What to do When Your Top Candidate Gets a Bad Reference

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So Your Favourite Candidate Got a Negative Reference?

Let’s set the stage for what can be an extremely difficult, situation during the hiring process.

You’re part of a company interviewing candidates for an important role in your organization.

You have worked your way down to your top three candidates over the last few months, and have completed one interview with each of them so far.

You would like to present these candidates to the managers overseeing the department in which they will be working, but before you can do so, you must screen the three references each candidate has provided you.

While going through your first two candidates, they receive glowing recommendations from each of their three references.

When you get to the final candidate, who also happens to be the favourite, and the one you can see adding the most value to the company. They receive two high-praise references and one negative one.

While, in some cases, the negative review may merit a serious and immediate response, we will leave the contents of this reference out to allow your situation to relate. All we need to know is the negative reference wasn’t about anything illegal or unethical.

What should you do in this situation? Your favourite candidate and the one you believe is the best fit for the role has received the only negative reference out of the three finalists.

Don’t panic! We will discuss what types of references exist, your options, and how you should proceed if you ever find yourself in this situation.

Negative References vs. Honest References:

What’s The Difference?

It’s all too common that the references given by a candidate have been hand selected to provide only the highest praise.

This tendency has somewhat skewed the reality that everyone has weaknesses and areas in which they need to improve.

This leads to employers and interviewers sometimes mistaking honest references for negative references.

So what’s the difference?

Honest references tend to have a more unbiased review of the candidate’s abilities or character.

When compared, with the average “extremely glowing” review of how a candidate is the “best there ever was”, it can come across as negative.

While honest reviews may touch on points of friction, weaknesses, or other issues experienced by previous employers, they will also address the triumphs and strengths of the candidate.

They may not have the same positive impact as a glowing reference might, but these are the references you should pay the most attention to.

Negative references on the other hand are usually the opposite of the standard hand-picked golden reference. They tend to focus predominantly on critical feedback, weaknesses, past mistakes, and shortcomings.

Unlike honest reviews, there is usually a biased opinion hidden within the reference and a tone of bitterness. This is usually caused by past strains between the candidate and their previous employer.

This isn’t to say you should ignore negative references, as that is a foolish mistake, they always deserve further investigation.

How to Assess a Negative Reference

Right away I want to make a note to not get discouraged by one negative reference if everything else seems to be great.

There are a few ways to decide if a negative reference accurately summarizes the candidate in question.

1. Compare to the other references you have contacted:

The standard number of references typically requested by employers is three and while it may not seem like much, it is usually enough to get a solid idea of who you are looking into.

A great way to see if a negative reference is valid is to compare it to what the other references you have contacted say about the candidate.

If there are similar negative topics discussed throughout the different references, then it’s likely that they have some merit.

However, if there is no overlap between the good and bad references, then it may be wise not to focus so much on the negative.

2. Dig deeper when checking a reference that has negative opinions of the candidate:

Ask for specific examples of when the candidate was doing what the reference describes.

If the person providing the reference is struggling to give you a solid example or the example doesn’t sound right to you, it’s likely that they are not telling the whole truth.

3. Trust your instincts:

At the end of the day you are the one who must make the call.

If you feel strongly about a candidate, whether that’s positively or negatively, regardless of what references say you must trust your instincts.

Use references as a guide. Don’t ignore them just consider them as a piece of the puzzle, nothing more.

4. Talk to the candidate:

The most important step in verifying a negative reference is to talk to the candidate.

There are two sides to every story.

Not listening to both isn’t fair to the candidate or your company.

Discuss comments that were made, or examples that were brought up, and see how the candidate deals with defending themselves.

How they react to a negative reference about them is just as important as the reference itself.

To summarize, take a step back and look at the reference from an objective perspective.

There are many reasons why a previous employer may choose to be negative towards their departing employees.

If you have done your research and come to a different conclusion than the references suggest, take them with a grain of salt.

What Can You Do

If You’re Still Unsure?

Don’t be surprised if you find yourself confused and questioning your decisions after a negative reference. That’s a normal reaction to this hiring process curveball.

What else can you do to help clarify this tricky situation?

1. Hold Another Interview.

Likely the best option to clear the air and figure out your next step in the hiring process is to hold an additional interview with the candidate.

This interview can primarily focus on the negative statements that were brought to your attention.

This is the best way to allow the candidate a fair chance to explain the situation and clear up any misunderstandings.

It’s also a good way to make sure your company doesn’t prematurely pass on a great employee.

2. Ask For An Additional Reference.

A great way to gain more certainty is to grow your sample size, in this case, by asking the candidate in question for an additional reference.

Sometimes all you need is one more opinion to make up your mind.

If the new reference is another positive review, then I would argue it is safe to assume the negative reference is an outlier.

3. Create An Interview Panel

Are you conducting interviews alone?

You should consider having more than one interviewer present for your interview process.

This allows you to have a second opinion readily available during challenging decisions.

Making choices that impact an entire company alone, is never easy.

That’s why most companies conduct multiple interviews with different members of the company, or panel interviews with multiple interviewers at the same time.

Regardless of how you choose to implement it, having multiple opinions involved in your hiring process can be a great way to feel better about your decisions and speed up the hiring process.

You don’t want to miss out on a great candidate because they have unknowingly provided a reference who doesn’t have their best interests at heart.

Be careful and make sure to do your due diligence in making sure you have all the necessary information available to you.

Making hasty decisions based on one negative reference is a surefire way to ensure you miss out on some of the best employees out there.

To Wrap Up


Allowing a single bad reference to deter you from choosing a candidate can cost you the opportunity to have an exceptional employee join your team.

It is crucial to make informed decisions in moments of confusion.

Everyone has their own set of strengths and weaknesses, so to assume a reference that only talks about one or the other is the whole truth can be a costly mistake.

It is a balancing act, while it is crucial not to dismiss a candidate based on a single bad reference, it is just as important not to overlook potential red flags that may be raised in such references.

Use what we discussed in this post to create a better system for dealing with bad references for candidates you are considering, and you will make better, more informed decisions.

At About Staffing, we have one of the most in-depth reference screening processes in the staffing industry. We have been confidently assessing references since 1996 and continue to do so successfully every day.

If you don’t have time or aren’t confident in sifting through the hundreds of resumes, you can put your trust in our 96% successful placement rate and let us handle everything for you.

We can help create a strong and dynamic team for you with the perfect candidate every time.

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Frequently Asked Questions


How do I reject a candidate after a bad reference?

Sometimes when a candidate receives a negative reference you will have no choice but to reject them.

If you find yourself in this situation follow these steps to ensure you handle it properly.

1. Confirm Information: Follow the information in this post and make sure you do your due diligence to confirm the reference’s accuracy.

2. Transparent Conversation: Communicate openly and honestly with the candidate about your findings. If you asked the reference if you could share their words with the candidate then do so.

3. Constructive Feedback: Offer suggestions for better screening their references and for having backup ones readily available should one not work in their favour.

4. Follow-up Email: If the candidate had made it far into your company’s hiring process then do them the courtesy of sending out a follow-up email to the rejection. Explain the reasons why and wish them luck in their future job huntung.

Should I tell the candidate about the bad reference?

It may seem odd to share with a candidate that a reference they provided had negative things to say about them, but it is generally considered the right way to handle the situation. If a reference is the reason they keep missing out on opportunities they should know. While it is important to respect both parties in this scenario, you can discuss what the reference is comfortable with you sharing and only reveal this information to the candidate.

Does a bad reference mean a candidate isn't good?

A bad reference does not always mean a candidate isn’t good.

While it is important to investigate negative references, there are a few factors to consider when deciding what to do about one:

 Bias/Miscommunication: Negative references may not always be the whole truth.

 Isolated Incidents: Was the issue addressed in the reference a one-time incident?

 Changing Circumstances: We don’t always know the background of the situation or how the person has changed since then.