Should I use a former boss (with whom I had a run-in) as a reference?

Does power corrupt, or do some people simply turn evil when they're given a managerial role? We’ve all seen it, and unfortunately most of us have experienced it—a bad boss. Whether your employer is oppressive, ill-mannered, intolerant or even emotionally disturbed, we spend far too much time at work to put up with the stress caused by a bad boss. 

Typically, the decision to move on and get away from this environment is easy. The hard part is actually doing it and securing another position, especially when this bad boss will be called upon by prospective employers to learn more about you. The reality is that this bad boss is about to become a bad reference.

How can I handle this?

Of course, it is always best to stay employed until you have secured another position. When you have a bad boss, this is even more important. 

That's because a prospective employer will want to speak with your previous bosses whether you list them as references or not. If you are still employed, you can request that your current employer not be called until an offer has been extended. This way, you can hopefully avoid or at least delay this potentially damaging conversation.

But what if I can’t stay employed?

What if you blow up and walk out? What if you are asked to leave, are asked for your resignation, or are fired? Now your bad boss has likely become a bad reference. But, are you sure? First, do not assume that this person will give you a negative reference, a positive reference or any reference at all. 

Many candidates are under the false impression that it is illegal for a past employer to negatively comment on a former employee. The reality is that whether it be legal or not, it goes on everyday. Likewise, many candidates feel that they are protected from being given a negative recommendation by the company policy. Face reality. Company policies are enforced about as much as speed limits. If we do not see a police officer sitting on the side of the highway with a radar gun (and we are running late) we speed. Nothing happens, we get to where we are going on time.

What can I do?

The key to handling a bad separation or bad reference from a previous employer is to neither over- nor under-explain the situation to a prospective employer. 

To assume that this previous employer is "blackballing" you, could be your own undoing. You see, if this past employer is not "blackballing" you, then you are actually bringing up a negative subject to a prospective employer unnecessarily. Likewise, to assume that a negative reference would not be given could be damaging if your past boss is indeed providing uncomplimentary statements, as you would not be properly defending yourself.

Knowledge is power.

It is important that you find out what this bad boss is saying about you. Some level of confidence could be gained by meeting with this individual and asking them what will they say. 

Current employees of this organization may also provide insight as to how this employer handles calls about you. Additionally, many job seekers take a more aggressive approach and hire a reference checking firm to track down what their former bosses and colleagues are saying about them.

Resumes & Letters

In a competitive job market, it's essential that you create effective cover letters and resumes. See example social work resumes and cover letters--and tips on how to write them.

Learn about resumes and letters

Specialty Practice Sections

As an NASW Member, Specialty Practice Sections (SPS) enable you to stay abreast of what's happening in the profession and to be most effective in doing your job.

Learn about Specialty Practice Sections

NASW JobLink

JobLink is an online job search tool that  enables you to search and apply to jobs, upload your resume, sign up for alerts, and more.

JobLink is free to all job seekers, but only NASW members receive unlimited access to all features.


Take Your Career to the Next Level

Whether you're a new social worker or a seasoned professional, Leadership Ladders newsletter is designed to help you successfully navigate your career.

Read Leadership Ladders