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Saturday, December 15, 2007

dealing with a bad job reference

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 The verbal offer was retracted.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?


Anonymous said...

What a complete jerk that manager is. I admit, I am in HR so I am biased about this situation but GEEZ! Even if the employee was a bad one the manager should never have promised one thing and delivered another. It's just wrong on so many levels. I 100% agree with Ask a Manager's advice, especially in the last paragraph of her answer. PLEASE alert the HR dept as to the former manager's idiocy. They need to know what a huge risk that person is causing to their company. Prior to doing that, if it were me, I would be very tempted to contact the former manager myself and ask her (professionally of course) why she did what she did. I just gotta know.

Evil HR Lady said...

I'm with HR Wench on this one. After you've contacted HR and found your old manager for a reference, call this woman up and ask her why she did what she did.

People like this expect that no one will call them out on their bad behavior.

What a nightmare individual.

And this is another reason I don't like references.

Anonymous said...

I'm the person who sent in this question. I just wanted to thank you and your readers for the good advice and support. It calmed me down enough to take positive steps one at a time.

The first thing I did was set about assembling a stronger reference sheet. I took this manager off it and got back in touch with some more old bosses. I wish I'd done that a long time ago, but they're onboard now and ready to give me good references. I've also noticed increasing requests for "peer references," so I've gathered a number of those as well.

What I haven't done yet is call HR to report the bad reference that caused me to lose an offer. If angered, she has the power to insist that her direct reports not to give me a good reference (or a reference at all), and one of those people is my new primary reference at that company. But my resume is drawing lots of attention, and I don't think it will be very long before I'm safely in a new position. At that point, I'll report the bad reference.

Anonymous said...

This is a scenario I fear. I was recently let go after less than two years for a "poor fit" - reality was that I was quite competent but that I was not able to get along with this particular manager. Now that I am out looking, I found a new position that looks very promising. However, I was told that I had to give out two references from the company that terminated me for "poor fit". To do this, I have to sign a release to allow my references to speak outside of "name, date of hire, and position". Much to my shock, it releases not only my references, but everyone else in the company to openly speak about my performance in the company - including the manager that dismissed me. This means that any company that requires a manager's name and contact info can get the "dirt" and I have no recourse. I am looking at a job search that went from difficult to utterly impossible. Any suggestions?

Ask a Manager said...

Hi Anonymous,

What a difficult situation. It's usually worth a call to your old employer to ask if they'd be willing to reach an agreement with you on what they'll say. You might be surprised that they're willing to work with you on this. For details about how to approach this, see this post, which talks in much more detail about this topic. Good luck!

FlaGirl said...

I experienced a very similar problem, in that I resigned from a job where the CEO didn't like me for reasons I never could figure out but definitely couldn't tie to my job performance. In fact, my immediate supervisor gave me a very nice written letter of reference. I recently had a verbal job offer, then it was withdrawn after they checked references and someone (not my boss) at the organization said that they "would not rehire" me. I was devastated because the job offer was a really good one, located close to my family. I've been so concerned about what to do next to avoid the same thing happening again. I will call the HR department, advise them of what happened and use the "slander and defamation" card if necessary. I know for a fact that there is no evidence in my personnel record that would support a negative reference.

MMM said...

How awful!! Unfortunately I just found myself in the same situation. I don't know exactly what was said, but it was a big enough concern that a verbal offer was withdrawn. I'm going to contact the person who gave the negative reference, but my question is, do you think there is an appropriate way to address this with the potential employer??? Is there any way to rectify this situation and gain back the job offer??? I don't know of ANY problems with my past employers, and I have NO IDEA why I was given a bad reference!!! said...

One out of three employees have either quit or got fired from their last job in the last ten years. This leaves a lot of people who cannot make a 'great' resume without praying to the employment gods that nobody will check up on their job references.

I myself had to quit a job of almost 4 years because of a new boy manager who pushed me beyond reason. I got tired of spending half a interview trying to explain why I walked off a job.

If you have a blemish on your resume, your best bet is outsourcing your job references. Don't let a blemish on your resume deny you a income and a life.

Anonymous said...

What does "outsourcing your references" mean?

Anonymous said...

I am in a similar situation. I lost my potential offer due to the reference. I worked for around a year in my previous company. But, I worked under two different managers for 3-4 months each. I was laid off later. The first manager is good, but he is completely not willing to give reference because he said he didn't interact with me much. 2nd manager is a horrible corrupted woman. Once I was under her management, my life in the office turned into a nightmare. I was under a lot of harassment from another co-worker, I believe this person is related to this woman manager. I told her the situation about the harassment, but this 2nd manager insisted on laying me off.

Genny said...

I worked for my previous company under two different managers for a few months each. I was laid off after a severe harassment. 1st manager is good but not willing to be a reference at all because he thinks there is not much interactions. 2nd manager is a corrupted and unfair manager. I was under this increasing harassment from another co-worker who I believe is related to the 2nd manager. Because this person knows nothing about the field and her level of knowledge is lower than a sophomore. I am someone w. a higher degree and some previous work experiences in this field. But, that person is offered the same title as a I am. The 2nd manager chose to lay off me instead of that person despite that fact I told her how much I was harassed. I located a new opportunity, but after passing interviews, background check, employment verification, education verifications. The company insisted on having an ex-manager for reference. I cannot provide it. Then I lost my offer even though I have provided 4 good other references.