will attitude affect references?

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!

{ 6 comments… read them below }

  1. I keep my attitudes to myself*

    I think for many of us, one key to coping at the workplace may lie in distinguishing between our internal attitudes and any observable external behavior at all.

    What a boss describes as attitude is something she or he will figure out from behaviors they observe. Bosses do this — we all do; that’s fine. So here’s my view: as an employee my actual, internally felt attitude is my own domain. I keep it that way. I am only being paid to act as if my attitude is constructive, participatory, and so forth. So I absolutely act that way. I say “how can I help you,” “I’m glad you told me what you needed,” “I admire how you did that,” and other external actions that are consistent with an attitude of being delighted. And I really sound like I mean it, too. I get complimented on my “attitude.” But in fact, do I ask it of myself to feel delighted? No. That’s my private territory. My associates, superiors and subordinates have no right to know my actual private attitude. They only have a right to infer what they think it is from every single thing they observe me do. If I have trouble keeping something in, I go and do a workout or something.

    This isn’t cynicism. This really works for me.

    P.S. I don’t tell people this at work. That would be acting less than constructive. It’s important to act constructively.

  2. HR Wench*

    The first commenter is absolutely correct. This is why I hate the word “attitude” in manager and employee conversations. Address specific behaviors and leave it at that. For example: “Jane, when you rolled your eyes and sighed heavily during the meeting it was distracting and disrespectful to the speaker. Please do not do that again.” Now the employee has very specific feedback and instructions. YAY!

  3. HR Maven*

    A couple of thoughts for the poster. As you start your search, make sure that you are in a good place to interview. I have seen some people who pull off terrific interviews regardless of the external world and I have seen others who simply can’t pull it off at all. They are a mess.

    Job searching is stressful by itself – and you would be adding it to a less than perfect (new)job and some external stresses.

    I would suggest that you find a friend (or someone close) who can help you do a temperature check and who will give you some honest feedback.

    Good luck in your search. HRM

  4. Anonymous*

    I’m sorry to be brutally honest, but attitude and fit are a huge part of how someone is “viewed.” While you may be getting your work done, if you’ve got a chip on your shoulder, you don’t get the same kind of recognition. For your supervisor to reiterate four times that your attitude is a problem, means that it’s a huge problem and you should work on it. You’re not keeping your private life private if you’re coming in and acting withdrawn or cold. I’d start by fixing whatever is going on internally before trying to move jobs. If the problem is at home, moving jobs will only momentarily take the focus off your unhappiness. If I did a reference check and found out that the current manager had concerns about attitude, I’d second guess the hire.

  5. Audiodef*

    I find the response to this reader both expected and disturbing. It is expected because most people cannot truly think outside of the boxes they have been living in their entire lives. It is disturbing because there is so much more to life than the relatively small boxes in which most of us live.

    "I suspect your resentment is showing in more ways than just not smiling and not going to lunch." This is merely a statement of the obvious.

    "Drop the resentment. Focus on the fact that you're now taking action to do something different." This is a pat anecdote. While resentment does get in the way, telling someone to "get over it" is not helpful. In fact, it continues to engender thinking inside the box. It continues this because the entire problem this person, and everyone like this person has is that the box exists. Only when these boxes – these mental prisons – are removed, can problems like this truly be solved. Only when humanity grows up and stops constantly "competing" with one another for resources will people be able to simply focus on what is important to them. Prior to this evolutionary step, most people's choices are limited to knowing what is wrong and fighting the system, or not knowing what is wrong and suffering through this for a lifetime.

    Attitude is a personal choice. As long as you are doing the job, your attitude is your personal decision. Most people are not hired to smile all day. They are hired to perform tasks. If the tasks are getting done, the employer should back off. Employers harp on attitude because they are insecure and immature, and do not know how to be around people that remind them of how unhappy they themselves are. THIS IS NOT THE EMPLOYEE'S PROBLEM. This goes right back to my above point – that humanity needs to grow up.

  6. Kara*

    Audiodef: As an administrative assistant, I’m sure customer service is in her job description. That means being cheerful, smiling, etc… not just being polite. It is a reflection on the entire company if the only person a customer has direct contact with is very clearly unhappy.

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