Volunteered your time at a charitable organization that would be happy to recommend you.
    • Taken classes online or at a local college that has taught you new and meaningful aspects of your dream career.

    Make these the talking points with your potential employer.

    If you can show them all the ways you’ve grown, a bad reference from a past employer will seem like less of an issue. 

    Put It Behind You

    A bad reference not only hurts your chances of future employment, it also hurts your feelings. This is especially true if you’re young. And though it may sound discouraging right now, that kind of rejection does get easier to accept as you mature.

    For now, the next step is to put the whole issue behind you, even if you still have that bad reference hurting your reputation. Dwelling on things that hurt your pride is not productive.

    Instead, focus on all the positive aspects of your employment past and your bright future, especially before you hurt your job chances even more.

    Putting it behind you also lets you take the final step …

    Move Forward

    Everyone deals with a bad reference from time to time. But in the end, they shrug off those bad vibes in order to move forward.

    It was a learning experience, and now that you’ve dealt with it, you certainly never want to go through that again!

    This is why it is time to follow steps to be a superb employee, so neither employers nor coworkers can ever give you anything but fantastic reviews.


    Explaining a bad reference to a potential employer can be awkward. And if you don’t know how to navigate the situation, it can mean you miss out on an ideal job opportunity.

    But remember: people go through this experience all the time, and a lot of them end up getting the job they want! Manage it with grace and honesty, and learn how to use it as an opportunity to grow. 

    With that attitude and the steps above, a bad reference will soon be a thing of the past. 

    Adam Marshall is a freelance writer who specializes in all things apartment organization, real estate, and college advice. He currently works with Grove at Pullman to help them with their online marketing.


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