Dear Sam: Three years ago, I resigned from a job because it was an extremely hostile and dysfunctional environment. Aggressive 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 go as professionally as possible, not responding to any nastiness. I have no intention of bad-mouthing my employer; however, even if I try to spin this position positively, I am sure they will not say good things if a potential employer contacts them.

This problem has stopped me from looking for work because I don’t know what to say to the inevitable “Why did you leave?” question. I left because I refused to be mistreated. Any suggestions? That, of course, is on top of the 3-year gap I now have on my resume. 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. Still, 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 you used to work with who is no longer affiliated with the company, allowing you 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 could not overcome the negativity in the office generated by those who were playing a direct role in my oversight. Therefore, I selected to resign, handling the entire experience with the professionalism and tact 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 the company is contacted for a reference for some reason, the hiring manager will have a frame of reference in which to judge the validity of any comments made. I 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, equip yourself with other recommendations to further validate your performance, and make sure you have a great resume highlighting how you have contributed value to each of your past employers.