A typical scenario…

The office door creaks open. You know full well that it’s the last time you’ll ever set foot in that office. Your heart is pounding, and sweat patches are forming around your armpits. 

“You know why we’ve called you in here,” your boss says, with a stern expression. “We’re going to have to terminate your contract.”

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The 5 steps to solve any problem.

(including this one)

Well, sh*t. Onto pastures new, right? No job is forever. So you start a new journey and land yourself an interview with an even better company. And you get through to the final stage (of course you do, you’re awesome).

But, steps away from the finish line, you hear those fated words: “Please supply your previous employer’s details so we can request character references.” And that’s that. 

Depending on the state you live in, your previous employer may not even have to provide a letter depending on the company’s size. In some states, they’re also allowed to disclose why they fired you or give the bare minimum of details about your time with them. (You can find out your State’s service letter laws here.)

Even if they give a super brief reference without actively slating you, it’s not great news for your future job prospects. It doesn’t help you if they type out “X worked here from 2003–2019.” That’s as see-through a response as a “yeah, fine, whatever” from your disgruntled teenage child. 

Whoever’s interviewing you will know what’s up.

This will likely be at odds with the glowing impression you’ve created in your interviews. In some application processes, it’ll stop you from getting an interview altogether (if you’ve been asked for references at the start of the process, which can sometimes happen).

Team Vippi is here to help you untangle the process of getting a reference when you and your last employer had something of a painful breakup.

Who can give you a good reference if your employers won’t?

Ken Coleman dissects the world of reference-seeking.

All is not lost! With a bit of lateral thinking and some corporate street smarts, you can make sure that a blunt or negative reference letter is balanced with other professional viewpoints.

Colleagues and previous collaborators

Your previous HR department isn’t your only port of call for a character reference. If you’ve got team leaders, managers, colleagues at the same level, or direct reports who can vouch for your management prowess, get a reference from them instead.

They’ve got access to headed company paper and most likely have a far closer working relationship with you than the person filling out your reference. 

Pro tip: Why not approach more than one colleague? You may be able to redeem a stern HR reference with multiple glowing references.

Customers and clients

Clients who’ve already benefited from your exemplary service make for a great reference. This is especially powerful if you’re going into sales. You’ve not only got someone giving the hiring manager information about your sales skills – but you’ve also built a strong enough relationship with your client for them to provide a testimonial.

Customer and client testimonials speak about you on several different levels.

If you’ve built significant business relationships over the years, have them write a glowing review of your reliability, rapport building, and punctuality. 

Pro tip: Don’t forget to have them mention the rough monetary value of sales you’ve made with them, how long you’ve had them as a contact, and what convinced them to take the initial plunge with your services.

Your hiring manager wants to see that you can add value to their operation. This is a great way to do so.

Previous college professors

If you went to college and developed a close relationship with one of your professors (in the vein of Dead Poets’ Society), have them provide a reference.

This is especially suitable for more academic roles. Applying for a sales job with a reference from your professor probably won’t register much in terms of significance with the hiring manager. For a position in editorial, research, or engineering, though? It might just be what gives you the edge.

Pro tip: Ask your professor to identify what was interesting about your thesis or dissertation, if they remember. Maybe they can highlight transferable aspects of your work ethic, like your capability with deadlines, receptiveness to feedback, or attention to detail.

Community leaders you’ve worked with

Perhaps you didn’t finish your last role on fantastic terms with your boss but regularly work with your local religious leaders on community projects, volunteer for non-profits in your area, or run a local children’s sports team, for example.

Many managers aren’t looking for this type of reference – a glowing review from your kid’s peewee soccer team isn’t going to convince J. P. Morgan that you have a vicious instinct for selling stock portfolios.

However, alongside references from previous colleagues, these can demonstrate that you’re a well-rounded individual who works hard to improve their community.

Pro tip: Think about whether the job you’re applying for really warrants a reference from a volunteering gig. You should still volunteer if you have the time because it’s a nice thing to do and it looks good as an additional gig on your resume. But for many jobs, a community-sourced reference won’t cut it in place of a bona fide employer reference.

Family members you’ve worked for

If you’ve worked for your family members in the past, they’re a great port of call for a good reference. It’s even better if you pulled your weight for them – that is, you turned up on time, avoided taking the family connection for granted, and did the damn job with a smile on your face.

They’re your family – they’re almost guaranteed to give you a glowing reference unless you f*cked up or tanked their business.

Pro tip: Avoid this tactic if your family member has the same surname as you or has their name plastered all over their letter heading – it’s obvious. Combined with a negative or blank reference from your previous employer, this looks like you had to get family assistance in light of a bad reference (which is true, but not something you want to be transparent about).

How to end an employment contract and stay on good terms with your employer

People leave jobs for any number of reasons. It doesn’t have to be an all-out war. Even if you’re fired, there are several ways to increase your chances of getting a positive reference from your previous employer and insulate yourself against these concerns.

  • Resign before you’re fired. We all make mistakes and very often know when we’ve crossed the line. A little honest self-reflection is required: if you’ve committed a fireable offense, get ahead of the curve and start casting your net elsewhere. (If you’re partway through a disciplinary, though, you might be breaking contract if you resign – check your contract before you make any rash decisions.)
  • When you resign, do it in person. A passive-aggressive email will leave a sour taste in your employer’s mouth – and their “revenge reference” could do you real damage. Be upfront, polite, and cordial, and resign at a time of day where you have time to explain, like the end of the day.
  • Respect your office’s rule in the first place. You might be tempted to stretch the system for profit, whine about unfair decisions on social media (thus breaking your company’s social media policy), or drink way too much at the work holiday party before making stupid decisions. Know that your family’s security, your health insurance, and your professional progression rest on you doing the right thing. You don’t have to be the teacher’s pet – but you do have to avoid being fired.
  • Know the recourse you have for wrongful dismissal claims. If you think you’ve been fired unfairly, seek legal counsel or speak to your State Labor Office for information on wrongful dismissal laws in your state. While this won’t have you parting ways on excellent terms, it gives you a counterpunch and supporting documentation in case of a negative reference.
  • Don’t talk sh*t about your manager or company after you leave. Being professional doesn’t stop with your obligation to one company. Having a passive-aggressive or gossipy attitude in light of your employer’s decision will only reflect poorly on you in the long run. This applies with water cooler conversations or social media – resist the temptation.
  • Work hard during your notice period. It might be tempting to think, “Weellllll, they’re not my problem anymore.” But the reality of crappy references proves they very much can remain your problem. Ensure you pull your weight while serving your notice and help your boss facilitate the smooth handover of any outstanding work or essential documents.

“Hire Me” Hacks: What can you do to get around not having a reference?

So, aside from approaching different professional connections in your life, is there anything you can do to sidestep the need for a reference?

Ask HR for a letter confirming start and end dates

This is quite a sneaky move, but one that could help you avoid a reference request in situations where they are most likely to be negative.

Upon being asked to leave, ask HR for a letter, just for your records. This letter would just need to confirm the start and end dates of your employment tenure. Then ask one of your closest colleagues to write you a positive character reference.

That way, when the hiring manager asks you for a reference, you give them a double whammy: One reference to confirm that you worked there, and another to show what you’re really like.

Suggest a trial shift for your new employer

If you can’t find a willing colleague to write you up a positive recommendation and have no other ports of call, it can feel a little hopeless and desperate.

However, don’t panic. Depending on the type of job you’re going for, you might be able to suggest a trial shift. Getting astonishing results on this shift might help the hiring manager looking past a sparse or sh*tty reference.

This might not be what your hiring manager is looking for. After all, a reference is about confirming your character and the likelihood of a long-term, mutually beneficial relationship. A shift might not demonstrate that. Some jobs, like telesales gigs, might allow for this as an option, though.

Gather customer reviews from a side hustle

Team Vippi wholly endorses the setting up of a side hustle – not only can it boost your income, but it’s also a superb opportunity to build networks and accrue skills that feedback into your primary career.

The other opportunity a side hustle affords is the potential for compiling a library of customer reviews and testimonials. Some hiring managers will accept this as an indicator that you can do your job well (if you’re side-gigging in a similar field). 

What if you’ve been disciplined or implemented in criminal activity?

There’s no way around this situation: you have to go through it.

Don’t think that you’re immune from the consequences of previous misdemeanors simply because you made up an excuse or brushed previous behavior under the carpet. It will catch up with you. And the ramifications of being dishonest about a dismissal will make the fallout ten times worse.

So be upfront. Tell them about your previous behavior in three steps:

  • Explain that you were fired for misconduct.
  • Talk about the lessons you’ve learned.
  • Clarify the steps you’ve taken to correct your behavior (for example, if you were fired for cocaine use at office parties but have been through rehabilitation, explain this) and how you’ll avoid this in future.

If we do bad things, it follows us around. Simple. The only steps we can take are learning and growth. It might put some employers off – you might end up back at square one more often than not. But the impact of a job-shattering revelation to an employer further down the line can be far more harmful.

Being fired from two jobs in a row is far harder to explain.

The roundup

Whether you’ve been fired for legitimate reasons or your company is being a total stick-in-the-mud after you’ve left simply because you’ve left, you have options.

It requires some outside-the-box thinking – but between former clients and colleagues who liked you, someone will be able to vouch for your personality and diligence.

Team Vippi knows you can work your way out of this situation.

Article resources

Repa, B. K. (n.d.). https://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/free-books/employee-rights-book/chapter9-6.html