How to Handle a Bad Job Reference

By Barbara Corcoran, REDBOOK

Q: I'm a teacher, and I didn't really get along with my principal at my last job. Would it look odd if I didn't list her as a reference? - L.B., via email

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A: First, realize that interpersonal conflicts are nothing new. You're hardly the first person not to get along with your boss! The absence of one boss's name in your list of references doesn't matter as long as there are at least two people who will review you favorably. What's far more important is where you worked, what your position was, and for how long. So don't include your principal at all; just put your department head instead. Also, list the department heads or principals from your past teaching positions. If you don't have enough on-the-job references, you could include volunteer-work contacts or even a professional mentor. And be sure to call your references ahead of time for their permission - as well as to ask whether they prefer to be contacted via phone or email. Extending these courtesies makes a person more inclined to sing your praises.

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If possible, ask for recommendation letters while you're still on the job and they're easier to get. I'm often asked to write these letters, and it's a pain in the neck. So offer your references a rough draft with comments, along with your résumé, and ask them to rewrite it in their own words. Also, be sure to get copies of any performance evaluations you had before you leave your current position.

It's also good to check in with your references from time to time. People move on, titles and phone numbers change, and inaccurate details make a terrible impression on a potential employer.

Should you be asked about your boss when you go on interviews, don't say anything negative. Not one word! If you're forced to comment, simply say the two of you "didn't have great chemistry." Your interviewer will understand the shorthand and credit you with professionalism.

BARBARA CORCORAN started a small New York City real estate office that grew into the Corcoran Group, a $5 billion business. She's also the coauthor of the best-selling book If You Don't Have Big Breasts, Put Ribbons on Your Pigtails and the real estate contributor to NBC's Today.

Have a question for Barbara? Email her at worklife@redbookmag.com .

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