At first thought, the idea of obtaining a reference from a company that fired you may seem silly. After all, how could comments from an organization that terminated your employment actually help land a new job? And would someone there really be willing to write a letter or speak on your behalf?
While securing a reference after being fired definitely is complex and certainly not cut-and-dry, it can happen.
“I’ve personally provided references for fired employees before,” says Jon Hill, CEO and chairman of The Energists. “The examples I can remember were all good employees in some respect, but poorly suited for the position they’d been hired into.”
Hill notes one instance in which he hired a young man as a supervisor. “He had a lot of strengths — he was smart, dependable, personable and easy to work with. Unfortunately, his leadership skills were sorely lacking.
After a few months of watching him struggle to manage his team (and watching the team’s productivity drop as a result), we had no choice but to let him go, despite his strengths. I gave him a glowing recommendation and was happy for him when he found a new position where he could thrive.”
If you’re a job seeker debating whether or not to ask for a reference following a firing, here are some things to take into account:
Consider the reason you were fired
If the dismissal stemmed from lying, stealing, laziness, bullying or other universally frowned-upon workplace behavior, better to spend time cleaning up your act than trying to secure a reference. However, termination resulting from certain other situations may leave the door open.
“The primary question is whether you had a positive relationship with your former organization as you exited,” says HR consultant Ann Houser. “If the exit was contentious and problematic, you may not want to even contact your former employer, lest they contact your prospective employer to advise them not to hire you.
However, if your exit was understandable and reasonable, most organizations who value their employees want to see you successfully re-employed and would not want to actively stand in your way.”
She notes that asking for a reference might be an option in scenarios such as:
- Your hiring manager left the organization.
- You were not a great fit for all of the aspects of the role but were terrific in many areas.
- The role changed after you were hired.
“In these cases, you could reach out to your primary supporter(s) from your former organization, asking if they would be willing to edit a draft recommendation, which you would write for them. They could provide this reference directly to the new employer or to you, if they prefer. If you construct the recommendation in a manner consistent with how your former employer viewed you, they may be more than willing to help.
You may also want to provide the new prospective job description so they feel more comfortable about their reference, since some references might be concerned about overstating a recommendation,” Houser says.
Choose who you approach with care
As obvious as this might sound, never list a person as a reference on a job application without talking to him first — especially after being fired. Better the individual turns down your request than say negative things that will hinder your chances with a new organization. If you do decide to seek out someone from the company from which you were fired, weigh your options.
“If there were multiple managers at your old company, start by considering which one will be most likely to give you a positive reference. The decision to fire you may not have been unanimous, so if you can identify which manager(s) wanted to keep you on the team, they’re the ones you should approach,” Hill says.
When contacting the potential reference, act professional and polite rather than using language that’s confrontational or demanding. “You won’t do yourself any favors by telling the manager they ‘owe you’ for firing them or by insisting you were fired unjustly. Keep your focus on the present, not the past,” Hill says.
Explore other options
While the ultimate decision is yours, realize that many experts favor avoiding the whole dilemma by sticking to references with no ties to the firing. Supervisors from previous jobs, connections from industry associations or volunteer work, professors, and others who can speak positively of your skills and character may be safer choices.
“As a general practice, I do not recommend using a boss or colleague from a company that you were fired as a reference,” says Christy Noel, author of Your Personal Career Coach: Real-World Experiences for Early Career Success. “Companies don’t tend to let go of valued employees. If the employee is talented, even if not a perfect fit for the position he or she is in, the company is more likely to find a better role for the employee than to fire them. As a hiring manager, being fired from a position generally tells me there were multiple problems with your performance.”
Or, as bluntly stated by success strategist Carlota Zimmerman, “Getting a reference after you’ve been fired is very tricky. People considering this should be aware that no matter how good the recommendation, spoiler alert: YOU. WERE. FIRED. The reader of the reference will be aware of this and might find herself thinking, ‘Seriously? You thought this was a good idea?’ If this is the best reference you can get, as a coach, I’d suggest there are probably deeper issues in your professional life to contemplate. The company, for whatever reason(s) fired you. They are making it clear that they don’t wish to owe you anything else. The world is very small. Think carefully before you request that reference.”