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I resigned from my last job because of a toxic work environment, and it didn’t end well. I was there for two years. I want to include the job in my resume because I gained a lot of new skills and experience there. But I would not feel comfortable using them as a reference, and I don’t really have any other references related to my field. What should I do when prospective employers ask why I can’t give a reference from that company?


Bruce Sandy, principal, Pathfinder Coaching and Consulting, Nanoose Bay, B.C.

If you list your last employer on your resume/CV then the hiring organization will naturally want to contact a reference from this company and, most likely, they will want to contact your former boss. If you refuse to give a reference at this company, then the hiring officials will ask you why. If you do not answer or evade this question they will not proceed with your application.

In many companies, if you are a short-listed candidate, they will ask you to sign a blanket form giving them permission to contact anyone on or not on your referee list. If you refuse, then this will likely end your candidacy unless you have a very good reason why they should not contact someone.

Be prepared to be candid and diplomatic if the hiring organization asks about your experience with your former company and boss. Talk about your learnings and your growth at your former company. A prospective employer will always wonder: “what will this employee say about us when they leave?”

You would be wise to have a conversation with your former boss or another leader in your former company. Ask them if they can give you a positive and fair reference. If they say they can’t, then find another referee. Give your referees a head’s up about the potential reference check as well as a copy of the job ad.


Zuleika Sgro, vice-president of people, Saje Natural Wellness, Vancouver

I can understand why you feel anxious about having to answer questions about your former employer. I would recommend approaching this situation with openness and honesty. List the role on your resume highlighting the skills and qualifications you gained. Then, when you reach the interview phase, prepare to be honest with prospective employers about what happened at your last workplace.

Be mindful of not slandering your past employer. What I would recommend is to focus on what you learned about yourself in the process. Explain why you felt the environment was no longer a fit for you and what you’ve taken away in terms of skills gained. Tell them how you can add value somewhere new and what you hope to find in your next employer as a result. Try practising these answers ahead of time with a friend before the actual interview happens.

You could also offer a peer reference as an alternative to a direct manager. A colleague can still help validate the skills and experiences you had. And keep in mind that references from past employers, even those outside your field, are still valuable. I recommend staying in touch with them for support during your job search. I also suggest that you have these references ready instead of waiting to figure it out after you’re asked for them. This will help you also feel prepared and confident as you go through the interview process.

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