Don’t Be Caught Off Guard on this Interview Question!

​’s Minda Zetlin published an interesting article on October 13, 2015 called The Deeply Revealing Interview Question No One Ever Asks–But You Should.

The question: “Who are your negative references, and would you trust me to talk to some of those people?”

I recommend reading the article, which is employer focused and provides coaching on how to execute this question as an interviewer.

This article is a companion piece to assist job seekers in managing the question from their side of the table in three steps.

1. Prepare ahead of time. Think about your career, and identify 3 or 4 people with whom you failed to make a Love Connection at work; those people you’re fairly certain weren’t members of your fan club.

Try to recollect and jot down a list of themes surrounding your luke-warm or strained working relationship, as well as the details of any memorable negative events. There’s often a perceived threat when someone doesn’t get along with you, and the S.C.A.R.F. model will help you pinpoint the cause of your relationship strain. 

Status – Your presence in the workplace presents a threat to the status of the other person. They may be jealous of your accomplishments, or they might perceive you are treading on their area of expertise.

Certainty – Certainty deals with what the future holds. Uncertainty involves fear of future loss or harm. Perhaps the person felt you were out for their position, or if you managed them, perceived you to create lack of clarity or uncertainly in their work.

Autonomy – Did this person resent your authority, or having to collaborate with you on projects instead of doing their own thing?

Relatedness – This refers to the connection the other person feels to you. The less connected, the greater the perceived threat. Differing personality traits are the largest contributor to issues of relatedness, such as big picture vs. detailed thinking, fast-paced vs. moderate paced work habits, direct vs. indirect communication styles, enthusiastic vs. reserved emotional states, and methodical vs. fluid approaches to work tasks. This is probably the most common cause of relationship breakdown.

Fairness – Your co-worker may perceive your promotion — despite being less tenured than they were — to be unfair. Or perhaps they felt you treated them unfairly in some way.


  • When selecting your negative references, it’s best NOT to choose people who are likely to share information that three reasonable people would consider you squarely in the wrong.
  • Do not select people who currently work with you if your employer is unaware you’re seeking to leave. Your negative reference should not be provided with information they could use as ammunition at the water cooler.

2. Give a heads up. Consider sending a brief message through LinkedIn, or to their work email to advise you’ve provided them as a reference. If you’re comfortable calling them, this is the best approach. Contacting them allows you to provide context so they’re not caught off guard and defensive, which could lead to a stronger negative reference. It allows you to explain the employer requested references of people who likely have balanced feedback, rather than only saying wonderful things about you. Here is an example of what you might say:

Dear Steve,

I am sending you a message to advise I’ve been asked to provide references for a position I am interviewing for. The employer asked me to provide the name of someone who may have experienced challenges working with me. I didn’t want you to be caught off-guard. I am thankful for all of the professional experiences I’ve had, and I’m certain your perspective will be valuable. Thank you, in advance, for your time.

Best regards,

The note is gracious, considerate, appreciative, and mature. Hopefully such a note will create a chain reaction for the recipient to respond in kind when giving your “negative” reference. It’s important not to try to manipulate the person for what they might say. It will confirm negative qualities about you in their mind, and if they share with the employer that you attempted this tactic, you’re sunk.

3. Prepare your response

The good news is you’ve done most of the leg-work in identifying the root cause of the relationship conflict using the S.C.A.R.F. model. Sharing these insights as to what went sideways with the relationship with show your reflective and insightful nature!

Keep in mind:

  • Never openly blame the other person. There’s simply no way to navigate blame-shifting and come off looking good.
  • Share objective facts only, allowing the interviewer to draw their own conclusions based on the facts as you know them to be true.
  • Do not add color commentary, opinion, feelings, or assumptions about the other person’s behavior or motives. If the other person was threatened by you, you don’t have to state it. You can explain the person was “the only subject matter expert on the team” prior to you joining, and the conflict appeared from the outset. They’ll pick up what you’re putting down, and you’ll come across more emotionally intelligent.
  • Choose to say what you appreciated about the person as you discuss the situation. It will demonstrate you can be objective and take the high road. 
  • State what you’ve learned from the experience. 90% of problems are people problems — no one has the expectation you’re perfect — but they do want to know you’ve learned how to better manage similar situations in the future, even if the other person truly was at fault.

Have you ever been asked this question in an interview? If not, hopefully you are now well-prepared!

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