fear of abusive former boss giving reference

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.

{ 9 comments… read them below }

  1. Chris Young*

    You have obviously gone through a lot and to have someone bad-mouthing you has to be frustrating. At the very least, you have grounds for potential defamation/slander legal action.

    I might also suggest that you have a lawyer make the call on your behalf. Somehow, a lawyer has a really good way of getting the attention of those who do not like lawsuits and the potential publicity that goes with it.

    That said, I also strongly believe you need to ask, “What role did I play in all of this and what can I do to ensure it does not repeat itself with a future employer?”

    Every relationship has at least two roles. Everyone in a relationship (work or personal) plays their role.

    Your role in this relationship was to provide some type of work in exhange for compensation. Your boss’ role was to provide management and guidance to help you do your job better. The reality is that there was very likely a “breakdown” in the relationship between you and your boss. Like it or not, you both played a respective role in that breakdown.

    That said… The reality is there may be other “issues” leading to the cause for your mistreatment including (but not limited to) the following:

    1. Perhaps you did not fit the job very well. Perhaps your boss was leaning on you to get you to perform?

    2. Perhaps there was an interpersonal conflict that was due to a difference of Behaviors and Values between you and your previous boss.

    3. Perhaps your old boss had very different expectations than you. You might clarify your next boss’ expectations to ensure you are meeting and exceeding objectives.

    My point is not to lay blame at your feet. I am saying that it is important to consider what you could have done differently knowing what you know now. By carefully considering your “role” in the problem, you may be able to avert this problem from recurring with a future employer.

  2. HR Maven*

    1. I don’t know what state you are in, but I hope that you are collecting unemployment. Sounds enough like constructive discharge.
    2. I think that you might be making more of this than needs to be. You worked for a director successfully for four years. Leadership changed and it was NOT a good match for you. Unfortunately, the current director did not handle your departure well and sought to blame you after you left. That’s extremely poor leadership. Offer the former director as a reference for the majority of your work. (I work in higher ed and have seen this and understand how college/universities turn over leadership in academic departments).
    3. Like AAM advised, I personally would call the HR department and clarify the university’s position on providing references. I would also let them know if your former director says anything inappropriate or untrue, that you would be forced to seek legal counsel. Make them sort it out and advise the director of reference procedures.
    4. Having worked for someone who was angry, unreasonable and a chronic liar, there would have been nothing I could have done to improve the situation. I appreciate the introspection of the situation, owning and changing what you can but you must take care of yourself.

    Try not to let this one situation define you. It can be easy to let it overshadow your successes but there are plenty of employers who understand that people LEAVE jobs because of poor managers.

  3. Kathy*

    Dear Chris,

    While you are absolutely correct that there are two sides to a relationship breakdown (and I did, in fact, admit in my letter to Ask A Manager to mistakes that I made, and truly regret to this day, in handling this person and did my best to be accountable and correct myself), the fact is she is a very narcissistic, psychologically unstable, manipulative, indecisive person disliked and avoided by all (I did not have that option). The person who took my place didn’t even last a month before she wisely moved on – I kid you not. There truly was no way to work with this person no matter what one did or did not do. Another key employee is jumping ship in a month. Sometimes you just work under someone who is intolerable, period, and there is no recourse but to leave. Exhausting all options, is, well, exhausting. Leaving was the best thing I could do for myself, unfortunately.

    It is too much to go into here, but please take my word that I have had difficult bosses in the past and learned to gain their trust and get on with them (not easy, but I did). And like I said in my question, I have received outstanding evaluations, awards and references for my work, and was thought of very highly by everyone else in this institution (and others I have worked for, and the feeling for my fabulous, helpful and caring colleagues and employees was mutual), and the senior program officer of our major funder was an enthusiastic supporter of my work, so it was definitely not a matter of me not being a “good fit” for the job. In fact, my former colleagues at the same institution hired me back to do some consulting with them (she had no say over their departments, but they incurred her wrath, nevertheless)!

    You could say it was, as you do, an “interpersonal conflict”, but one I truly believe she will have with almost anyone she works with, and god I absolutely hate to say this, especially if that person is another woman (but we have all witnessed this dynamic between her and her peers. Alas, we all have our own personal prejudices and demons to fight). I was the unlucky one who had to work directly under her (I was #2 in the office, and had no buffer – I protected my employees from her the best I could). I don’t think she is going to last long in her position, but alas, it will be too late for me.

    Thank you for your words of advice; They are wise, especially number 3. My job description this new director drastically, and I mean drastically, changed, in the sense I was stripped of almost all my autonomy (which everyone else there in a similar position enjoyed) and the responsibilities I cared most about, did best and won praise and accolades for (and yes, I do think it was deliberate on her part – she is that vindictive). But a new job description was never formally written by the new director, and she did this without clearing the (negative) changes with HR or with our major funder, whose expectations were much more aligned with the original job description and responsibilities, and what I thought, anyways, I was legally required to carry out (it is a federal grant, with very specific requirements, which is another reason why I left the job – I have doubts as to whether they will be refunded as long as this person keeps her position, and I would be let go if that happened – she would not). But it is great advice – to get all that clarified upfront when I get the next full-time position to avoid complications. It’s just I have never, ever been in a position before where a boss so radically changed…everything! And behaved in such a way, either (even the most challenging I have worked for). I am still shell-shocked by it all…

    Thanks for letting me ramble.

    PS. Ask a Manager is the best! (Wink) She can always ask me for a reference (and I give great ones!).

  4. Kathy*

    Dear HR Maven,

    Our posts crossed like two ships in the night. Thank you so much for the uplifting and wise words, too!! It seems you do indeed know academia well. And yes, it is hard to not let a bad experience like this define you and feel like you are the one who totally failed and is a loser (some days I just want to pull the covers over my head and eat a box of donuts as I am looking for a full-time job in this market).

    PS. You and Ask a Manager are my HR goddesses!

  5. Anonymous*

    While all relationships require introspection to determine roles and responsibilities, there are times when individuals in leadership positions use abuse and bullying tactics as management styles. Having just left a senior management position because of one such manager, after almost 2 decades of exemplary service, I firmly believe that the only recourse in these situations is to leave them. They sap energy, rob you of mental health and leave the insitution vulnerable and unstable. I found a position prior to leaving the one that I had, so references were not an issue, however, I want to be clear that when you are in an abusive relationship of any type, you have NEVER contributed anything that caused, or can explain, permit, or excuse the abuse. I spent almost 4years asking the question “What have I contributed to the situation and how can I fix it”. That is often a question that the victims of abuse ask themselves as they attempt to fix a situation all the while putting their lives in jeopardy. Leave, move on, and do not look back. Your other fine reference will paint the correct picture for any future employer.

  6. Anonymous*

    Funny enough, I just went through this scenario myself. I was employed at a large university and my direct supervisor was abusive. I ended up leaving on rather hostile terms. I did not include my supervisor as a reference, but included many other strong references. However, my current (new) employer said they wanted to contact my former supervisor. At that point, I had to be honest, but described the situation in vague terms so as to diffuse the negativity. I basically said my former supervisor and I did not see “eye-to-eye” and we did not leave on the best of terms. However, I left the option still open to my new employer that they may still contact my former supervisor, but I prefaced it with the possibility of not receiving a glowing reference. In the end, they said that “under the circumstances” they would not contact my former supervisor, but would go on the positive references they had received, thus far. Anyway, I got the (new) job and life is better now with a supervisor who appreciates my work. Good luck with this…it is a tough spot to be in!

  7. Kathy*

    To the Above Two Posters:

    Thank you for your words of encouragement and sharing of your similar experiences. It is heartening to know that there are other people out there who have gone through what I am, and have not only survived, but landed in a better place. The words of everyone here have been instructive and morale-boosting. Thanks!

  8. Anonymous*

    I had that experience, but haven’t had a problem getting another job. One employer said outright, when I tried to hedge the topic and say that the old boss was “a tad bit unpredictable. He should give me a good reference, but he’s a bit. . .ah. . .” at which point the HR recruiter jumped in and said “Oh. Asshole. Right. Got it.”

    I later found out that she HAD called my last boss and it was reported to my manager that based on my last employment “She’s loyal and a brilliant worker, even when her boss is a real jerk. Be careful with her, she’s had a horrible experience, but if you’re just decent to her, she’ll probably be so appreciative of it she’ll jump through hoops for you. Definitely hire.”

    So having a nasty, horrible boss? Probably worked in my favor.

  9. Anonymous*

    I also worked in education. My problem was that I had two separate supervisors directing me in two different directions with no communication between the two of them. Both were women. Both were very territorial and both had the notion that I was their possession. The environment became very hostile. I was constantly being criticized for silly things like my “mode of dress” or “the look on my face.” No explanation, just catty criticism. I could not make a move without being lambasted for something stupid. I am an educated person with two masters degrees related to my field. My work was never criticized until the two supervisors found out that I had graduated with two masters degrees. The environment became so hostile that I left abruptly after attempting to solve the matter over the course of a year by scheduling meetings with all three of us and our director that never came to fruition or one reason or another. I was out of work for a month when a potential employer insisted on speaking with my most recent supervisor. He did so and then spoke with me saying the reference was “extremely negative.” He also stated that the person was so angry he could tell it was more personal than professional and he stopped the conversation. I gave him additional references to check, one of which was a former supervisor. Most of my former supervisors are retired, so references were limited to HR or to former professors/mentors during my educational journey. I got the job despite the angry rants of my most recent supervisor. In fact, she made herself look like a fool with the garbage she spewed out. My potential employer would not share the things she said about me, but I know they were lies. Otherwise, why would he have given me the job? It’s a much better job, much better pay, much better benefits. I was very upset at first, but have learned to let it go. I have moved on and it is her reputation that has been tarnished, not mine.

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