A reader writes:
Due to a very emotionally abusive work environment, I decided I could no longer wait for another offer (I had been trying for several months with no success), as my physical and mental health were imperiled, and quit my job. But now I face the very, very uncomfortable situation of potential employees wanting to contact my former employer (a perfectly reasonable request, but which is terrifying me at the moment).
I try to head this off at the pass by providing numerous references from distinguished people I have done work for, as well as listing on my resume all the awards I have won for my work and my substantive responsibilities and accomplishments. My work was extremely well thought of by my colleagues and other superiors at this place (a large university), as well as people I did outreach work with in the larger community, and I have references, if I need them, from more than a dozen people (including my former director before the current director I had so much difficulty with).
But the problem is none of these people will be the one a potential employer talks to; it will be with her. If I check "no" in the box where an application asks "may we contact this employer?", it will look like I am hiding something or that I was somehow at fault for a situation gone sour (I did, in fact, make several mistakes in reaction to her behavior which I truly regret, and did my best to honestly confront and atone for, but it was really a no-win situation, no matter what). But if I say "yes" and they phone her, she will undo all the goodwill and good works I achieved in this position, which many, many people will vouch for.
I have since been doing some very interesting and rewarding freelance consulting in the meantime, but my clients aren't really traditional "employers," although I know they would say wonderful things about my work, too. So what can I do here? Can I legitimately put down these clients as "employers"? It just seems dishonest; the fact is I worked almost four years at the university (most of the time under the first director - but he has left), and if they call, it will be she they will talk to, no one else.
This director has continued, months after I have left, to malign me to my former employees and my colleagues in other departments (I remain close with many of them, and HR knows about this, as they have complained to them about her unprofessional and unstable behavior), gave me such an outrageous and slanderous performance evaluation that there was a formal, written protest to HR by my colleagues when word got out (one of my outraged employees overheard the whole evaluation and told people), and now there is a push to get her removed from her position (and not for her behavior towards me, believe me), but all that still doesn't help me. What do I do to address the question, "May we contact this employer?"
Okay, first, yes, you can absolutely list your freelance clients as employers. Just explain that you were freelancing and they hired you to do work for them.
On the bigger question of how to handle the "may we contact this employer?" question, say yes. Then do the following:
1. Contact your old employer's HR department. They presumably know the history. Explain that you are very concerned about what the director may say if called for a reference and that you are concerned about her standing in the way of you obtaining employment. The HR department is going to be familiar with the potential for legal problems here, and will probably speak to your old director.
2. Explain to prospective employers that you (and many others) had a personality conflict with this particular director, but that you can supply tons of other references who can speak glowingly of you, including your former boss for that same position, who was your boss for most of your time there. (And you should definitely track down that old director and use him as a reference; it will help counteract any concerns this raises.)
I actually think you are very well positioned to handle this smoothly. You have tons of other great references, you didn't work under this boss very long, you have an HR department at that employer that can probably handle this for you -- I think this is going to work out just fine for you.