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How to get references from a job you were fired from

Getting fired can feel like the end of the world, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Chances are the company was not a good fit for you. Sure, it can be humbling, but getting fired gives you the perfect opportunity to reflect on what you want out of life, and on which job is going to help you achieve that. Plenty of people have been fired before and hiring managers are human too, so this doesn’t have to stop you from getting another awesome job.

Of course, references are often an important part of the hiring process. It may be the case that your last boss won’t speak about you in exactly glowing terms. But all is not lost. Use these tips to score positive references for your next big thing.

1. Ask your old boss straightaway

Depending on how bad the situation is – it may be worth asking your old boss for a reference. The best time to ask is straight after you’ve taken responsibility for whatever it is that got you fired. Yes, that means being gracious and taking full responsibility for the reason you were terminated – whether or not you agree with it. This can go a long way to getting you that all-important reference. Do not allow that time to sink in where they reflect on what you’ve done wrong.

Go straight for it. Once you’ve made your full apology, something like this should suffice: “I’m going to take some time to reflect on what has happened and make sure I learn from this situation. When I look for another job, would you still be willing to provide a reference?” Their answer will tell you everything you need to know. They should either agree to give you a positive reference despite what’s happened, tell you they’re happy to provide a reference but that they will need to be honest, or flat out refuse to give you one. At least you will know where you stand, so you can move on to the other steps if necessary.


2. Follow up with a thank you note

Follow up the conversation with a thank you note – whether they agreed to give you a reference or not. Thank them for the time you were employed, state that you understand their decision was in the best interests of the business, and that you hope the two of you can stay in touch. If you keep things professional, polite and pleasant, they’ll be more likely to speak well of you if anyone goes looking for a reference. If this is all just way too positive for your situation it’s time to move to Plan B…


3. Ask a previous supervisor

If what you did was on the more serious side – like theft or a violent offence, then it might be the case that even your old supervisors won’t want to give you a reference. If, however, it was something that had nothing to do with an old supervisor (like a personality clash with your boss), then they may be willing to help you out. If your work performance was good for them then it’s definitely worth a try. Just remember not to badmouth the company or your most recent boss when trying this approach. You don’t want them to feel torn about helping you out. As above, don’t let time pass for them to hear any rumours about why you left or for your boss to tell them not to give you a reference. If you’re still not having any luck, proceed to the next idea…

4. Ask colleagues

So, technically, this might be considered a personal reference, but it’s still better than nothing, especially if you’ve built up some good relationships within the company. Just remember that the reference should still be about your work performance, not your personal character. Choose someone who is in a good position to talk about your work, not your bestie from another department. If you end up in an interview for a new job with no other references, this could go some way to helping you. You’re probably going to have to be at least partly honest about what happened, so saying that there is an old colleague willing to provide a reference is better than nothing. And again, don’t let time pass in case your old boss asks others not to give you a reference.

5. Seek a reference from a client

If you deal with clients on a daily basis, you’ve probably formed a friendly relationship with some of them. It’s unlikely they would have heard about the details of your firing. Make sure you pick someone who has experienced positive benefits as a result of the work you’ve done for them. Again, they’ll need to mention your skills and abilities, not the fact that you’re a nice person (though that won’t hurt). If you have made a significant contribution to them, ask them for a letter outlining this. Don’t waste time in getting this either, before the client asks why you haven’t been around lately.

6. Contact a previous employer

If all else fails, contact previous employers and ask if they’ll be willing to provide a reference. If you have two prior bosses willing to speak about you in a positive manner it could be enough to smooth over what happened with your last job. Don’t go too far back looking for references – it would seem quite odd to a hiring manager if you were using employers from 10+ years ago. As above, if your actual old boss is not a good choice, think about other supervisors at the company. If you’re still having no luck, it’s time to think outside the square…

7. Get creative

You might be in a tough spot where your chances of getting a reference letter are extremely slim, full stop. Maybe you never had a previous manager at the current company and were only working for the one who fired you. Perhaps you didn’t work closely with any other colleagues. When you considered previous employers, maybe you wanted to go and hide because all of these people were not entirely pleased with your work as well. If that’s the case, there’s hope for you yet. Getting a new job can take time. Use that time to get creative with references. Consider doing some freelance work and then ask your clients for references. Perhaps some volunteer work in the industry. Got any friends in the same field? Offer to give them mate’s rates for work in return for a reference. Put all of your focus into doing short term jobs and getting great results, so that you can benefit from the good references. A little bit of positive feedback could be the silver lining you need.

You’re in a tough situation but if you follow the steps above you should be able to get yourself a decent reference. Be as honest as you can with hiring managers in your upcoming interviews. A lot of them can understand human mistakes, but won’t look past lying in the interview.

So no more feeling sorry for yourself. Get resourceful and use this opportunity to confidently step in the direction you want to take your life.