Ask a Mentor: I Walked Without a Reference


Compiled and edited by Julie Tereshchuk.

Ask a Mentor

Dear Mentors,

My boss and I had an ugly parting of the ways this week and, even though I’ve been in the job two years, I know she won’t give me a reference. How do I handle that on my resume: do I leave the company off my resume entirely, and just include the volunteer work I’ve done during the same period?

And what do I tell prospective employers? Do I tell them I had ethical concerns about my boss? (Who, among other things, went through my personal and professional emails.)

I would love some advice.

Ms. Job Seeker


Dear Ms. Job Seeker,

If your boss won’t give you a reference, is there another senior person within the company, or who left recently, who would be prepared to do so?

Two years in a job is too long not to mention it on a resume. What is key is how to present it, namely, focusing on your achievements.

I have also found that honesty can be the best policy. However, if asked why you left, avoid criticizing your boss personally. You might say it was a difference in styles or some such.

You also need to be honest with yourself about your part. Was there anything you could have done differently? By understanding that, you can focus on what you did right, and will have a ready answer if someone asks what happened. (It’s like being prepared for that awful series of questions interviewers often ask – what are your strengths and what are your weaknesses. You always need to be prepared to show how you’re addressing your weaknesses—which in itself comes across as a strength. Above all, do not be defensive.

You may also wish to consider signing up for a coach to guide you through this. (It is not our role as WCA peer mentors to be counselors through this level of change.)


There are some positive lessons to learn for the future:

  • Keep in touch with former bosses, and don’t burn bridges.
  • Have an exit strategy if you are in a toxic environment and don’t let emotion get in the way.
  • Keep personal and professional communications separate. (I learned this the hard way some years ago. Since then, when working for an organization, I have my personal phone and computer and a separate work phone and computer that I can hand over at any time. You could also consider saving contacts to a cloud server like Mosie so you have them after you leave.

Finally, hold on to your confidence. Even the best people can fall foul of bad bosses at some point in their careers.


Jane Baxter Lynn


Got your own career conundrum on which you’d like advice?

Then sign up for the WCA peer mentor program. It’s a free member benefit!


About Jennifer Van Gilder

A marketing research and health communications professional passionate about doing work that changes lives for the better. Adept team leader able to develop and execute integrated, multichannel public awareness campaigns and community-based solutions.

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