Let’s paint a picture: You’ve knocked it out of the park trying to get a job with the company of your dreams. You were smart enough to contact a hiring manager directly with an engaging cover letter, your resume highlighted your strengths and wasn’t too verbose (it also wasn’t in the first person…), and you made sure you did your homework before each interview and came prepared with good questions for each interviewer. You sent out hand written thank you cards. You closed each interviewer. You made it clear that you were there for the opportunity, not simply for a money-grab. They know you, and the like you. You know them, and you like them. It’s perfect, until…
…they ask you for references. Now, I’m assuming you’ve done good, hopefully great, work in your career, and can point them at people who can attest to this. That said: almost all of us have had a manager in our careers who we butted heads with, and who we don’t think will provide a glowing reference. Not every company will insist on talking to each of your former managers, but some will. Also, if you have a position on your resume, and can’t provide anyone who supervised you while you were there as a reference when asked, it’s a red flag. What do you do?
Don’t lie. If your former employer doesn’t have a policy that precludes their employees from providing references, don’t offer that excuse. It’s too easy for your prospective employer to verify that fact, and chances are they will. Also, you just don’t know who at the company you’re applying to may have worked at the firm you used to work at. Trust me on this: if there’s a chance to do a back-door reference on a candidate, it can happen.
Your best bet is to be forthcoming. At some point during the interview, you’ll have been asked why you left each position you’ve held. While you don’t want to trash any of your former employers, lay a seed about the one where you think you’ll get a less than stellar review. Mention that it’s a great firm, and the role is the right one for the person who now has it, but it wasn’t the right match for you. You discovered that after a few months there, and tried to make it work, but couldn’t and did the adult thing and chose to find something better. When/ if you’re asked for references, say that you’re worried you won’t get a great reference from that one company due to the cultural misalignment, but that you have plenty of great references from other employers to buttress the (potentially) weak one.
The main thing is, once you’re at the reference stage, the company who wants to make you an offer is already in love with you. The last thing they want to do is start the search all over – provide them with a reasonable rationale to discount the bad reference, and you should do fine.