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How to argue a bad reference?

Someone asked on Mar 12, 2019 - 2 answers


unfortunately I received a bad reference for an internship at a big consulting firm. I was able to leave it out from my last round of applications, as I have not received it at that time, but for future applications I will probably have to include it. (In Germany all previous references are always expected)

To the interviewers (especially the German ones):

1) Do you read the references when preparing for an interview? Or can I hope that no one will notice? I Am sure if someone does notice the bad reference, he will definitely bring it up during the interview.

2) In case they bring it up, how can I explain the bad evaluation without looking too bad? To tell the truth, I was on a project where the manager treated me as an intern like shit and I sometimes stood up to him (I know, I should not have done this). Therefore, I did not get along with him very well, resulting in this evaluation. However, I don't think it would be clever to say this in an interview, as blaming outside circumstances it never the right answer. Addtionally, they are looking for someone who can deal with these difficult situations.

Some time has passed since this internship and as I got an excellent reference for my last internship, I would probably answer something like "As it was my first internship in such a fast-paced environment, I made a few mistakes in the beginning. Unfortunately, due to this first impression I did not get anlong very well with the project manager, despite my continuous attempts to correct his view. However, I have learned from the mistakes, as you can see from the reference of my last internship." Is this an answer that would satisfy you?

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Sidi replied on Mar 12, 2019
McKinsey Engagement Manager & BCG Consultant | Interviewer at McK & BCG for 7 years | Coached 60+ candidates secure MBB offers

Hi! Just position this as a very precious experience from which you could learn and which has helped you to become the professional that you are today. Outline your analysis of what had caused the problems which lead to the bad reference at that time (without blaming others!), and then briefly outline how you have developed and matured since then(supported by evidence of your strong references in later internships).

That's it! Be open and professional about it. Never be apologetic or blame others.

Cheers, Sidi

Guennael replied on Mar 12, 2019
Ex-MBB, Experienced Hire; I will teach you not only the how, but also the why of case interviews

My first reaction was "you don't (argue a bad reference)", and still think this will be an uphill battle. Obviously, easiest would be to just not include it, but I understand the system constraints within which you have to operate.

The next best thing is for you to explain what happened, and what you learned from it. Please don't say "he treated me like shit", this isn't a discussion about your boss, but about you. But you should definitely explain that you made mistakes, and have since worked aggressively to learn from them so as not to reproduce them. Leave your ego at the door, and be very humble about it. Something like "In hindsight, this was exactly what I needed. I had developed a bit of an ego in school, and had to be brought down back to earth. I am not owed anything. The feedback is harsh but I learned from it and am now committed to be the best team member that I can be". [Note: You are a (post-)millenial, so a number of older folks will more or less unfairly assume you are a little brat / snowflake. It is what it is. Now you just have to change their perception; doing this well will help you in the long run.

As to whether or not you should pre-empt this discussion or wait until the interviewer asks about it... I would be in the camp of pre-empting, or even adding a note to the recommendation itself, since it may prevent your from getting an interview in the first place.

Good luck

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