my former boss told a background checker that she didn’t know me

A reader writes:

I applied for a job and they did a background check and called my ex-boss. She told them she doesn’t know/remember me. I worked there for four months, four years ago, but I worked with her directly and there is no way she wouldn’t remember me. Plus, I went and talked to her beforehand and said, “they are trying to contact you so please talk to them.” 

There is no HR department there (it’s a doctor’s office and she is the doctor). Is this legal?

What?

I mean, it’s possible that she really might not remember someone who only worked there for four months four years ago, but you went by and reminded her right before she got this phone call, so that’s not what’s happening here.

I can see three possible explanations here:

1. She’s crazy or vindictive (or crazy and vindictive). Did you have any reason to think that before this?

2. She’s really ineptly trying to avoid giving you a bad reference. Did you leave on good terms? How was your work? If one or both of those didn’t go well, it’s possible that she feels uncomfortable speaking about your work and made a really stupid choice about how to handle that. Believe me, I’m not saying that leaving on bad terms or performing poorly would be a reason to claim not to know you, but I’m trying to figure out what could possibly compel someone to do this.

(For the record, if you’re asked to give a reference for someone you don’t want to be a reference for, there are plenty of options for handling it, and they don’t include denying ever knowing the person. But christ, it sounds like we’re not even talking about giving you a reference; we’re just talking about employment confirmation.)

3. Last, it is possible that this was just a miscommunication somewhere. It’s not inconceivable that the background checker called the wrong number, or that your former boss misheard the name, or something along those lines. This is all the more reason to call her and find out what’s going on, and also to be proactive with the new company.

Is it legal, if it was intentional? I’m not a lawyer but I think there’s a good chance that it’s not. But your more immediate problem is what to do about it. I would do two things:

1. Call the company you’re applying for the job with. Tell them you have no idea why she didn’t remember you, but offer to provide whatever documentation you can. Do you have your W2s for that job? That would both confirm your employment and make her look highly unreliable in one swoop, which would be nice.

2. Call your former boss. Ask her what happened. Be really, really nice about this, to maximize your chances of the best outcome. Act like you’re assuming it was just a miscommunication, not intentional. See if she’ll resolve this.

Good luck, and please let us know how this plays out.

{ 8 comments… read them below }

  1. Meg Steele

    It's possible the manager did say 'I don't remember her' and meant, 'it's been so long, I don't remember her well enough to provide a reference of the quality of he work.'. However, I still think this is probably a variation of number two above, because if she remembers you at all, she probably could say in general terms whether she felt your work was good or bad. But it's entirely possible that she doesn't remembe whether your spreadsheets were good or your handwriting was neat and tidy.

  2. A Girl Named Me

    It was so long ago and the OP was there for such a short period of time – I'd probably remove the job from the resume unless some incredibly valuable skills were attained there (doubtful in the timeframe).

    If this is the only gap on the resume (four months, four years ago) and the OP isn't a major job-hopper, it shouldn't impact ability to be considered for hire today.

    If there was a former employee that I didn't remember, I would check my records and offer to call the person back. This doctor is probably disorganized in terms of her business (perhaps indicating why the OP was there for such a short period of time) and didn't bother.

    It would probably be illegal if it was intentional. My guess is that whatever is going on here isn't with the bad intent. If the job needs to stay on the resume, try to make nice with the doctor to assure that future conversations go better. Consider reminding the doctor of accomplishments during employment – doing this could give her something positive to discuss with prospective employers.

  3. Anonymous

    @ A Girl Named Me
    I read this as being a background check, not a running of references/resume. In some fields ( I work in a legal field) you are required to list all past jobs in the field. If you need a security clearance, they usually require living and working history and want to talk to lots of people. It's pretty common in DC to have Agents from all over the place doing background checks.

    Also, this doesn't sound like the case here, because you spoke to her before the check took place, but can we please stop assuming people will remember you at larger companies? I work with an internship program that has 40-60 interns a semester, and I do most of the employment verification. FOR THE LOVE OF GOD please email us/ include the dates you were here. I wasn't here when you were, and unless you were exceptional, NO ONE REMEMBERS YOUR 16 WEEK INTERNSHIP 8 YEARS LATER.

  4. Interviewer

    I worked with her directly and there is no way she wouldn't remember me. Plus, I went and talked to her beforehand and said, "they are trying to contact you so please talk to them."

    Is it even remotely possible that although you had this conversation with you, she drew a blank on who you were? Maybe she pretended to remember you in that conversation to be polite?

    Amen to not remembering those interns. Good grief.

    AAM had excellent advice on producing a W-2 as proof of previous employment there. Hopefully the outcome of your application does not hinge on confirmation of this particular work experience. Good luck.

  5. Anonymous

    "FOR THE LOVE OF GOD please email us/ include the dates you were here. I wasn't here when you were, and unless you were exceptional, NO ONE REMEMBERS YOUR 16 WEEK INTERNSHIP 8 YEARS LATER."

    Or even 4 years later. Seriously.

  6. Jamie

    I am really bad with names, and absolutely wouldn't remember 90% of the people I've worked with even a year ago off the top of my head.

    But if asked I would certainly get back to someone after looking it up – it's the response that's strange.

  7. Anonymous

    "Plus, I went and talked to her beforehand and said, "they are trying to contact you so please talk to them."

    What was her response?

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