How to Get a Reference When You Quit

Angry boss firing employee

Nobody likes getting dumped, especially if the somebody getting dumped has paid your salary for the past few years. But, what if you need a reference?

You’ve finally found your dream job. The kind of job where you can use all your skill and talent and also get paid well. It’s in the perfect location; your commute will be cut down in half, and it offers a flexible schedule. The problem is that you still have a job somewhere else, and you need a reference to get your dream job. If the world was a perfect place, you could ask for a reference and your boss or supervisor would, not only be happy to do so but he/her would commend you for seizing opportunities and moving on to a better job.

Unfortunately, we don’t live in a happy, idealistic world, and although many employers would fire you at the drop of a hat, they become scorned when the inverse situation happens to them. Now you have a situation on your hands, where you need a reference letter, but your boss isn’t happy you’re leaving. And even that statement is an oversimplification, let’s take a look how you can get a reference when you’ve quit.

Worst Case

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I know this is not the best way to open, but I feel like I should get it out of the way. One of the worst situations that can arise when leaving a previous employer is not having a definitive answer from your next employer because they require a reference letter from your last employer. So, this means your current employer can effectively hold you for ransom. Of course, this also depends on how petty your previous employer is. Another scenario you need to consider is if your boss/supervisor would give you an unfounded bad reference. If you can prove (through performance reports for example) that the bad reference was uncalled for, then you can go after your former employer legally for defamation or even retaliatory discrimination.  

This is an even more horrifying scenario; it is within your employer’s full legal rights to completely refuse to give you a reference and more companies are opting for this in fear of legal action. This can be seen as a red flag by your potential employer, but the good thing is that most companies ask for multiple references, including one personal/character reference. If they are satisfied (or even impressed) by the other references, a bad reference or no reference at all will make little to no difference during the decision-making process.

Legal action is a double edged sword, though, because it could change your future employer’s perception of you, making them assume that you might pursue litigation against them in the future. There is no easy way to abate this type of scenario, the only thing you can do is approach it head on, ask for the reference, then close your eyes and pray to whatever/whomever you believe in.

Normal Case

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You can breathe now, that first scenario was pretty tense, the second scenario is that your boss/supervisor isn’t elated that you are leaving but at the same time they are professionals and would leave for better opportunities themselves if they had the opportunity, so they understand your position. At the same time, you wouldn’t want to let them know that you are looking right?

Luckily most employers know this so they have what is called a conditional job offer. Essentially, it’s a job offer that comes with conditions (a rose by any other name right?) if you meet the requirements then you will be happily employed, but there is a caveat. Your prospective employer still retains the right to refuse employment if they are unhappy with the information they receive. So yes, I guess that even this scenario is terrifying.

Luckily this doesn’t often happen. As I said above, one single bad reference (hopefully) won’t overshadow multiple good references.

The Interview

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OK so we’ve talked about getting the reference, the refusal of reference and a bad reference, what we didn’t talk about was what you should say during the interview regarding your previous position. In general context, avoid anything negative, it shows disloyalty and a gossipy nature, which are characteristics no employer is looking for in candidates unless the aforementioned employer is a network executive casting for a reality show. Make sure you keep it professional, and I’d even dare say generic when asked about the reasons you left, even if it created immense emotional turmoil for you.

When asked why you left, make sure you avoid the word “quit” due to the negative implications it carries and once again ensure that your answer isn’t emotional and personal but professional. Although this and the previous piece of advice might seem generic and cliché, if you feel like you can’t distance yourself emotionally from a question regarding your previous place of employment, try practising questions with a family member or a friend. This way you can find responses that are appropriate and will ultimately leave the employer with an untarnished perception of you as a candidate.

Diplomacy i.e. Word-play

I hate to degrade something as nuanced as diplomacy down to just switching words around, but by definition, it’s the art of dealing with people in a sensitive and tactful way. Luckily the bounty of the English language allows you to spin situations to avoid any references to leaving on bad terms, bad references or getting fired. Here are some reference responses you can use when confronted with a sensitive topic.

Why Did You Leave Your Previous Place of Employment?

This is a question that is full of potential pitfalls, from accidently bad mouthing administration to revealing that you were terminated. The best way to answer a question like this is to, mention that you worked with the administration to find a role in the company but due to a disparity between your personal goals and those of the organisation, you were forced to look for a job that better suited your skills and experience. Convoluted? Absolutely but at the same time it makes it seem as though your departure was an amicable one, even if it wasn’t

Another appropriate response would state that although you enjoyed your time with the company, its scale, unfortunately, didn’t allow you the opportunities to grow at a pace you and the administration were comfortable with. This uses the oft implemented “it’s not you, it’s me” break-up trope, but it works to first express dismay for the decision made to leave, and secondly shows (again) that your departure was on friendly terms, even if it wasn’t.

Why Where You Terminated From Your Last Position?

This question would make even coolest candidate sweat, because no matter what there has to be a negative component to someone getting terminated. The best way to answer this question is directly and honestly, if not with a little bit of tact. Instead of saying that the company hired a new department manager that you were constantly at odds with, say that there was a major reorganisation, in which, mine and the new administrator’s vision for the way future goals would be achieved didn’t coincide, and I was ultimately let go.

Have you ever had trouble getting a reference letter from an employer? How did you hand the situation? Let us know in the comment section below!