So you made a mistake or breached protocol and your previous employer considers you a bad leaver. If there’s bad blood between you, you’re unlikely to get a good reference and your job search will be more challenging – but the challenges won’t typically be insurmountable.
Here’s what should you do to get a new job if you were fired or laid off and it was at least partially your own fault.
Repair broken professional relationships
If you left your previous firm on less-than-ideal terms, it’s natural to want to stick it to your former employer. Many people have burned bridges, only to regret their behavior later. As big as the industry is, it’s not big enough that you won’t ever come into contact with former bosses and colleagues.
“Begin working on repairing that relationship – even if it takes years, it’s probably possible,” said Laurie Thompson, a principal at Heidrick & Struggles. “Even given that it has been a bad situation, do whatever you can to repair that relationship.
“Let a couple months go by and reach out to meet for coffee,” she said.
Explain the reason
Be open that you were let go for a non-performance reason because it may help you avoid some of the stigma of being considered a bad leaver.
“If a recruiter was going through your background, and you were let go from Citigroup for a non-performance reason, like a layoff or reorg, then you can still recruit without any issue, unless there is a pattern,” said Reshma Ketkar, a director at Glocap. “If you’ve been let go from the past four jobs, it might be a problem, but otherwise it shouldn’t be.”
Be honest – even if you made a serious mistake
Don’t lie and say something like “The bonus was disappointing so I quit” if that wasn’t the case. Beating around the bush and being evasive is likely to exacerbate the issue, which will probably come to light regardless.
“If you know this former manager may speak unfavorably about you or not give you a glowing recommendation, say, ‘Here are the things that they didn’t like and here are the things I did well,’” said Rebecca Dappen, managing partner at Lucas Group. “Be honest.
“Talk about what you learned in the process, and why you would not do it again,” she said. “If something bad happened that you did, you have to own it, because it’s going to come out eventually, and then you’ll sound suspect, so put it out there yourself.”
If you’re upfront with them and disclose a past indiscretion, misstep or issue, then they are more likely to process it the fuller context of your candidacy, rather than see it as a deal-breaker.
Also, be honest with yourself. Is this a pattern that has cropped up repeatedly during your career?
Fine-tune the messaging
Ideally, you’ll be able to craft the messaging around why you left together with your former line manager or HR. Even if you’re not on great terms anymore, often the ex-employer will realize that’s in their best interests too.
Spend some time writing down your key talking points related to your exit.
“The key is to communicate a consistent and honest message about why you left,” Thompson said.
It’s OK to say something along the lines of “It wasn’t the right fit – in fact, it was the totally wrong job for me. However, this one is a perfect fit for me, because…”
Find good references
An employer will not request references until the end of the recruitment process, when the team has met you and liked you, so you should be able to generate some goodwill by that point.
When they ask for references, provide the contact information for former colleagues and managers who are likely to give you a positive reference, Ketkar said. In general, try to find references that are more senior to you, even if you didn’t report to them directly.
If they specifically ask to speak to your most recent boss, it’s not the end of the world. Most managers don’t want to badmouth former employees.
“If they ask specifically to speak to your most recent boss, it’s probably not going to be a slam, but you have to tell your soon-to-be employer what happened,” Ketkar said. “That said, there has to be somebody who you worked with at that organization who would speak positively about you, so put that person forward as a reference first.”
Don’t dis former bosses
You don’t want to blame others for the situation or come across as defensive or disparaging, because that’s a red flag for hiring managers.
“Even there’s bad blood between you and your previous employer, it’s important to demonstrate introspection and explain what happened in a professional manner – ‘We had a difference of opinion over how to lead the team or investment strategy,” Thompson said. “If it was a personality conflict, say ‘Here’s what I learned, here’s what I would do differently and here’s what I’ll take with me,’ which demonstrates perspective and maturity.”
While it is important to be honest, you don’t have to reveal every single gory detail of your split with your former employer. And being overly apologetic is more likely to hurt than help you.
“Come clean and say ‘Here’s what I learned,’ rather than say ‘I’m sorry’ or blame them,” Dappen said. “Don’t try to dance around the badness; say, ‘Here’s the mistake I made, here’s what happened, which is why I’m out in the marketplace, but if you give me a shot I can assure you it’ll never happen again, and here are the steps that I will take.’”
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