Dear Sam: Three years ago I resigned from a job because it was an extremely hostile and dysfunctional environment. Hostile to the point that the HR Director told me that she would testify on my behalf if I chose to pursue legal action. You may be asking yourself if she thought this way, why didn't she do anything about it, right? The people creating the chaos were above her on the organizational chart.
Anyhow, when I left, it was not on good terms. I tried to leave as professionally as possible, not responding to any of the nastiness. I have no intention of bad mouthing my employer; however, even if I try to spin this position positively, if a potential employer contacts them, I am sure they will not say good things.
This conundrum has stopped me from looking for work because I really don't know what to say to the inevitable Why did you leave? question. I left because I refused to be treated badly. Any suggestions? That, of course, is on top of the 3-year gap I now have on my résumé. And no, I haven't been using my time to volunteer or go to school. Thanks in advance, and sorry for venting. - Anonymous

Dear Anonymous: I often hear from candidates dealing with the same dilemma-they left a position on less than perfect terms and are now worried about the impact a negative reference may have on their job search. This is a sticky situation as you never know what a former employer will say about you during a reference check, but you can be proactive to avoid your potential employer receiving a less than stellar review of your performance.

First, do you have any letters of recommendation you could glean from individuals who had the opportunity to work with you during that timeframe? I don't imagine you were the only mistreated employee, correct? I would recommend trying to arm yourself with as much proof that your dismissal was not performance related. Perhaps even connect with past coworkers via LinkedIn and seek recommendations that way-much easier for you and the recommender-and compile a list of those commendations to provide with your reference sheet at an interview.

Speaking of reference sheets, can you place anyone else other than the company's HR representative or your former supervisor on your reference list? I often advise candidates to use a former peer, a different supervisor, or even someone who you used to work with who is no longer affiliated with the company, affording you the opportunity to select the individual who will provide the most unbiased and glowing recommendation.

As for answering the inevitable Why did you leave your last employer? question, I'd recommend something like While I thoroughly enjoyed the majority of my experience with XYZ Company, unfortunately toward the end of my tenure, the workplace and the culture became intolerably hostile due to some leadership changes. I have always been committed to my employers, displayed unmatched dedication, and outperformed expectations, but unfortunately I was not able to overcome the negativity in the office generated by those who were playing a direct role in my oversight. I therefore selected to resign, handling the entire experience with the professionalism and tact which I had displayed throughout my entire career with the organization. As you can see from my recommendation letters, my performance was stellar during my tenure and my references-who were former peers who worked with me each day-will attest to my diplomatic handling of an unfortunate situation as well as my work ethic and dedication as a top contributor.

Of course you are correct in not trying to bad mouth your employer, and I don't believe the above statement does that, but you do have to be honest with the conditions of your departure. This also will ensure that if for some reason the company is contacted for a reference, the hiring manager will have a frame of reference in which to judge the validity of any comments made. I really wish you the best of luck in your transition back into the workplace. Remember, if you continue to let this hinder your desire to search, your past employer is still controlling you. Instead, take charge of your job search, present the facts of the situation in a professional manner, arm yourself with other recommendations to further validate your performance, and make sure you have a great résumé highlighting how you have contributed value to each of your past employers.

Dear Sam: I am very perplexed! My career began when I was 17 years old, and now, as a nearly 40-year-old, I've been out of a job for more than 2 years.

I left two temporary jobs in 2008, unavoidably, without notice, due to my father's ailing health. One agency I was employed with I completed two separate assignments for and the other agency I was employed with for a month. The problem is that I left without 2 weeks' notice and their records indicate me as a non-hire status. I have had a stellar working history and do not wish these temporary assignments to overshadow my previous work ethic and future employment possibilities. How do I include those two agencies on my résumé?

Also since 2008 I have been in school earning an MBA and will be completed by spring 2011.  My interests include nonprofit management, community initiatives, new product development, and marketing. I've been applying to numerous jobs-mostly entry-level-to no avail.

How can I make a great résumé even better with the work gaps and possible employment agencies' blotches? - Tamela

Dear Tamela: You can absolutely omit your short-term and what sounds like rather unrelated employment agency experiences. Your résumé does not need to be a narrative of everything you have ever done, rather a strategic picture of what you have done that supports your candidacy for what you want to do now. So, omitting such short-term roles that added little, if anything, to your candidacy, is perfectly acceptable and will not be looked at as anything but quite normal.

As for your employment gap, you have recent academic studies, so you've filled the gap. Just be sure to place your education section, or some note as to your recent pursuit of a graduate degree, up front on your résumé so readers can understand why they won't see employment 2009 to present. In this day and age, returning to school is not uncommon, so it won't be looked at as odd that you didn't work over the past two years. You may want to use the combination approach (see past columns for an explanation of this approach, available online at so you minimize the appearance of the gap and showcase the strength of your prior experience. I'm certain, if presented appropriately, this will not impact the effectiveness of your search.