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I worked for bullies who won’t give me good references. So how do I get a good job?

  • Author: Lynne Curry
    | Alaska Workplace
  • Updated: May 20
  • Published May 20

Q: How do I get a new, good job when I lack positive reference letters from my prior two supervisors? Worse, my current supervisor will say negative things about me to any prospective employer who calls him. I have a positive reference last from my last good supervisor, but it dates back to 2012.

Before these last three problem jobs and supervisors, I worked in supportive work environments. Then I wound up working for a bully. When I quit, I took the first job I could land and found myself working for another bully. When I couldn’t take his treatment any longer, I quit and now work in the job from hell. I don’t dare leave this job because I’m afraid I won’t be able to get a good job given my problem references.

My current manager goes out of his way to terrorize all the women on his team. For whatever reason the male employees seem safe from his abuse. While I have tried my hardest to perform well in a job that had been vacated by two employees due to the unreasonable workload, I can’t stand it for much any longer.

I need to find a company and culture that is a good fit for me but I fear that the jobs I want will go to candidates who have great references.

A: When you want a good job, you need to convince a prospective employer that you are a good employee. Interviews count more than references, but if your self-confidence has grown shaky, you need to work on yourself first.

Employees who work for a bully often lose confidence. Worse, when they get into a next job, they carry the bully/victim filter with them and see bullying even when it doesn’t exist. For example, if a manager sets high expectations and makes it clear that the employee needs to step up her game, a formerly bullied employee may view it as bullying. Your three-bully history may even suggest you’ve become an individual who magnetizes bullies because bullies underestimate you or your ability to stand up for yourself or you otherwise signal you’re an easy target.

Alternatively, the problem may be you. Do you expect an unreasonably supportive work environment and bristle when your supervisor sets high expectations? Does supportive include expecting your supervisor to OK that you spend work time on your personal cell when you need a break? If so, admit the truth; you need to change more than your job.

Next, get creative in your search for references. A terrific interview and multiple great references can outweigh two bad references. Even though you won’t have references from three supervisors, can you collect a dozen references from colleagues and key customers? Also, use your 2012 reference, as an old, positive reference is better than no reference at all. You can also ask prospective employers not to contact your current supervisor, though some will let you know that they need to prior to making a final hiring decision.

If you know a prospective employer plans to contact your current supervisor or if you realize through honest self-reflection that you own part of the problems you faced in the past seven years, explain the situation in positive terms. Let your interviewer know what you plan to and have already changed. That way if a prospective employer likes your interview but finds herself concerned with what your references might say, you’ll have gotten there first. Honestly always impresses – as long as you keep it brief.

Finally, Anchorage is a small town. You may find yourself interviewing with someone who knows you came out of a problematic work environment and admires your resiliency for lasting as long as you did. Don’t, however, give in to the temptation to bad-mouth your current or two former supervisors. Even interviewers who listen supportively lower their impression of those who can’t resist dishing the dirt.

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