A reader writes:
Earlier this year, I was part of a mass lay-off from a large corporation. At my exit interview, which was less than 5 minutes long, my manager assured me that she would give me a positive reference, and that I need not contact her to ask each time I gave her name as a reference. Although this manager and I had never had a very strong working relationship (she "inherited" me as her assistant when my previous manager left, and I'm sure I wouldn't have been her first hiring choice), I thought I could take everything she said at the hurried exit interview at face value.
Fast forward a few months, to last week when I was extended an informal verbal job offer. They were ready to put the offer in writing, just as soon as the references could be checked. For the first time in my job search, I provided this manager's name on my reference sheet. Remembering her mentioning not needing to contact her first, I took that to mean that she didn't want the additional bother of my call on top of the reference call.
To my absolute horror, the news came back that she had given me an absolutely scathing review. From what little information I got, she painted a picture of the worst employee of her whole career. The hiring manager at the new company said under no circumstances could they hire me in light of this review. The verbal offer was retracted.
I'm still in utter shock, and I don't know what to do or where to turn. I'll never win back the respect of the almost-hiring company, but I'm at a total loss for what to do going forward. I clearly can't ever use this manager as a reference ever again, but that leaves me without a reference for the highest level position on my resume (save for HR employment verification). I stumbled upon your blog only today, have been reading for over an hour, and wish I'd found it long ago. I have nowhere else to turn for advice, and am frankly quite afraid right now. Thank you in advance for any advice you might have to offer.
How terrible. Whether or not this manager had grounds for giving the reference she did, it was unfair of her to mislead you into feeling safe using her as a reference -- which she probably did as a way of preventing discomfort for herself during your exit interview.
You mentioned that she "inherited" you when your previous manager left the company. Is it possible for you to track down that first manager and use her instead? If you worked with that first manager for any length of time, you could reasonably explain to prospective employers that she was your manager for much of your time at the company.
Additionally, you should consider contacting the HR department of your old company and explaining that you were recently informed a job offer was being retracted because of a negative reference your old boss gave you, and that this was contrary to her previous promise to you to serve as a positive reference. This will likely alarm the HR department, which is probably far more cognizant of the legal pitfalls in this area than your old boss is (particularly because you can prove you lost a job offer over it), and there's a good chance they'll warn her to stop.
Anyone else have advice?