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Conducting A Job Search When You Left on a Bad Note

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How do you manage an interview question about your past employer when you left on a very bad note? And how do you dare give references knowing your boss would slam you in a minute?

Here are my responses to two clients who asked this very question just last week.

In the first case, the current job seeker was in the Private Equity field and this is truly the “smallest of small” worlds. This employee did take some responsibility for the bad relationship. He slacked off a bit on his job responsibilities because he was accepted into business school, knew he was leaving, and was happy to finally be rid of a tough and unreasonable boss.

But the manager came after him with a vengeance. Instead of just laying him off, he wrote a scathing note to HR and vowed to never employ him again. It wasn’t the first such letter this manager wrote, which leads you to believe he didn’t have the best relationship building skills.

In the second case, the current job seeker was instructed by their manager to do something that was against the law and when they objected, they were told to either comply or be fired. They chose to be fired. Not an easy choice to make with two toddlers at home.

Here is my advice to these two job seekers, and anyone else out there with a similar situation:

• NEVER say anything negative about your employer or your experiences at the firm. Never even hint at a bad relationship because interviewers are listening for even the slightest bit of negativity in an answer or expression. It’s an immediate red flag thrown up against the candidate. If an interviewer asks you about your past manager’s style, speak about it in a positive manner. There had to be something positive about the person when you first started working with them – use what you can and make it authentic because body language is a powerful thing when people know how to read it … and more and more are becoming adept at that!

• If you think the person you are speaking to knows your past manager, or will call them directly, put that thought out of your head. Worrying about things that are out of your control will not help you in your job search. Concentrate on what you can control: how well you network and interview, quantifying your answers, following-up properly, continuing to network.

• References: line up the people that can speak positively on behalf of your past work experiences. This list could include past managers and co-workers, and even those that reported to you. If you are out of school just recently, professors, placement staff and deans can be used. If your manager is openly hostile towards you, many times in business, we have matrix managers: people we report to in addition to our direct managers. I would secure such a reference if at all possible.

• If you are asked directly why you are no longer there, and you are not currently in graduate school, I suggest that you be honest. If someone wanted you to do something against the law, and you left because you would not do such a thing, the smart thing is to walk away. If they are an upstanding company, they will be impressed by your integrity. If they don’t appreciate such honesty and integrity, you don’t want to work there anyway.

• If you prospective employer asks for your past manager’s name, I would use a matrix manager if at all possible. Matrix managers can usually vouch for your work ethic and quality of work. References are checked, so proceed with caution.

One last thing to remember. There is no guarantee that your last manager and your prospective employer won’t know each other and because of this you will not get the job. That is out of your control. But what is in your control is the number of jobs you apply for, the skill with which you network, and your resiliency and fortitude with the job search process.

Be smart, really smart, about how you conduct your job search. Cast a wide net regarding companies, and industries if need be. Ensure your job search skills are top notch & practice, practice, practice, because no one is born a good interviewer. Make your own luck here and as Winston Churchill once said “never, never, never give up!”

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Connie Thanasoulis-Cerrachio is a career coach and co-founder of SixFigureStart and has worked for the bluest of blue chips for the past 25 years. Her companies include Citigroup, Pfizer, and most recently as the COO of Campus Recruiting for Merrill Lynch. Connie also co-authors a career blog for Vault.com. Comments? Send them to executivecareers@cnbc.com