giving a reference for a brilliant but abusive former manager

A reader writes:

My supervisor was recently moved out of my department and I believed she would be looking for new jobs. Lo and behold, I get an email from an out-of-state colleague saying she has applied for the director position there, and would I be able to unofficially tell him anything about her? He made it clear it would be a respectful off-the-record chat, not a full recommendation.

My problem is this: I think she has a lot of great qualities that would make her a wonderful director for their program: vision, dedication, guts, ability to work well with high level people, etc. But she was also verbally abusive to us, the peons in the department who did the actual work. I don’t think she has great people skills at all, but she can write grants like a whiz and is otherwise very competent at big-picture stuff.

So what do I say? How honest should I be? I truly admire her skills and think she would make a great director for their program and would potentially lead them to develop interesting work that would benefit their state. I don’t, however, think she should be in charge of people, and if the director’s position was very hands-on with project management, personnel assignments, or interpersonal issues, I think she would be just as volatile and problematic there as she was here.

I want to be careful because I will need her recommendation — currently a raving positive one — for my future career, and I certainly don’t want to scuttle hers either. I would hate to leave out the negative information because it’s really important. Do I have to decline to answer my colleague altogether, in some kind of “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all” kind of way?

First, call him. Don’t use email for this. There’s no reason to have anything like this floating around in writing.

Then, say this:  “How confidential will this be? I value my relationship with her and am relying on her recommendation for future jobs, and I don’t want to jeopardize that by having anything I say get back to her, but I’d also like to give you candid feedback.”

Assuming he promises you confidentiality in a way that you find credible (and generally speaking, people do keep this stuff confidential — otherwise no one will talk to them), then tell him what you said here. Say that you’d strongly recommend her for X, Y, and Z, and speak as positively of that stuff as you can honestly do … but also tell him, briefly, your assessment of her as a manager.

The reason you should be candid is because you have the opportunity to save him from a potentially bad hire, save other people from working under an abusive manager, and potentially even save her from a job that she won’t be a good fit with (and could even get fired from, if a good manager is above her and sees her managing poorly).

If you’re uncomfortable with full candor, then you can use the less direct language known well to reference-givers and reference-checkers everywhere:  “I would recommend her for X, Y, and Z. I wouldn’t say managing people is her strong point.”

Or, if you really don’t want to get into any of it, you can decline to give a reference — but that actually might be more broadly damning than actually talking to him, which would provide you the chance to speak about her strengths as well as her weak areas. Declining altogether sends one strong “no,” whereas a conversation allows you to be more nuanced.

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 36 comments… read them below }

  1. DA*

    Doesn’t the abusive part trump everything else? It’s kinda like saying ‘my husband is great with kids, has a great job, is a wiz with doing projects around the house, but he also beats me.’

    I would think the manager needs to figure out how to stop acting the way she does before anything else.

    1. fposte*

      Depends what the job is. Not all jobs require supervising people.

      If you’re suggesting an underlying “she doesn’t deserve the recommendation/job as long as she’s abusive,” that’s another matter; I don’t think I subscribe to the theory, but I understand the impulse.

        1. fposte*

          It’s really variable, though. Some directorships have virtually no management–they’re fundraising and mission-building and board-reporting. Some directorships are all management.

          The OP has stated she doesn’t know where on the spectrum this job fits, so stating that the applicant has these particular skills and these particular weaknesses would seem a fairer response than simply saying “Don’t hire her” without knowing the impact of those flaws in the possible position.

          1. glennis*

            It’s a tough call. As soon as I read the OP I was reminded of someone I know, an absolutely brilliant museum director. Within 3 years of hiring, she took her institution from a stick in the mud fuddy-duddy place to a nationally acclaimed superstar in the art world. She’s raised millions of dollars, she’s created incredible programs. And yes, she is well known for screaming at her subordinates and abusing them. She reports to an oversight board that has managed to keep her in check and mellow her down, and the situation is much better. But if the abuse trumped everything, the institution would be much the worse for it.

            1. Bwmn*

              I read this article and immediately thought of my current boss – and a style of management that I think is all too common in NGOs of a certain size. My boss reports to the board of directors. The board has minimal to no contact with any other staff who are directly managed by her. And given the size of the NGO, there’s expected to be a certain degree of “high” turnover. So her completely ineffective and cruel (and perhaps abusive) style of management just goes unchecked.

              But over 20 years, she took a mostly volunteer organization with only 1.5 paid employees to an organization that employs nearly 40 staff. Unfortunatley there are enough boards of directors out there happy to see that as worth whatever else they get.

    2. Runon*

      It depends. If you can manage to have that person not managing people but instead doing only what they are good at that might be a good fit.
      I’m not saying that people shouldn’t be able to act like decent human beings, but people aren’t. And if you can keep someone who is abusive to employees in a position where they are writing brilliant grants and doing the work they are good at and not doing the managing people work that can be very valuable to an organization.
      In your analogy think about getting a divorce but making sure he spends a ton of time with the kids. (I really don’t like the analogy but that’s the solution.)

    3. AnotherAlison*

      I also think “verbally abusive” is definitely something subject to interpretation. For the purpose’s of the OP’s letter, I’m going to assume yelling, name calling, and the whole 9 of inappropriate behavior.

      But, I have worked with some people who would consider a well-deserved a** chewing abuse and others who would consider it a firm and constructive discussion about your performance issues. Is it a loud, stern voice, or is it yelling? It can be a matter of perspective.

      I think the OP should be specific about the ex-supervisor’s behavior rather than generalize so that the new hiring manager could make their own call.

      1. BCW*

        I agree 100%. “Verbal Abuse” is very much in the eye of the “victim”. I had a boss who was very direct and would yell, a lot. Me and him got along great because we had the relationship where we could be frank with each other. If he thought I did something and it sucked, he didn’t hold back. He also used some “colorful” language. With this same management method, I know for a fact he made more than a couple of the women on staff cry. I would never have said he was verbally abusive, while some of them may have.

    4. BW*

      As someone who worked under an abusive director, it does for me. The abusive director did not manage most of the department employees directly, but she managed the middle managers who in turn managed the rest of us. She was still abusive to people she did not manage and some people that were not even in her department. In my case, it wouldn’t have mattered if my abusive director were managing people or not. She was just, as we used to say amongst ourselves, “mean”.

      I’d encourage the OP to speak with her colleague off the record and be candid but not mean talking about her behavior and treatment towards co-workers and underlings and also her strength and talents. Let the potential employer ask questions and decide for himself if the candidate is a good enough fit to pursue further.

  2. COT*

    This is great advice. OP, you give a good summary of her talents in your letter, so I think you know how to word things well. I would just encourage you to give specific examples of when she was abusive or otherwise inappropriate. I think a manager would be more likely to listen to those than to general statements.

    Also, since this director didn’t give your name as reference, it’s probably less likely (but not impossible) that she’ll trace any negative reference back to you. She might not even know whether the hiring manager is considering her yet.

  3. Not So NewReader*

    Thank you for tackling this one, Alison. I really like how you laid out options for the OP.

    I am favoring this option: ”I would recommend her for XYZ. I wouldn’t say managing people is her strong point.” Or similar wording. This allows you to stay professional and not compromise your ethics by withholding information (basically a lie of omission).

    If I were in your shoes one thing I would be considering is how long do I need to have this person as a reference? How many other references are available to me? What is my relationship with my new boss? And finally, if the Wicked Witch of the West says I am a good worker does this really add anything to my marketability?

    Try to look at it though other people’s eyes- do people know this woman to be nasty? I have worked in a few companies where I was told “oh yeah, by the way, everyone in the company thinks your boss is a so evil.” Sigh.

    One of my most expensive lessons in life has been trying to stay on the good side of a potential reference. Long story made very short- it turned out that I did not need to put all that effort/worry in to that situation. I never used the person for a reference. But at the time, I swore up and down that I needed the bad boss’ input.

    To help yourself, make a list of potential references and go from there, OP.

    1. PEBCAK*

      I think that you can then go the broken record approach:

      Why don’t you think managing people is her strong point?
      I don’t think that’s really where her skills lie.
      Why don’t you think she’s a good manager?
      Managing people is not really one of her strengths.

      You can say a lot without saying anything.

      1. Pandora Amora*

        To the contrary, receiving this kind of “feedback” would annoy me towards the person providing it, not towards the subject of the inquiry. This would feel like a childish conversation.

        If you have something to say in a professional context, and particularly in a rehearsable context such as this one, use silence to gather your thoughts, then simply speak candidly and then stop speaking.

        When giving a referral, act as though the subject is listening in on the line. Provide actionable feedback; decline to answer questions where you would be speculating; explain where you are giving objectively measurable information or subjectively skewed opinions.

        Learning to speak honestly and then stopping to let silence speak is a powerful technique.

        1. Jazzy Red*


          Dancing around the elephant in the room doesn’t make the elephant a) invisible, or b) not there. It’s very passive-aggressive and only serves to annoy the person you’re speaking with.

          Be a grown-up and say what you mean. If the manager screams, degrades people and calls them names, then the manager IS verbally abusive. (I’m thinking of the way Walt White treats Jesse Pinkman, who is a screw-up loser, but still…)

  4. Interviewer*

    Given the nature of the message you got, I am guessing they called all the ones on the list, found a few red flags, and decided to dig deeper. I think in this case you should consider being truthful on both pieces – the pros and cons of your supervisor – but only after highlighting your concern and need for confidentiality. However, don’t think of yourself as holding all of the cards or being the only witness to this type of behavior. Perhaps other references have mentioned or alluded to this as well, and the caller is trying to confirm it in order to have a solid basis for the hiring decision.

    Typically when people at a director level are not given a job offer, the rejection comes in the form of, “we had several highly qualified candidates and we found another one that was a great fit with the team” and not, “so sorry, but your former staff member spilled the beans on that time you screamed at her in the hallway.” No one wants to get into “he said/she said” and “that’s not true” with a candidate. They give generic rejection reasons that can’t be refuted or fuel a future lawsuit.

    As far as needing this former supervisor to be a reference, I would urge you to consider what happens if this person is in a bad mood one day 2 years from now, when you desperately need a glowing reference and the call is made. What will the caller hear about you? I have one of those bosses in my past, and on a good day, I would be thrilled to have a hiring manager call. On a bad day, I wouldn’t even want to put that company down as a former employer, let alone his name. I need people I can rely on to say great things about me, on the first try. Not sure what your job search timeline is, but consider whoever replaced your supervisor as becoming the next great potential reference for you.

    Good luck.

    1. FormerManager*

      That could be the case but OP mentions an “out of state” colleague contacted her. And as Alison has mentioned, it’s not uncommon for someone to reach out to a trusted colleague if they receive an application from someone and recognizes a mutual connection.

      I would suggest being matter of fact in your assessment (“Just the facts, please”). I’m not sure I would even use the word “abusive.” I would probably phrase it as “well, Jane proved very diligent at X technical task and exceeded goals by X percent. I found her management skills to be one her weaknesses. For example………”

  5. K Too*

    Definitely, give this “possible” future employer your feedback. It will be very helpful for them to make a good decision especially if others are giving similar critiques.

    OP, you don’t mention that your workplace was toxic, but it sounds like her abusive behavior is. At the end of the day, lots of folks can be a whiz at whatever they do, but if the social skills and management are off kilter… forget about it.

    I’m also baffled as to why you would want a recommendation from someone with abusive behavior to their employees. Are there others within your department that can give you a “raving” recommendation?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Well, a manager is always the preferred reference. And I’ve certainly worked for brilliant yet borderline-abusive people who loved me and would give me a great reference — I wouldn’t turn that down just because I didn’t like them or the way they managed. (I WOULD turn down a reference from someone known in the field to be incompetent, no matter how nice a person they were.)

      1. K Too*

        I can see your POV, but as you mention, they loved you.

        I guess while reading the OP’s background it made me think of my former employer and how I would never want to ask the managers for any recommendation. The environment was too hostile, manipulative and untrustworthy.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Ah, but it sounds like this manager loved her too — she says the current rec would be a raving positive one. I can totally see not wanting to lose that.

    2. Jazzy Red*

      My thought would be for the OP to tell the interviewer that the former manager is somewhat volatile and will give a good reference if she was in a good mood, but might give a poor reference if she wasn’t. I’d also have a copy of the glowing reference to offer, fwiw.

      1. Julie K*

        I finally finished reading ALL of your archived posts (and a lot of the comments), so I’m starving for more AAM! But you are doing this for free, so I suppose you deserve a break! ;)

        1. ThursdaysGeek*

          Yeah, me too. Now I’m going back and reading more comments, like the open threads. I’m glad I didn’t give up AAM for Lent (but maybe I should have — it may be getting close to an addiction).

  6. De Minimis*

    I think you have to balance your need to tell them about the negative stuff with the need to preserve the relationship with her as a reference. Personally I would probably just focus on the positives and not dwell on the other stuff, or maybe say something vague like “she demands a lot of her staff and some find that difficult,” or “She tends to be very direct with people in her managemente style.”

    I feel like having her available as a reference trumps any obligation to warn others or to prevent some other company from making a bad hire. I would not see that as my responsibility, especially since she is very good at a lot of other aspects of the job–it would be a different story if she were incompetent across the board.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Ooooh, no, no! This is how bad managers keep getting put in positions where they can treat people badly.

      If you agree to give a reference, it needs to be an honest one. You can’t mislead. Otherwise, it’s better to simply decline.

        1. BW*

          Getting a bad reference from a crappy manager potentially affects only one person. Giving a less than honest reference to a company that then hires that crappy manager affects many people *and* the company as a whole. There’s always the off chance as well, someone will wonder why the references were so good when the employee is so so bad.

          Totally agree – if you can’t be honest about a bad manager, it’s better to just decline to speak to someone.

    2. J.B.*

      If the person were hired into a position where he/she terrorized others and led to massive turnover and OP gave a positive reference, it could reflect badly on OP. It’s been made clear that this will be anonymous, and after verifying that, definitely be honest (or say nothing!)

    3. Ruby*

      Totally agree with two points: 1. Do not put anything in writing.
      2. If she says anything at all and doesn’t mention the volatile behavior, it will reflect poorly upon her and might cost her more than the recommendation from the bad manager.

      I remember how betrayed I felt when someone whom I trusted didn’t warn me at all about several glaring issues with an assistant I hired, and it ruined our relationship. It also cost me my client. The production company that had hired me never called again after that.

      Could she suggest that the manager might benefit from a bit more supervisory training? Maybe the new company would be willing to invest in some professional development courses if it means they get a great director in return for a small investment.

  7. Editor*

    Is there a way you can present her verbal habits in a semi-oblique way? First, by saying that “managing people isn’t her strong point” and then continuing by saying “however, everyone can tell if a project is having problems because the sound-proofing here wasn’t good and everyone could hear the shouting from her office.” Or maybe you could talk about how she treated servers at a restaurant and then kind of slide in a mention that she tended to treat lower-level employees at work the same way.

    Alison — What if this woman was verbally abusive to any employee lower in rank, as opposed to her direct reports?

    My reaction would be that if she restricted her nastiness to people who reported to her, that’s bad but it argues for recommending her for a job without any direct reports. If she was nasty to anyone of lower rank at any time in any situation, then maybe the recommendation should be, “She would be excellent at X and Y and I would recommend her for that if you could hire her as a contractor, since she’s not always good with people.” I don’t know if making that kind of recommendation is acceptable at all, but it would put her out of a position of power in relation to other employees (I hope).

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