A reader writes:
Since I graduated University six years ago, I have worked for a large health care organization in several different roles. Shortly after I started the job that I am currently in, I experienced several major upheavals in my life during a very short time frame. I am not using these events as an excuse, but merely to illustrate the progression of events to present day.
As the months have gone by, I have become increasingly depressed and resentful, in part due to these events and in part due to complete job dissatisfaction and unhappiness. The field I am in (administrative assistant) is not one that I ever wanted to be in. Not that there is anything wrong with this type of job, but I have a University degree and it was never my intention to spend my working life making coffee and recording minutes. Recently, the department I am in experienced a massive internal reorganization, and I was re-assigned to a new area in the same department. All of the above combined has resulted in a severe impact on my mood, and it has unfortunately started to come across in my behavior. I do not bring my home life to work, but there are days when it is impossible to just switch off and not think about anything other than my job, and so as a result I am not as "smiley" and happy as I once was. I am good at what I do; I am efficient, highly organized, responsible, and a hard worker. All of these traits and qualities are ones that have been recognized in prior performance reviews or have even been said directly to me; I am not just trying to make myself sound good. However, I smile very infrequently now, since I am not happy. I am polite - it is not in me to be rude, but I am not happy, and it is quite apparent.
My dilemma is this: I am looking for another job, closer to home, in a different field, and one that I am hoping will make me feel more engaged and fulfilled. Shortly after the internal reorganization, my new supervisor came to me and indicated that while I do good work, people have come to him expressing concerns about my attitude. As I indicated earlier, I am polite. I complete my work on time or early, efficiently, and correctly. But it seems that because I am not as willing to join people for lunch anymore, or to smile as much, that this is being held against me. I was told repeatedly during the conversation that I needed to change my attitude. This too I confess I started to resent, because I understood what my supervisor was saying the first time, and did not feel that he needed to reiterate the same point an additional four times.
Putting aside all the other questions I have, my main concern at this point is what kind of a reference I am going to get. In point of fact, I do not want to list anyone I currently work with as a reference, as I am concerned that they will highlight my short-term unhappiness to the detriment of mentioning all the good qualities that I possess. I have had experience working in human resources, and first-hand experience in interviewing people and performing reference checks, and yet I do not know how to handle the situation I am in. I know that not putting my current supervisor on my list of references can raise a red flag. In addition, I do not want my current employer to know that I am looking, since if he is called and I do not get an offer, I then have to continue working for someone who now knows that I am looking for other work. I do have other references from previous jobs, but the most recent of those is getting on for two years old, and most prospective employers want to speak with someone who has had more recent knowledge of my skills and abilities.
I have been doing some research about what employers can and cannot say about past employees, and frankly I am worried that because of the above circumstances, and my work colleague's interpretation of my attitude, that it is going to negatively impact my chances of getting a new job. I know employers cannot say anything that comes across as specifically malicious, but I feel that there is a very fine line between what a prospective employer needs to know and what is just unnecessarily malicious.
Any suggestions that you have would be most appreciated, as I am feeling very conflicted. The job environment I am in right now is not one where I can thrive, and I am more and more worried that my chances of getting a job which allows me to be happier will not be possible, all because of a few months that are now being held against me as my overall "attitude."
Oh, there's so much here. Let's see:
1. I suspect your resentment is showing in more ways than just not smiling and not going to lunch. If you're that unhappy at having to be there, it's showing, believe me.
2. Being resentful penalizes you in several different ways -- not only does it make you unhappy (which is bad enough on its own), but it actually may be standing in the way of your ability to take action to change the very thing you're unhappy with (your career) if you're concerned about its impact on your references. Double penalty, and in both cases, it harms no one but you. Drop the resentment. Focus on the fact that you're now taking action to do something different. Generally speaking, you have more power than you realize over your responses and emotions and can make the mental shift if motivated to it.
Unless you're depressed, which brings us to...
3. Tell your manager that you've had some things going on in your personal life that are taking a toll on you. You don't need to be specific, but I think it will help things to explain that there's a non-work-related reason for your recent attitude. If he's not a jerk, he's likely to soften his assessment once he knows that.
4. You were irritated that your manager repeated the same message to you several times, when you got it the first time. Often when people do this, it's because the employee isn't showing any indication that she's getting the message. You need to respond in a way that acknowledges what's being said and indicates what you plan to do in response. For instance: "I appreciate you telling me this. Some events in my personal life have affected my mood, and I didn't realize it was so apparent. I probably won't be going to lunch with people much because I'm not feeling very social lately, but I'll try to make sure it doesn't impact my other interactions with people."
5. Now, on to your actual questions. It's very normal when job-searching to request that prospective employers not contact your current employer, since most people don't want their employer to know they're looking. Some interviewers will be content with only contacting references from prior jobs. Others may ask to speak to your current employer, but it's completely fine (and normal) to ask them to wait to do that until they're ready to make you an offer.
6. You say, "I feel that there is a very fine line between what a prospective employer needs to know and what is just unnecessarily malicious." It's not malicious for an employer to talk about an employee's attitude and many reference-checkers will ask about that sort of thing. Reference checks are about more than how the person performed the duties of the job; they're also often about people skills, and this is legitimate.
So I think your best bet is to just address it head-on: If you're about to get an offer and they want to talk to your current employer (which they may not even ask to do, if you provide them with lots of other references from before this job), mention that you had some personal upheaval in the last year and you weren't as cheery as you normally are, and you know they noticed -- so that the reference-checker is prepared to hear that and has some context if it comes up.
That's really all you can do -- the facts are what they are, and now it's just a matter of providing context for them. Unless your attitude was far more horrid than your letter makes clear, my hunch is that it probably won't stand in your way. However, you should pledge to yourself that you'll never let your attitude at work get to that point again, because as you're seeing now, it ends up affecting you in the end. Good luck!