when a positive reference suddenly turns negative

A reader writes:

My sister was recently chosen for a permanent position that had come available within a large organization where she had previously worked as a temp. They performed over three weeks of scrupulous recruitment procedures, wherein she passed a background check with flying colors. She was asked for a list of her references, which of course included her top reference of the person she previously worked for at this organization, who she trusted implicitly. They had gotten along very well, he wrote her a very nice reference letter when her temp assignment ended, and he continued to provide stellar reviews of her to other companies she applied to during her work search.

Well, she just found out from the hiring person at this organization that she was being rejected due to an unfavorable reference from this person she had worked for within the organization. His review of her to the hiring manager was a complete 360 degree turn from the references he gave about her previously to other companies, wherein he praised her skills and work performance with specificity (i.e., “S________ was a delight to work with and an absolute team player that fit in perfectly with our organization. She was an excellent worker that always produced the highest quality of work with accuracy and attention to detail. She was a great problem solver and many times took the initiative on projects. She was always punctual, very mature and personable with staff and clients. Her communication skills were excellent. I would bring S_________ back as a temp again if I had the opportunity to do so.”, etc.). Instead, he “hemmed and hawed” to the hiring manager, and said that he thought he could do better, stating that my sister showed little initiative in the job with him, etc. The hiring manager did tell my sister that this person’s review completely went against his impression of her, and her other references checked out very favorably; however, since this person was within the organization, he was giving him the benefit of the doubt against my sister (they are, incidentally, of equal rank within the company).

Needless to say, my sister is gobsmacked, and asked me if I would ask your advice regarding this situation. She thinks she might have some legal recourse as she has copies of the references this person had given to other companies on her behalf as well as the reference letter this person wrote when her assignment ended. (She also sent copies of these references to the hiring manager.)

She should move on.

Here’s why: First, it’s not illegal to give a negative reference. It’s illegal to knowingly give false information about someone (such as that you were fired when you weren’t, or that you stole money from the company when you didn’t). But it’s not illegal to give your opinion about someone, even if you can’t prove that opinion.

So legal action aside, what happened here? There are three possibilities:

1. Your sister’s former manager wasn’t that thrilled with her work but gave her positive references anyway, because he felt it was a nice thing to do. However, once there was a question of her working within his own organization, he felt more obligated to speak up about the concerns he had. This is very, very common. People often want to help someone get a job, even if they don’t think that highly of their work, and say they say positive things … until it could impact their own company.

2. Your sister’s manager was truthful when he provided positive references for her to other companies, but there were still reasons that he felt she wouldn’t be the right fit in this particular job. Note that the reference you quoted said that he would hire her back as a temp, not for the position she was applying for. You can do a great job in one role and not be the right fit for a different role — in fact, that’s very common. References aren’t just about “yes” or “no”; done right, they’re about fit for a particular job, not just any job. It’s entirely feasible that he really would hire her back as a temp and did she think she did a great job in that role, but genuinely can’t recommend her for the other role she was applying for.

3. Something else. He’s been secretly planning to undermine her all along? He randomly changed his mind about her one day? He just doesn’t want her as a coworker? Any of these are possible, but it is far more likely that the answer is #1 or #2, as those are perfectly logical and common explanations for what happened here. (In fact, the only thing that isn’t logical or common here is that the hiring manager told your sister what her coworker probably said to her in confidence — that wasn’t especially kind or professional of her.

In any case, I think the messages to take away here are that people are often willing to give you positive references without actually being sold enough on you to recommend that their own company hire you … and even when they do truly think well of you, it does not mean that they think you’d be a good fit for every single job out there.

She should let it go.

{ 144 comments… read them below }

  1. Tater B.*

    That just hurt MY feelings and it’s not even me!

    I know everyone is entitled to their own opinions. I know that even though most of us think we are the World’s Greatest Employees, we all have weaknesses and shortcomings. I even understand that the reference did what he thought was the right thing to do…and arguably, it was if the person would not have been a good fit. But sheesh, this has to sting.

    While I would never confront the reference (but I’d be furiously scribbling about the debacle in my journal), I wonder what she can do to keep this from happening again? Part of me would like to calmly e-mail the reference and ask for feedback.

    And is it just me, or does anyone else think it was sort of insensitive of the hiring manager to go into such detail about the conversation with the reference?

    Looking forward to the commentary on this one!

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I certainly didn’t mean to hurt anyone’s feelings and yes, it stings. But … it’s not realistic to expect that someone will think you’re a good fit for every job you might apply for. People are far better off being realistic about this and not taking it personally.

      And yes, it was absolutely insensitive of the hiring manager (I briefly addressed that above) — she erred there.

      1. Brightwanderer*

        I didn’t read Tater’s comment as saying that YOU’d hurt anyone’s feelings – but that the situation with the reference turning around would.

      2. Tater B.*

        My implication was not that you specifically hurt feelings with your response, I think it detailed what would be the best course of action. I just meant the situation itself would be difficult for most of us to experience.

        And yes, I do understand that not everyone is a good fit for every single job. If I look back at my resume, there were some jobs I accepted that were absolutely not a good fit for me. But in this particular situation my feelings would be hurt and I think I’d be justified in licking my wounds for a day or two.

      3. Jamie*

        I read Tater’s post to mean the reference would have hurt her feelings – not you. No?

        And I do think this information was far more specific than was probably necessary, but so many people write in here who want the blunt truth and are tired of people side stepping why they weren’t hired, so I think it depends on who is receiving it.

      4. Barry*

        ” But … it’s not realistic to expect that someone will think you’re a good fit for every job you might apply for. People are far better off being realistic about this and not taking it personally.”

        The problem is that this bad reference didn’t say so, and could quite easily have destroyed her chances at a large number of jobs. This could go on for years. I’ve been in that position, and only found out about it due to luck.

    2. fposte*

      “That just hurt MY feelings and it’s not even me!”

      Aw, Tater, that’s lovely, and it’s probably about the best thing for the OP and her sister to hear–this really would be an ouch. And I think that a lot of what the sister is responding to is really those hurt feelings. I think when the wounds heal a little she’ll realize that this isn’t something you’d want to argue about even if the law did cover it.

  2. Jamie*

    I hope the OPs sister heeds Alison’s advice about letting it go.

    Legal action, when nothing illegal has happened, around references is the reason so many people won’t give an honest reference and why so many companies (unwisely) forbid employees from giving any reference at all and opt to just verify employment.

    Companies don’t want to deal with lawsuits, even when they are in the right, so they go overboard and this results in people having trouble getting any real info out of references.

    FWIW upon reading the letter, but before Alison’s response, my gut feeling was also that either the previous references were so positive and fluffy because he didn’t care (not his company), or that he just didn’t feel she was right for a specific job.

    I know my former manager gave a glowing reference about me when I applied for my current job, but I bet it would have been a lot less enthusiastic if I was up for a job in sales. The best he could say would be the paperwork would be done properly and I’m sure he’d try to refrain from mentioning that my horrible people skills when it comes to this kind of thing. However, if I applied for sales at his company – yeah, I’m sure the fact that I have an autographed copy of “I Hate People” in my office would come up.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      It’s also worth noting that the previous references were apparently in writing and shown to the sister (since the OP is quoting them), and people frequently say things in person that they aren’t going to put in writing. This is why letters of recommendation are pretty worthless.

      1. ChristineH*

        I would think that something in writing bears more weight, so I’m a little unclear about your stance on letters of recommendations. Is it because of the absence of a conversation, including those “probing questions” you advocate for?

          1. Anonymous*

            In academia, there is an art to writing a less than positive letter (if you agree to write one at all) and others in academia know how to read between the lines. Basically, a positive letter will be solid, with praise for very specific examples, compare the student to his/her peers of the same level, and use language that shows genuine enthusiasm. A less than positive letter will be very vague, commend the student on something like showing up on time when they came, and say something general like: “Mary received a B- in the class of 30 students where the average grade was B.”

            1. TW*

              I also love the subtle hints if someone is a mega paintbox work with, like no statements about how they will be missed on a personal level and lots of comments about being driven and confident in their ideals.

              1. Amouse*

                Ok this whole reference ambiguity thing is offically freaking me out. Now I’m afraid if an employer gives me a reference that they intend to be good the person on the other end is going to read into it like no tomorrow and find something that isn’t there and wasn’t intended. gah!

                1. Jamie*

                  I wouldn’t worry. By far the vast majority of the time it’s just two people talking with things being taken at face value – nothing cryptic.

                  Because the truth is most of the time, unless you graffiti tagged the place with obscenities on he way out the door, most people tend to focus on the positive. In fact I would make book that most of the references where people are not telling he whole truth they are shading it in the candidates favor.

                2. Amouse*

                  @Jamie: So you’re saying that whole smear campaign I did of my last place of employment will probably get me blacklisted? ;-) (that’s a joke)

                1. Amouse*

                  bahahaha I was curious about that one but I htought maybe it was some artsy metaphor I hadn’t heard before.

        1. Another Ellie*

          There’s a difference between a confidential letter of rec and one like this where basically the recommender writes it and gives it to the recommendee to pass out. Compare that with an academic letter of rec where the student gives the contact information for the organization that requested the letter and then the recommender crafts a specific letter and sends it directly to the organization, without the student seeing it. Now it’s sometimes done electronically (the student submits the recommenders email, and then the recommender receives an electronic form to submit the letter), but it still bypasses the student. Back when it was all handwritten it was technically sop to sign over the envelope closure, or to emboss it with a personal or department seal.

        2. Going anonymous, to protect the innocent*

          It’s exactly because something in writing can carry more weight – sometimes more than it should – that people hesitate to put negative/controversial/sensitive things in writing. When you write something, there’s a permanent record.

          A parallel: I’m a teacher, and whenever something negative happens with a student, I almost always call the parents instead of sending them an email. If I put it in writing, parents may pick at it and over-assess details – sometimes looking for where I went wrong to make their perfect child act up. Also, without tone of voice, they may misinterpret what I mean. When we talk, my tone of voice can help the parents feel like I’m on the same team as them in wanting to help the child – plus, if I phrase something imperfectly, it’s gone and there’s no record of it.

          I do write negative things in report cards, when they’re warranted, but those undergo an incredibly intensive editing process before they’re given to the parents.

          1. Amouse*

            ha! I’m picturing the First draft of report cards: “Jack is just a jerk!” Second draft: “Some improvement could be made in Jack’s social skills and ability to interact with students” and final “Jack’s ability to interact with other students has markedly improved over the past semester however it is recommended that continuous efforts are made.”

      2. Anonymous*

        Actually, Alison, my sister only learned of the glowing reference that was given by the previous supervisor when the agency she signed up with let her know about it, thinking she would like to know because it was such a nice one. One just never knows, does one?

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Ah, this is interesting. At least she knows that he has indeed been giving her positive references for other jobs (not just in written letters). (And I don’t think this new info makes possibilities 1 and 2 in my original response less likely.)

  3. Mike*

    Wow, I feel bad for your sister. We live in this world of “everyone gets a gold star for trying,” and then when push comes to shove, the dirt hits the fan. If we could be courageous enough to give honest, constructive feeback upfront, perhaps this would have come as less of a suprise to your sistser. I’m sorry she had to go through that!

  4. Steve*

    My personal bet would be on option number 1. I have seen this before actually, you don’t want to hurt someone so you rationalize giving an okay reference to outsiders. But when it is internal and your own credibility is on the line you are forced to be more direct.

    What could be done? For one thing, make sure you have your references lined up for that specific job before you list them. Ask them if they will serve as a reference for job X and if believe they can give a positive one.

    Of course if the interviewer is good they will note that you worked internally before and seek out your supervisor directly.

    1. Your Mileage May Vary*

      “Ask them if they will serve as a reference for job X…”

      This is a piece of advice I think job-searchers possibly overlook. I know I’ve been guilty of just rounding up three people to put down on applications. It wasn’t until I started reading this blog and comments like these that I realized that the more tailored your entire application (including references) is, the better it will be.

      1. Steve*


        When I am a finalist for a position, (in my organization that is when references are checked) I feed my references a summary of the position, what I think the position emphasizes and talking points of what I did with them that demonstrate my ability to succeed in those areas.

        They can of course say what they want, but I want to make it as easy for them as possible.

        1. Suzanne*

          I’ve switched jobs quite a bit the past few years (due to the economy, not my choice) so I don’t have that many sound references to be able to switch them out depending on the job. I’ve tried to keep in touch with some of these people, but if they change email or phone and don’t let me know, well, I’m out of luck. Most of them, I never had any contact with other than work, and several of them only for a few months a few years ago, and I have no idea what has happened to them since and no way to track them down.

  5. Mike*

    This is making me think I should get in quick touch with all my references, espeically the older ones, and check in and see if I can still count on them for a positive reference if needed!

  6. Anonymous*

    It’s so interesting reading this blog while going through the process of trying to hire an for a paid internship position in our office. We brought in two great candidates yesterday for our final round, and they were both fabulous…but one was more fabulous for the position we were hiring for NOW. We definitely want to maintain a relationship with the second one, and have some positions that might come up in the new year that more closely match their skill set. The upshot: they are both great and would be great employees, but the second wasn’t the right fit for the position. It’s so crystal clear when you are on the other side.

    The problem is when you are being interviewed for a job, you start to imagine yourself in the role, start thinking about how you approach the role, how you would fit in the organization…and you envision how you would make yourself fit. But on the other side, you don’t go through that emotional process and just place the best-fitting candidate into the spot. It’s really eye-opening.

    I agree that hiring manager should not have been so candid. She made it seem like it got personal on the other side, when in reality it was probably as Allison suggested with either the #1 or #2 option.

  7. AnotherAlison*

    I know hindsight is 20/20, but I wonder why the OP’s sister didn’t get in touch with her former manager before applying to the company for the permanent position. If I thought someone within the company might be a champion for me, I’d definitely let them know I was applying for a job there. It seems a little strange that she wasn’t in touch with him sooner. If she DID get in touch with him, and he didn’t find some way to gently let her know that he couldn’t give her a positive recommendation, then that really stinks.

    1. nyxalinth*

      It’s super-easy to take things at face value sometimes, and maybe she thought the written recommendation was the whole truth of things, and didn’t consider other factors? You can’t think of everything–and shouldn’t, because eventually you’ll drive yourself nuts trying to think of each last contigency–but it could just be she read the letter, thought “He thinks I’m great, I’m sure there won’t be a problem.” and acted accordingly.

      1. Brightwanderer*

        Also, OP does say that he’d previously given great references (presumably in person/on the phone) for other jobs – so it’s not just that she was relying on the letter.

        1. AnotherAlison*

          I’m not just talking about the reference part of the application.

          If I worked for “Tom” and thought we had a great working relationship, I’d be in touch with him.

          1. I’d want the inside scoop on the position. Is it something that fits me? A real opening? Is the HM a good person to work for?

          2. Assuming #1 was all good, I’d want to know if Tom would put in a good word for me. (In the OP’s sisters’ case, I too would have assumed the good word wouldn’t have been a problem based on the letter and past recommendations, but I wouldn’t have left it to the HM to seek out his reference. I’d want my contact to make sure he put in a good word for me. In some cases HR or the hiring manager might not even talk to him, and I’d want to make sure they talked to my hole-in-one ace reference.)

    2. fposte*

      I think everybody here will be very sure to do that kind of checking after hearing this story, that’s for sure.

    3. twentymilehike*

      I was also wondering if the reference knew ahead of time that the sister was applying for the job. I have applied for jobs where I’ve known someone in the company, and the first thing I did was contact the person and ask them if they thought I would be a good fit for the position and if so, if they would refer me. One person did, the other was honest and said they didn’t think it was a good fit.

      I wonder how the refernce would have reacted if she had appraoched him before applying?

    4. EJ*

      I’m getting the impression that if this reference gave ‘rave reviews’ previously, there was no reason to think that would change. Also he may have given her positive feedback even if she had checked with him before applying at his company.

      Some people are simply not good at the ‘confrontation’ involved in giving bad news.

    5. Anonymous*

      Hi Another Alison, I’m the author of the question at issue, and yes, my sister was in touch with her former supervisor, and in fact, went to see him right after the interview. She let it be known that she had just finished the interview and that it was very positive; but he never commented one way or the other, and just seemed very glad to see her, took her hand, smiled big (as she put it, right in her face). Also, I forgot to mention in my original posting that she did not work directly for him when she started the assignment but worked for others within the same department, so he had ample time to observe her and her work habits, etc. He must have thought she was pretty good because he asked her to be his personal assistant. While she worked for him, he continued to show strong appreciation of her work, and asked if she would stay in the job longer (she actually left the assignment earlier than had originally been agreed to but did give six weeks’ notice to him prior). Even right before she left, he fairly pleaded with her to stay, saying he felt she was making a mistake by leaving and that she’d be happier staying. She now feels that this may have actually been the reason he gave her such a bad rap, because she left the assignment early. Still, he never gave any indication that he might be holding a grudge against her about this. (The position she had applied to was as a second assistant, not as high as the position she had with the supervisor.) She doesn’t plan on pursuing any possible legal remedies; she was just very upset because she so liked and trusted this guy. I feel so bad for her because all I can do is listen to her pain but she’s getting stronger. Of course, now she knows never, never accept that a reference will stay good; always check beforehand, like is being advised here.

      1. fposte*

        Ouch; that’s really hard. I’m glad she’s bouncing back, and I hope she gets a great job that pays even better than that one.

        But on: “She doesn’t plan on pursuing any possible legal remedies”–just in case it wasn’t clear, she has no possible legal remedies to pursue. He’s legally free to look her in the eye, tell her she’s great, and even tell her he’d recommend her for the job and then privately tell them he doesn’t.

      2. NewReader*

        ” just seemed very glad to see her, took her hand, smiled big (as she put it, right in her face).”

        I am wondering if he was interested in Sis and Sis subtly left him with the idea- “no how, no way, not ever.”

        Does anyone else get a sense of something else going on here?

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Maybe … but I would still assume it was innocent, simply because that’s still the most likely thing. This new info makes me think it’s #2 — that it was just not quite the right role for her. It does sound like he genuinely likes her, and that could be why he was hemming and hawing to the hiring manager before finally saying he had hesitations (if he genuinely likes her, he probably felt bad about revealing those hesitations, hence the hemming and hawing).

        2. Jamie*

          Anything is possible, I guess, but I get that feeling based on this.

          This just screams he didn’t think she was right for this job and didn’t let her know his reference would be different than the others. Or since he and the hiring manager were at the same level and he didn’t have final say maybe he didn’t want it to be awkward if they hired her anyway – hence being non-committal about the interview itself.

          1. Jamie*

            I mean I “don’t” get that feeling based on this. It’s amazing how leaving out one word changes the whole meaning of a sentence.

    6. Anna*

      Yes, that is a good point. When I am applying to work at a company where I know someone or there is someone I used to work with/for, I always go to them first. Even better if I knew multiple people. As AnotherAlison said, “Is it something that fits me? A real opening? Is the HM a good person to work for?” These are all questions that I would ask.

  8. nyxalinth*

    You learn something new every day. It never occurred to me that this was how references were supposed to be done, and I think I’ll have to consider this more carefully in my future efforts to find a job.

    I knew it was supposed to be for more than just “Yes they worked here/No they didn’t” etc. but I’d never considered that they should say “I don’t think Susie would be good at making chocolate teapots, and here’s why…”

    LOL at the “I hate people” thing! I like people, but I hate outbound phone sales and face-to-face sales.

    1. Jamie*

      “I Hate People” is that it’s actually a really good book by Jonathan Littman and Marc Hershon about workplace styles and getting things done, even those of us who don’t need to collaborate all day every day – and not really about hating people.

      The irony is the clever title is a conversation starter…which flies in the face of the premise. I have maybe 10 books on the bookshelf in my office. Guess which one people pull out and want to chat about, when they are mulling around waiting for me? It’s not Inventory Accuracy or the SolidWorks Administrator’s Bible, that’s for sure.

  9. Aja*

    I agree this is (as is almost always the case), a time when your sister just needs to move on. Nothing illegal was done and there is no recourse.

    The hiring manager who told your sister the truth is my personal hero for the day. I think it was extremely kind of the hiring manager to be truthful with her about the reason. Giving people important info that affects their career (This person you think is speaking well of you is speaking ill of you) is a very thoughtful thing to do. This hiring manager was likely very concerned that your sister was using a reference who only had bad things to say about her and wanted to warn her and I think that’s awesome.

    1. Nicole*

      Though I agree that it’s beneficial to know when someone isn’t giving you a good reference, I don’t think the hiring manager should have gone into as much detail as she did. I had a supervisor who once told me that if she were me, she wouldn’t use one of my references as a reference again, and that was exactly enough information. No need to go into detail about what was said.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Yes. The level of detail she gave — that he was “hemming and hawing,” for example — was unnecessary, inappropriate, and unprofessional. It almost sounds like she was trying to distance herself from her own hiring decision and put the blame on him, when in fact she was the decision-maker; this has the marks of someone who can’t handle taking ownership over tough news.

        If she worked for me, we’d be having a serious talk. Not just because of the above, but because she’s now lowered the chances that this guy will be willing to give his candid impressions in the future. And if she’d caused a (frivolous) lawsuit by doing this? Not good.

      2. Aja*

        I understand Nicole, and I think everyone is different as to how much they want to know vs. how much it will hurt their feelings. For me, if someone said what they said to you, I’d say “Why, what did they say?” and if I didn’t get the details, I’d wonder what the heck they said. My imagination is gonna be worse than what they actually said!

        So many hiring managers and HR people are unprofessional in ways that are detrimental to job seekers that it’s hard for me to get overly worked up when one is unprofessional in a way that is beneficial to a job seeker. The sister now knows that this reference is a loose cannon and it’s very rare to come out of an interview process with useful info like that.

  10. ChristineH*

    The untrusting part of me would think #3, but rationally, it probably is #1 or #2. Not every job is the *right* fit for a given person. Trust me, I can relate. You can be stellar as a Chocolate Teapot maker, but not be as good at Chocolate Teapot sales as you think you might be.

    As for the hiring manager revealing what her coworker said: hmmm. I’m mixed on that one. Personally, I’d rather hear the honest truth; however, that really should’ve come from the coworker himself prior to him giving the reference, NOT the hiring manager. I would certainly feel blindsided by that, but not because of anything malicious.

    P.S. I too laughed at the “I Hate People” comment…my husband and I are always griping about others when we go grocery shopping!

  11. JP*

    I had a situation like this, on the other side. I am a fact-checker with a very reputable magazine that prides itself on its accuracy. We had one intern when I started that I got along with very well and enjoyed working with. I would have recommended her in a heartbeat to anyone.

    As a magazine, we work several months ahead of time, so the issue she worked on came out after she had left the organization. We found out after the issue went to press that many of the articles she worked on contained egregious errors that were easily checked (OH! the angry letters!). Due to the nature of fact-checking, however, I can’t supervise every single fact that the intern checks–that would be doing her work for her and doubling mine.

    Needless to say, my recommendation did a 180 after she left. Luckily she hasn’t tried applying within our organization! I spent a lot of time after that wondering if I should follow up and tell her everything that went wrong, or if I should just let it go as water under the bridge.

    1. mimimi*

      I was thinking the same thing when I read this Q&A: that something specific had happened to change the reference’s opinion of that employee.

      1. jmkenrick*

        Yes – I wondered the same thing. Maybe sometime after she left new information surfaced and he no longer felt comfortable with the first reference he gave her.

    2. Anon*

      Threadjack: this brings to mind a question I’ve had recently. In my role, I do a lot of editing of other people’s written documents. I know that as the director of the team, I’m ultimately responsible for the work product. That said, you’re so correct that if I check every fact, I am essentially duplicating their work. So I check the things that I feel are most important to the business.

      My question for the experts is this: if an error is later found and pointed out by my superiors, should I cover for the writer’s work, or should I defer to the writer? I think I usually chime in with a “royal we” – “we’ll take a look and get back to you”. But is this taking too much blame?

      Feel free to tell me I’m overthinking this! It does come up often, as “we” produce a lot of 15-20 page materials on very quick turnaround times.

      1. fposte*

        That’s pretty much what I do. If it came out of my unit, it’s a general “we,” but I’m responsible for it.

        If it’s a situation where the mistakes are being made because you don’t have say over hiring and you’re getting poorly qualified people, I’d collect examples and make that into a separate meeting, but I wouldn’t bring it up on the spot–it’s too blamey.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Agreed. It’s “we” until it’s chronic and the sign of an actual performance problem, at which point it’s “I’m addressing the problem” (which you must do, or you bring it to the person who can).

          1. jmkenrick*

            This. I think it really instills a good relationship with your team if they don’t think that every mistake they make is being reported on.

            My former supervisor always used “we” in e-mails and communcation, even when the mistake belonged to just one person. I always found that really helpful, and made it much easier for me to go to her with mistakes/issues that she might have not caught on her own.

            Obviously, if there’s a problem with an employee, that’s a separate issue, but assuming they’re not causing lots of problems, I think it’s good to create a relationship where your team feels like you go to bat for them.

      2. Jamie*

        “That said, you’re so correct that if I check every fact, I am essentially duplicating their work. So I check the things that I feel are most important to the business.”

        This is very similar to QC in manufacturing. You have a control sample which you are checking – starting with the specs most crucial to the final product.

        Do you guys do a control sample based on percentage – i.e. spot checking every 10% of facts, or whatever?

        I’m just curious as to how it works – I find the editing process really interesting.

        1. JP*

          After training our interns and giving them extensive (and on-going) research lessons, they get their own articles to work on and we generally trust them. After a while in the job, you get a gut feeling if something doesn’t ring true in an article. I’ll read over the second or third draft and see if something leaps out at me (and do the occasional spot-check) of an intern’s work.

          If it’s my own assignment, I check every single word for accuracy, consulting experts in the field, academic publications, and primary sources. (I can’t tell you how many times a writer has quoted something that everyone says that Hemingway said, when there is absolutely no primary evidence to back this up–everyone is just re-quoting something they saw someone else on the internet quote!)

            1. Rana*

              Yes. And even when you do (like your own name!) typos can screw it up for you.

              A significant portion of both my jobs – editing and indexing – is focused on getting names right, consistently.

    3. Another Ellie*

      “I spent a lot of time after that wondering if I should follow up and tell her everything that went wrong, or if I should just let it go as water under the bridge.”

      As a “young person” in the starting out stage: I think if you really liked her, and would have been willing to establish a mentoring relationship with her, asking her to come into your office or go out to coffee to go over the problems, and showing her the consequences of her work (angry letters, the errata notice), would have been a great learning experience for her. And you could guage whether you thought she had actually learned from the experience, or if she truly wasn’t cut out for the work. But if you didn’t want to re-kindle/continue the relationship, contacting her would put you both in an awkward position.

      1. JP*

        I feel that it’s too late for that at this point (it’s been about 6 months and she has since graduated and gotten a job). That’s great advice in case this ever happens again, though. Thank you!

    4. A Bug!*

      Did you print every one of the angry letters in a subsequent issue and then mail a copy of that issue to your former intern? I feel like that would be the most satisfying response. To me. Because as much as I try to fight it there’s a big troll living in my brain.

        1. EngineerGirl*

          My question: Why wasn’t anyone reviewing the interns work? They are an intern, after all, so need oversight. The magazine took a hit to its reputation in an area they pride themselves in.

    5. EngineerGirl*

      Yes. This is what I was thinking of (Scenario #4). That something was exposed months after the person left. We’ve had that in engineering, where someone appears to be a rock star, gets awards etc. Years after the fact a design flaw is discovered that costs the company thousands of dollars.

      Was it Jaimie that said that some people are classed as rock stars and don’t deservie it, and some people are rock stars but fly under the radar (I’m paraphrasing). The point is, that sometimes it takes years for the quality of someones work to be exposed.

  12. moss*

    *nitpick* That would be a 180 degree turn, fyi. A 360 degree turn would get you right back where you started from.

      1. moss*

        Well, we’ve had conversations like this before on this site and I still believe that the little details can be so telling. If someone overestimates the number of degrees needed to indicate “total change” they can also overestimate the degree of regard in which they are held (I know the letter is about the OP’s sister). I know it’s a little thing. But I am a math warrior and will stand up for precision when I can.

        1. fposte*

          Eh, maybe this is my editor’s version of refusing to work for free, but I think it’s different when someone is writing in to query her own capabilities and a correction may be informative. In a case like this, when it has nothing to do with the question, I think it’s more like correcting somebody mid-meeting, since it’s in no way solicited.

          Though 380 is pretty funny :-).

  13. KellyK*

    I agree with all the advice to let it go as far as legal action is concerned. It doesn’t sound like he said something untrue. But I’m surprised no one has suggested following up with the reference. If someone isn’t as stoked about recommending you as you thought, you really need to find out if it was the particular job, something that changed their opinion, or something else.

    Is it a confidentiality thing? (That the reference really shouldn’t know that what he said got back to the OP’s sister?)

    1. Your Mileage May Vary*

      If I were Sister, I wouldn’t care about the confidentiality thing if I wanted answers from Reference. The thing about confidentiality is that it’s the responsibility of the person telling to keep things confidential or not. The person who heard the confidential stuff has no legal or ethic requirement to keep it confidential.

      So, if I called up the hospital and asked if a celebrity was admitted and they told me they were, the confidentiality breach would be on them for telling me that not on me for writing it in my blog.

      If Sister wants to ask Reference what the deal is, she should — with no hemming and hawing OR protecting the Hiring Manager.

      1. Jamie*

        The Catholic in me read “Sister” capitalized and all of a sudden I’m picturing some poor nun getting bad references:

        – Her habit isn’t really business casual.
        – She keeps referencing someone named Pope Benedict in her memos. I don’t know who this Mr. Benedict is, does he work here? Is he the guy in accounting who drives the Prius?
        – We tried to put her in engineering, but everyone gets really nervous whenever she grabs a ruler. It’s making the whole team twitchy.

        I know – bad jokes…I’m off to do penance.

      2. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Yeah, the sister isn’t obligated to keep it confidential … but I don’t think following up with the reference would be effective. First of all, the answer to “what happened” is probably that he didn’t think she was the best fit for this particular job, and she risks putting him in an awkward position by requiring him to spell that out for her … which then potentially makes his future references for her less glowing than all the ones for other jobs have been. (Because she’s now the person who confronted him and made him uncomfortable. It shouldn’t impact those references, but human nature dictates that it might.) So it it’s a risk with very little pay-off for her — she causes tension with him and finds out nothing that she can’t already surmise on her own.

        Now, if she did ask him ahead of time to be her reference for this particular job and he said yes, that’s a little different. But even in that case, I wouldn’t call him and demand to know the deal. However, the next time she wants to use him as a reference, she should call, describe the job, and nicely say something like, “I want to make sure you feel like you could give me an unqualified recommendation for this position. If you couldn’t, please don’t feel awkward about it. It’s better for me to realize that ahead of time. I know you had some misgivings about me for the internal job a while ago, and I just want to make sure you’re comfortable telling me if you don’t think you’d be the best reference for something.”

        But she should let some time go by before doing this, because right now it’s likely she wouldn’t be able to get the necessary tone right — she’s angry enough that she’s contemplating legal action, after all.

        1. KellyK*

          Okay, that makes tons of sense. I like the idea of bringing it up only in the context of using him as a reference for something else, because that lets her do it in a non-confrontational way. I think if she can’t be 100% certain he’ll be an enthusiastic reference for her, she obviously can’t use him as a reference again.

          I also think I missed that he was her manager (and so is going to be asked about her performance whether he’s officially a “reference” or not), so that definitely makes it more important not to appear confrontational.

        2. NewReader*

          Alison, knowing what you know about these things– do you recommend not using this reference any more?

          I cannot imagine myself ever asking this boss to be my reference again. ( I would not have the guts.)

          To me it seems like a breach of trust in the relationship.

          1. Job Seeker*

            If what she heard was true, I would not trust using them again. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

            1. NewReader*

              This just sucks on so many levels. Short term she’s basically lost a reference and long term she has lost a positive professional friendship. These types of things can remain unsettling years later, because of the question “what happened and WHY?”
              Whatever the situation was the bottom line remains- he saw her when she was going through the interview and he chose NOT to alert her that he could not give her a good reference. For me, I would have to question the sincerity of the relationship.
              I have been both on the giving end and the receiving end of critiques that were not easy to listen to. It takes brass to speak up. It takes heart/mind to convey the message in such a manner that the employee listens/digests/improves. This boss did not apply himself in a manner the situation required. (This assumes she needed to improve some how.)
              As a result of these types of conversations there have been times where people have apologized to me OR I have searched out a person in order to apologize to them.
              That is the adult world. Sometimes it is difficult. Boss should know by now, difficult conversations are not the end of the world, however. And he should know that difficult conversations are part of the job.

  14. Kelly L.*

    How long ago was the last positive reference? I mean, has he been giving good references for her up until last week, or has it been a few years? I ask because another possibility is that in the interim he’s gotten her mixed up with someone else. But that only applies, of course, if they’ve been out of touch for a long time.

    (says the person who had three assistants with the same first name in a one-year period, though thankfully I’ve never gotten them confused)

    1. Elizabeth*

      This is another reason why it’s good to check in with your references when you’re applying for a job again! It also probably wouldn’t hurt to toss a few things into that note or call to remind the reference who you are, if it’s been a while – not blatant, like, “I was the brunette who sat near the water cooler,” but something subtler like, “I still think often about being your intern. I can’t count how many times I’ve used the knowledge I gained while working on that solar panel project. And I always get a laugh at parties when I tell the story about the time that seagull got stuck in the break room! I can’t believe it’s been five years since then.”

  15. The IT Manager*

    This occurred to me too. But again there’s nothing for the OP’s sister to do, but move one. Even if you figure out this was the problem, the #2 choice probably has an offer already.

    1. The IT Manager*

      Oops! Meant to reply under Kelly agree that maybe, just maybe, the reference was confusing two individuals.

  16. Anonymous*

    It really sucks to have the rug pulled up from under you.

    I would politely email the reference as well and ask what happened.

  17. Amouse*

    ugh I’ve got a pang in the pit of my stomach just thinking about what it would have been like for the OP’s sister get receive that news.

    Although the hiring manager telling her about the bad reference was unprofessional, maybe in some way she thought she was doing her a favour by giving feedback people rarely get and telling her this so she wouldn’t be confused as to why she was rejected. In any case this sucks but there’s a lot to be learned from it in the long run. Check and double check your references and don’t take niceties written in recommendation letters at face value though in her shoes I certainly would have and I would be pretty devastated.

    These are always signs though that better opportunities are elsewhere. It’s like dating: who wants to be with someone who isn’t fully invested in being with you?

      1. Jamie*

        I do that all. the. time.

        I read it back and my own words are in some weird internet forum accent – I’m speaking English, but not as a native speaker.

        1. Amouse*

          For me I type a sentence with “get” then I think “No, get is a weak word. I can do better. Let’s rephrase it with ‘receive'” then I forget to erase ‘get’ and the sentence in effect looks like gobbledygook.

          1. Thomas*

            My bad habit is that I’ll write, or start to write, a sentence a particular way, and then decide either just after finishing it or while I’m typing it that I prefer a different phrasing. This wouldn’t be a problem in itself, but it can be extremely troublesome when you started out writing a sentence one way, and end it in another.

            1. Rana*

              Yeah, I do that more than I’d like. What’s particularly bad is that my job involves correcting other people’s prose, so I’m wary about looking unprofessional even in casual comments… ironically, it’s when I’m doing those corrections that I’m most likely to end up with errors.

              (It’s like that joke about who shaves the barber, only it’s who edits the editor?)

      2. AnotherAlison*

        LOL. I saw in one of my posts above that I used the same weird phrase three times. I sometimes wonder how I get by in life.

  18. NYC*

    A friend of mine, had this situation happen recently while applying for positions fresh out of graduate school. The HR rep he was working with, advised him that a specific reference; should not be used moving forward because they had nothing positive to say about them/their work.

    My friend thanked them and moved forward, after duly noting that person was sabotaging them. I realize sabotage is a strong word, but there are many ways to not give someone a bad reference starting with “No, I’m sorry I dont give references” to not responding to employers calling for a reference.

    1. Jamie*

      This brings up an interesting moral question of how honest/detailed you should be when it’s less than glowing.

      What to you owe to the person checking references to warn them of real issues with performance? We all know what a nightmare it is to try to damage control a bad hire. Of course if it’s our own company it’s totally different – you have to live with your reputation every day so you don’t want to be associated with someone you know is a problem with whom to work.

      But in general? I’ve told people in the past I wouldn’t be a good reference for them, and fortunately I’ve never been called. It makes me wonder though – there is a difference between someone I wouldn’t recommend and someone who I think so little of professionally I wouldn’t accept a job at a place they were employed – as I’d consider it a huge red flag of bad judgment on the part of the employer.

      Do we have an obligation to be detailed and honest, or not? Personally, I think I would just say that I really can’t be a reference for so-and-so and hope my tone conveyed the rest.

      Kind of wimpy – I know.

    2. fposte*

      If somebody gave my name as a reference without asking me, and I don’t recommend them, I’m not going to tactfully fail to respond, though. I might not drag them through the dirt in detail, but I’d definitely say, “That’s interesting, because she didn’t ask me about putting my name down, and I’d have told her not to.”

      I don’t feel obliged to pander to people who take me for granted.

      1. Jamie*

        There are instances where you can be contacted even if they didn’t put your name down, though.

        Alison recommends going outside of the listed references – so I would think it could happen that way.

        1. fposte*

          Oh, I agree, but I’ve never had a reference call that didn’t explicitly state that the applicant had given my name. And at the level that I’m getting calls about, they’re not likely to be digging further than the listed names anyway. So I’m definitely talking the “[Blank] gave us your name” when she shouldn’t have scenario.

          1. Jamie*

            That makes sense. I work in a pretty tight little industry so it’s not uncommon to get calls about so and so just because you worked at the same place. Sometimes you know them, sometimes you don’t…but while I don’t get a ton of reference calls I’d say about 50% are people who’ve given my name and 50% haven’t.

            We all view stuff through our own experiences, which is why it always baffles me when some people say that reputation doesn’t matter or are casual about burning bridges. In a niche industry where everyone is, at best, a couple of phone calls away from someone who used to work with you I’m very attuned to keeping my bridges as fire retardant as possible.

            1. EngineerGirlUK*

              I’m not sure how common this is but many forms I’ve had for jobs have asked for my present or latest line manager. I’m never sure if these are to be used for full references or just as a “did she work for you” capacity. I’ve never asked people if they’re happy for me to put them down as this.
              But for personal references I’ll always ask.

  19. Accidental Recruiter*

    When I did my first HR co-op placement the company where I was working had a policy not to give out references, just to offer employment verification. When I was job searching for a full-time position, the Director of HR (who I reported to) offered to act as a reference for me even though that went against company policy. I was really excited until I got feedback that I should never use her as a reference again because she spoke negatively of me…and said she wouldn’t rehire me back (even though my contract was extended multiple times).

    To this day I’m still not sure why she offered to be a reference when she had an easy out due to company policy – and I didn’t even ask her to, she volunteered!

    Luckily I found out about it very early in my job searching so it wasn’t a hindrance for me in finding a job.

    1. Anon in this case*

      One of my former employers did not allow us to give references. Someone called me to confirm that a freelancer had, in fact, worked for me. I liked his work, liked him, and knew that corporate would not confirm anything about freelancers. (Some of their work only appeared in print. But some stuff freelancers did is on our website for all the world and Google to see, but we can’t say they worked for us. )

      So I said to the reference checker in my cheeriest voice, “Oh, I miss him. Unfortunately, I’m not allowed to give out any information on employees, even the good ones. I don’t know if corporate will confirm information about freelancers, but you need to call 123-456-7890.”

      Yeah, I was naughty. But he got the job, so I was happy for him. And he was earning more than underpaid me, so I was even more happy for him, in a sorry-for-myself way.

      I might not have taken this tack if HR was willing to confirm information about freelancers. But that particular employer had the most uptight, employee unfriendly, hide-bound, rule-bound, controlling bunch of mutual back-scratching, toadying corporate execs that I have ever encountered. So I did what I did.

  20. Job Seeker*

    I get hurt very easily too, so I understand how this poster feels. I think she has been given a gift though of knowing what was actually said. It is easy to assume someone will give you a favorable reference if they have led you to think so. Now, she knows information she would not normally know. I had my references checked out some time ago because many people have left since I was there. My references were good, but you never know how mistakes can be made or something like this could happen. I am sorry she had the rug pulled out from under her. It is terrible to be led to believe someone values your work and have no clue.

  21. Anonymous*

    Based on the behavior of the hiring manager, I wonder if there is an option #5. How do we know they told the truth? I wonder if it was a combo of #1 or #2 with that – a hesitation exagerated into “negative enough”. Does that make sense?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Yep, we’re taking the hiring manager’s word for it, and she might not have been truthful. She wouldn’t be the first person to blame something on someone else to make the conversation easier for herself.

  22. Zee*

    I’d be very hesitant to use this reference again. While he gave glowing reviews at other times, this time he changed. Maybe Alison is right about it being his organization so he has reservations. However, is there anyway the OP’s sister can ask without saying directly, “The hiring manager said you indicated ‘x, y, and z’ about my performance as a temp, making it a lukewarm reference, but in other reference letters, you gave me stellar reference. What gives?”

    When you feel stabbed in the back, you can’t help but wonder what happened, and you feel you can’t trust, at least not that person.

  23. R*

    My manager at my previous job used to do this. She would not outright fire employees but tell them they needed to “look for another job.” And then as they pursued other places of employment in the company she’d give a glowing reference because it meant that they would be out of her hair. Not the most honest and upfront approach, but then that’s how she was as a manager, so it was not surprise.

  24. katinphilly*

    Late to the game as usual, but I think we should have an occasional feature called “True Confessions” or the like, where we “confess” to doing something we knew in our hearts and heads we never should have in the workplace. We can all log in as Anonymous. (This is a joke.:)

    In this case, I had a borderline incompetent and outright lazy AA who made my work life a queasy roller coaster. She was one of those employees who circulates around a big bureaucracy like a 5 year-old Christmas fruit cake, and puts the “Peter”in the Principle, because the bureaucracy made it maddeningly onerous to get rid of someone like her, so she would just get shuffled around and even bumped up.

    Why did she get shuffled around instead of fired for poor performance? Because we were all a bunch of sniveling cowards scared of scaling the Great Wall of performance management at this place. Hence, when she applied to my department (and she interviewed extremely well, surprise!), all her references from other departments were bathed in sunlight and fragrant with Chanel No. 5. Why? Because they wanted to get rid of her, that’s why!

    I always promised myself I would never pawn off a bad worker on an unsuspecting manager, so when she (yipee!) applied for another position in another department, I gave an honest, professional reference to the director that didn’t magnify her flaws but didn’t minimize them, either. Guess what? She didn’t get hired. Guess what I did next time she got an interview (damn, she was good!)? That’s right, I took the coward’s way out and gave her a rainbow and kittens reference, and poof, she was gone, along with my daily AA migraine.

    I still feel guilty as hell about doing this after 6 years. I even confessed to HR I did this (after the fact), and they just nodded knowingly. This might be a derail, but I guess my point is references aren’t always what they seem!

    1. Jamie*

      “Late to the game as usual, but I think we should have an occasional feature called “True Confessions” or the like, where we “confess” to doing something we knew in our hearts and heads we never should have in the workplace. We can all log in as Anonymous. (This is a joke.:)”

      Joke or not how cathartic would that be? Unburdening of the guilt of mistakes and the office politics of expedience we sometimes get caught in.

      Not me, of course, I’m infallible, but I imagine it would be helpful for others :).

  25. snuck*

    I have found it a very telling question to ask “would you employ this person again in your business in the capacity that I’m interviewing them for?” … if there’s ‘that pause’, if they suddenly (even diplomatically) track etc… then there’s a very ‘interesting’ response.

    Sometimes you get an absolute answer (yes or no) and that’s very helpful, usually you get hems/haws and a few conditionals and that gives some very good insight into the strengths and weaknesses of the person you are asking about.

  26. Kasia*

    I’ve sabotaged a friend from getting a job at my company and it was a combination of #1 & #2.. with a dash of #3.

    Basically, she had many skills and qualifications that I can rave about. And I would want to see her in a good job and happy. But when it related to her working with me, I had to go deeper. Basically, I knew that she had a tendency to be dramatic and easily offended and it would have severely disrupted the work culture we had.

    So, she had great skills, but since it related to my company, I was able to foresee a lot of problems relating to things companies don’t really think to ask about. If a company she was applying for asked me specifically, “Is this person very stable on an emotional level?”, I would say the truth, but nobody asks that… not sure if that’s even allowed actually.

Comments are closed.