I’m scared my bullying ex-boss will give me a bad reference

First, here’s my kitchen, day four. It’s feeling very … white. Maybe too white. I’m freaking out a little.

In any case … A reader writes:

I am looking for a job right now. I left my last job for a number of reasons. I was burned out, and recovering from some health issues. I was planning on taking a year off of work, because I’d been working for 10 years with little more than long weekend vacations and needed the time off to rest and recover. However, the main reason that I left my job when I did was because my boss went from being an awesome, nurturing person to a terrible, hypocritical bully who used me as her personal punching bag (I’d have left a bit later if she’d have been a good boss, but I was planning on leaving either way. I am SURE she didn’t know I was planning on leaving though – I never discussed it at work). Before I left, she had me demoted, and really did a number on my self-esteem. (For the record, my coworkers were horrified about what was happening, and many of them repeatedly told me that I didn’t deserve what she was doing, that my skills were excellent, and to not let her get to me.)

When asked why I left my job, I cite the “good reasons,” needed time off, recovering from health issues, wanted to freelance awhile. I don’t mention the nasty boss, and I don’t use her as a reference. Now that I know that hiring managers may call anybody that I previously worked with, not just the people I give as references, how do I handle the possibility that they will call the nasty boss? At what point should I bring her up, without sounding duplicitous for not bringing her up in the first place? And how do I handle the fact that, though I trained multiple people and took on multiple projects to much praise (at the time that I did them), my boss later told me that I did a terrible job at all those things and is likely to say that I did a poor job at all of them?

I’m considering having a friend call pretending to be a hiring manager to see what she says about me, but I honestly have no idea what hiring managers ask, so I’m not sure what to have my friend say.

When I give references, I currently use 2 people that I worked with (coworkers) within the company that nasty boss was at, plus my previous boss. I worked with my previous boss at two different companies -she pushed to get me hired at the second company I worked with her for, because she knew how good I was. I know these people (and many others) would give me glowing reviews, but I’m really scared about what my most previous boss would say about me.

Okay, a few things:

1. First, does your old company have an HR department? If so, one option to call them and explain that you have reason to worry that your former boss won’t give an accurate reference for you. Say these words: “I’m concerned this will prevent me from getting work. Can I find out what kind of reference the company will give me?” Even if HR thinks that your boss’s assessment of your work is accurate (which they might, because they generally — although not always — believe managers on that stuff), they’re likely to be more concerned with minimizing any possible legal exposure for the company. It is legal to give an honest reference, but HR tends not to want to open the door to legal hassles, justifiable or not. So there’s a good chance they’ll help you solve this.

2. Second, while employers can call references outside of the list you provide, the fact is that most of them don’t. So there’s a decent chance that this won’t even come up.

3. However, some hiring managers (far fewer than you think) will find it notable that you’re not including your most recent boss on your reference list and might ask to be put in touch with her. If this happens, and if your conversation with HR didn’t set you at ease, then you’d simply explain to the employer that you and your boss didn’t see eye-to-eye and/or that your relationship went from strong to strained by the time you left, but that you have lots of other references from that company and others who will give you glowing reviews. (And they won’t see it as duplicitous that you didn’t mention her earlier; they’ll see you as professional and discreet for not badmouthing a former boss.)

Keep in mind, plenty of people have a boss in their past who things just didn’t go well with; if you have a sea of positive references and this one negative one, which you’re able to explain — and especially since you can provide other references from that same company — most employers are likely to overlook it.

And again, it may never even come up, so don’t get too anxious about it. I think you’ll be just fine either way.

P.S. I’m planning to do a post soon on what questions reference-checkers typically ask. So that may give your reference-checking friend some fodder if you want to go that route…

{ 66 comments… read them below }

  1. Lynda*

    Your kitchen isn’t too white – it goes perfectly with your cats, and we all know that’s what really matters. And you even have a stove!


      1. ImpassionedPlatypi*

        I think as long as you didn’t also choose white countertops it should be fine.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          No, an amazing grey swirly thing that looks like marble and is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. And there will be a blue subway tile backsplash when it’s all done.

          1. Liz in a library*

            Aww…that sounds so pretty. I’m horribly jealous. I want to re-do my kitchen like crazy, but we have too many practical projects (leaking pipes, faulty electric) at the moment to do it.

            1. Anon.*

              Lynda, that is hysterical!
              Many years ago I went looking for a new couch and noticed that the store I was in had many custom fabrics. I had 3 cats at the time, 3 years apart – one mostly white, one mostly black, one shades of grey/brown/bl/wh… When the salesperson approached me I remarked that I needed a fabric to match my cats (it had just occured to me that was a good ‘solution’. The LOOK on her face was priceless. Fool that she was, she walked away – very likely thinking she had a crazy customer. LOL.
              Btw, she definately lost the sale..

              1. Anon.*

                I think its awesome that you admitted it :D
                and smart to do – why clash with your own furniture? Surrounding yourself with colors/textures that make you feel good, makes you feel beautiful, calm, energized.. whatever is important to you can only be good for your total ‘being’. imo.

              2. Ask a Manager* Post author

                Anonymous, I would need to see the exact shade of your hair; if you are darker or lighter than me, I bet it works. I can’t do reds at all. (Or yellows, or oranges.) My current couch is chocolate brown.

        2. clobbered*

          Yes, and as long as the walls weren’t going to be blinding white. A nice light pastel shade of something (blue, green, mint, turquoise) would really make it stand out nicely.

          1. saro*

            Not too white at all. Also remember that once you move in your stuff, that will also offer color. Check out http://www.hashai.com – I love her interior decorating ideas. She has a predominantly white kitchen (I think) and it works really well.

            Pretty kitties btw.

            No shame in making sure your couches are flattering to you. I once got a yellow slip-cover and realized that yellow is NOT my color. Won’t be doing that again!

    1. Wilton Businessman*

      Going to put some nice knobs on there or leave them plain? Maybe some nice stainless knobs if the countertop is greyish. Or wrought iron…

        1. Wilton Businessman*

          That will look good. Some nice natural tones with a lot of color variation in the backsplash would complement it as well, IMHO.

  2. rmd*

    Your cats have cleverly chosen the correct color scheme to blend in with the kitchen — white and wood-floor orange.

  3. Mike C.*

    Don’t worry about too much white, you can always add some colored accents or art or whatever if it turns out to be too much.

    Kitchens aside (:p), I’ve always been curious about this topic. Not everyone ends up working for a great boss and the advice given to those who do is always “leave!”. This being the case, I would hope that hiring managers would understand this and not hold it against a candidate for doing so!

    And don’t get me started on that ever so popular, “why do you want to leave your current position, and don’t worry I’ll ask a ton of follow up questions”. I hate having to lie.

    1. Jenna*

      My go-to answer for the “why do you want to leave” is an honest “I didn’t see much room for growth where I am now, and I’m eager to continue in my career path and learn and expand my skill set in a different environment. I’m grateful for all I’ve learned at X, but saw this opportunity with ________ and it seemed like the perfect fit for what I was looking for!”

      Generally, that’s true for anytime you’re looking for a new position, even if a psychotic boss is the one that’s speeding up your timeline for leaving the company. (And oh, have I been there. The stories I tell people about her make their jaws drop. I’ve been told I should write a book.) When pressed, I’ll admit in the absolute nicest language I can conjure up that my boss and I don’t see eye-to-eye on many things and have very different styles of approaching our work, so I felt it was better to seek out a working environment more in tune with my style. (And then, based on your research, you can go into a bit about what exactly the organization offers that makes you think that they will be different for you).

      So far, I’ve had no problems. There’s no lies in there, just a genuine reason I’m leaving the organization and a detailed explanation about how this organization will better suit my needs (which shows you’ve done your research and seems to put many interviewers at ease).

      1. Anonymous*

        While that may be true most managers know those are both stock answers, especially the first one.

      2. Mike C.*

        See I do the “looking for new challenges” thing as well, but recently they started following up. Lots of, “what is missing at your current workplace” and things like that. Either I end up lying and finishing with something like, “I’ve learned as much as I can” or “I’ve topped out” or I break the cardinal rule.

        It’s just difficult working for a place that refuses to promote people or develop their skills in an industry where this is expected. That’s the reason (among many) that I want to leave, but employers (justifiably) want to know how I’ve spent my time.

        If I could just say, “the owner of the company doesn’t feel comfortable promoting from within” without looking like a whiner I would be happy.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          I think you could possibly say that — maybe something like “the culture is one that tends not to promote from within,” said in a completely unbothered, unresentful tone, like a neutral observer.

          1. Joey*

            Just make sure the reason you list for leaving isn’t going to bite you in the ass. I’ve followed up on a lot rfl’s that didn’t go well for the applicant. You cant say your leaving for more money and then take a pay decrease. Or, this one I love, left for better opportunity and then you were unemployed. Or the more common, you were laid off, but in reality you were fired.

    2. FrauTech*

      So agree. The last time I was interviewing was mostly because incredibly low and crappy pay. I was at a place where people would die to work at, and the experience would have been fantastic. But I couldn’t take the lagging pay anymore with no end in sight. Nothing ever came of my interviews. I danced around it with looking for opportunities to “move up” or for “growth” but really started to feel like people were filling in their own secret reasons.

      It’s really too bad you can’t just say “my boss and I didn’t get along, here’s why, and here’s why i got along with other bosses and will get along just fine with you” or “they’re paying me total crap because it’s the recession and they can”.

      1. Anonymous*

        It would be nice if we could be truthful. I think the workplace in general would be a much better place if we could. Why? It would likely be easier to place people based on optimal fit.

  4. Elizabeth*

    With all that, it won’t look too white at all. Right now the exposed drywall doesn’t provide any contrasting color, but a darker countertop and a colorful backsplash will change that entirely. Plus, there will be those other little things around that make the space look busier – a towel hanging from the oven door, olive oil next to the stove, etc.

    I’m excited to see how it turns out!

  5. littlemoose*

    I had to chime in and say how cute your kitties are! Kitchen looks nice too. Oh, and thanks for being awesome generally.

  6. Long Time Admin*

    I can just feel the fear in the OP’s letter. I have known people in the past who would try to deliberately destroy a former employee’s job chances. (One person had had a stroke and thought things like that were funny, but he was odd before the stroke.)

    It’s really scary that someone could endanger another person’s employment possibility with just a few words. The truth is, no one ever knows that a hiring manager or HR people are thinking, much less what they might do under any given circumstances.

    I like AAM’s advice, most especially the “words” to use if the OP thinks someone might contact her past manager for a reference. OP, it’s probably the only thing you can do. Make sure you have something rehearsed to say, and then put the matter out of your head, and concentrate on getting a really REALLY good job. “Living well is the best revenge”.

  7. SME*

    I think the white looks sharp and crisp, which is excellent in a kitchen! Also, I feel the fact that you are a cat person (a fat cat person, no less) says excellent things about you. What color will you go with for the walls?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Speaking of their size, you can’t tell in the photo because of the perspective, but the one in front is actually 1/3 the size of the one behind. The one behind is some sort of gigantic mutant.

      I’d been planning to do white for the walls, but now Clobbered (and the overall whiteness) has me second-guessing that!

      1. SME*

        HAHAHA…I had one of those once! 20+ pounds, and he didn’t even care about food that much! He was like some furry feline air plant or something, sucking nutrients out of nothing.

        I second the suggestion to consider a snazzy accent color for the walls. Light yellow looks awesome with white, and makes kitchens super cheerful. If, you know, you like yellow and all.

          1. Irena*

            The white brick backsplash is kind of cool but the wall is dark beige (you can see in top left corner). The ceiling is white and all the walls are packed with white cabinets etc. so unless you plan to pack your walls like this, I’d say throw some color in. =)
            The only thing that breaks all this is the red pot on the stove (and tomatoes(?) on the window sill) lol.

          2. fposte*

            1) you’d have to clean it all the freaking time and 2) that kitchen is trying to maximize limited natural light (skylight looks like the only source, so I’m guessing it’s a basement). You don’t need to do that.

            It’s beautiful, but it’s only beautiful when it’s kept pristine. For me that’s a doomed proposition–I go for something that’s beautiful when treated with casual maintenance.

            1. saro*

              Do white if you want white. You can always paint in a few months if you think it’s too white or too hard to maintain.

              1. Jennifer*

                I think white walls will be fantastic. You’re already going to have the gray countertop and blue tiles to give some contrast. I think the white walls will be fantastic. Can’t wait to see the finished product.

  8. SME*

    Oh! And on topic to the OP: though not so psycho-sounding as your experience, I have one of those bafflingly negative endings in my history as well. I just use another manager at the same place as a reference – he really was in a position of authority over me, had lots of day-to-day interaction with me, and there’s just no reason for anyone to know about or talk to the inexplicably unpleasant person. Is that an option for you?

  9. Anonymous*

    I love how your “Kitchen and Kitties” have taken over the comments. But perhaps, for the OP’s sake, you should make kitchen updates a separate post.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I know! I was thinking I didn’t want to bother the people who were uninterested in kitchens with a separate post, but clearly everyone is as enthralled by kitchens as I am.

    2. Anon.*

      I was thinking that too. As much as I love the kitchen and also was thinking when I saw the update this morning that I should tell AAM how much I LOVE her blog – the professional advice as well as the personal way she delivers it – her style, OP really needs to see folks focusing their comments on the issue at hand. (disclaimer: I’m the anon. that replied about matching the couch to my cats.. I think thats when I realized how off topic we had gotten. sorry!)

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Okay, no more posts with kitchen updates embedded in them! OP, we will focus on your situation … although really, I do think you’re going to be just fine! To make up for causing this distraction, I’m going to do my next U.S. News column on reference-checking questions, so your friend will have a handy guide if you go that route. (It won’t be Monday; I just turned that one in — so it’ll be August 11.)

        By the way, I once checked my cousin’s references for him. He was convinced that he was going to get a terrible reference from his old boss, but when I called, the reference was actually fine.

  10. Joey*

    I didn’t hear anything that convinced me the ops boss was a terrible one. It’s just as likely that the employee was underperforming and the boss was you know managing. Frankly it sounds like the boss at least had some compassion or thought the op had something to contribute by demoting instead of firing the op.
    Anywho, if you’re worried about what type of reference you’ll get getting a friend to call works well.

    1. Anon.*

      AAM said above that she’s planning to do a post soon on what questions reference-checkers typically ask. I hope its sooner rather than later! I’ve always wondered what is asked too.

        1. Joey*

          Honestly, most of the time as a job seeker you don’t have to worry because not many people call references and a lot of the ones who do do a horrible job because they don’t know what to ask. I’m interested to see if its that mindless fill out a form type stuff or if Alison also gives the techniques that get the good info. I’m guessing the latter.

  11. Anonymous*

    I’m a hiring manager that does call references – and I would notice the lack of the most recent boss. That does not mean a rejection, but I would be curious, and would tailor my questions to the given references accordingly.

    1. Agree*

      It’s a red flag for me so i’ll make it a point to get both the candidates response and the managers side of the story if possible.

    2. Mike C.*

      I’m curious how either of you two deal with a situation where a candidate is in a bad work environment and wants to leave desperately, but can’t communicate those issues directly during the interview or references issue.

      Like I said before, the best advice for someone is in a bad workplace – and we all know there are plenty out there – is to leave. Outside of not speaking ill of your current employer, how would you like to see a candidate address these issues without raising red flags?

      1. Anonymous*

        That’s a very good question. Being in a somewhat insular field, often times I already know that a workplace is considered toxic, and occasionally know beforehand that people want to leave. *

        So far I have not had anyone come to me from a “really bad” situation. I’ve had managers left off for other reasons – some standard, others much more interesting, but no crazy people.

        I think my preference would be if it came up in the interview when talking about the most recent job. It’s not a red flag to me if someone says one of the reasons they are leaving are “not a good environment for me”, “some personality conflicts” or some such provided the context is strong – not dwelling, not over-explaining, and not making excuses. I also would be impressed by the length of time at a position. If it comes out that they were unhappy but stayed with it for at least a year due to their work ethic – well that plays well for me.

        Actually the moment I realized I was understanding networking was when I started consistently knowing someone who could give me an opinion on a candidate before I got to the calling references point. Hearing from a contact that someone worked in hell but had grace under pressure is the best reference I could get!

        *The flip side is when candidates rave about their last boss, and the reference is strong….. and I know they (boss) are BS crazy that is not so good either! I then ask more detailed, careful questions.

  12. Anonymous*

    A similar situation happened to me, though my bullying boss was always a fairly mediocre boss. I became the target of his bullying, which I could ignore; however, when he was allowed by HR to penalize me for violating a policy that didn’t exist, I had to resign.

    I’m over it and both happy and relieved to have left, but I am curious about what he might say about me. My references (he’s not one) are solid, and there are other people at my former company who would speak to the quality of my work, but still…

    I considered having a friend call, but my former boss keep a VERY erratic schedule, and I wouldn’t want a friend to waste her or his time with multiple calls or waiting for a returned phone call.

    If anyone has used one of those reference checking services, I’m interested to know if it was worth it.

  13. Anon*

    I’ve been in this situation except I was let go. I worked for a small firm, 5 people total and it was fine for the first 6 months but then they hired an office manager who basically had no interpersonal skills (very gruff, used the office for her personal playground with no regard for those of us dealing with clients in her presence and did shady things (once lied on me and the other office worker to the attorneys and even though they realized she had lied and thus jeopardized our standing with them, we were told that we had to to suck it up and deal with it because she was good with collecting money from the clients). Suddenly I was the enemy and every wrong thing that happened at the firm suddenly fell on me. I was already looking for a job and happened to come upon my own position on Craigslist (and I live in a small town so I immediately knew it was my job). I fully admit, my morale sank and I didn’t do as good of a job as I am capable of for that last month, and they laid me off. Actually best thing for me because I was miserable.

    Anyway I was very worried about what they would say to reference checkers since it was my most recent employment. Once when I was at a temp agency the agency called the firm WHILE I WAS THERE! Ew. Thankfully turns out they will only verify dates of employment and that is all, which is fine by me.

  14. Anonymous*

    I’ve been on the other end of this. I am in no way saying that the OP’s account is not accurate, but my company once had to let someone go who was nothing short of toxic and who was in total denial of this. She was an administrative manager who seemed to think she was a VP and who spent her days causing needless arguments and ignoring the work she had been assigned to do. After being terminated, she contacted staff member after staff member asking them to serve as references for her because she knew her old supervisor would not have anything kind to say. Her calls and emails were so frequent and inappropriate that they became a running joke. We finally wrote her a reference letter with just her name, dates of employment, and job duties. That was all.

  15. Lizzie Lee*

    OP here! First of all, I already got a call, and it looks like I got the job! Yay! It just has to go through one final approval, which HR said should be fine, though I won’t know for sure (or say it’s for sure) until I get the final confirmation call next week.

    I currently have a list of 12 people who will act as references for me (so I don’t have to tax any 3 people too much). Of the 12, 7 are from my last company, and I used 2 of them as references for this job. Only two of them are previous bosses, but one of them was my boss at two of the companies that I previously worked for.

    I have yearly reviews from my last job (which I was at for 3+ years before I left) stating that I did an amazing job (I got top-level ratings for all my reviews). Things didn’t start to seriously fall apart until about 4 months before I left. If this job somehow falls through, and I need to keep looking, I will be sure to mention that I have 3 years of positive reviews that I can offer up as proof that I was a good employee.

    I’m really looking forward to reading about what questions a good hiring person will ask when calling. If I don’t get the job, I did find a friend that agreed to call my old boss as a hiring manager to see what she says. And I will call HR and use the exact phrases you mentioned, AAM. Thank you so much for your wonderful advice! You helped me remember that I have lots of resources against anything this woman would say. I’ve really been struggling with that off & on since I left.


    PS: you are a brave woman to do such huge kitchen renovations in one go. Kudos to you and I love your cats! I have a sleek little black one who glories in covering my light green couch with fur. :)

  16. Lizzie Lee*

    oh, I forgot to add:

    SME – no, my ex-boss was my only boss, because I was a senior-level person the majority of the time I was there, so there is nobody else I could ask for a reference in my department, other than her.

    Oh, and my ex boss never answers the phone unless she knows the number. And she’s not so frequent on checking her VM (she feels that, if it’s really important, the person will email). So it’s possible that, unless they were really persistent, they’d never get a hold of her anyway.


  17. Sigrid*

    I know this is a very late comment to this post, however, when you say that you can explain to your potential new employers that your boss and you didn’t see eye to eye, when should you say this?
    At an interview?
    Or when the HR person asks for your references?

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