update on the reference for the brilliant but abusive former manager

Remember the letter-writer last month who was wondering how and whether to give a reference for a brilliant but abusive former manager? Here’s here update.

I called my colleague on the phone and told him that I had both some positive and negative things to say, and asked that it stay off the record. He was totally cool about it, so I laid out basically what I wrote in my post: I think she could have great vision for the institution, but that she was sometimes hard to work with as she could be very sharp with her reports. I suggested that her skill set (grant writing, visioning, tech planning, etc) would potentially be really useful, but that her personnel management was weaker.

My colleague listened carefully and said that the position had actually been explicitly designed to have the director position be someone who could schmooze with the bigwigs, write grants, and provide vision and that his position would be actually be the one managing the employees. Great! Except he was concerned that all her “sharpness” would fall on him as the only report to her! I told him that I actually managed to have a really good working relationship with her and thought that it might not be as problematic if she only had one report to work with.

Anyway, it gave him some food for thought. I tried my best to be honest about the potential drawbacks and also be positive about the potential advantages. Some people in the comments suggested that she doesn’t deserve any kind of management job, but others commented on the possibility of putting her in a position where her strengths could be capitalized on and weaknesses minimized. My position is that I certainly don’t want to scuttle anyone’s career, but I also don’t want her damaging future institutions or employees.

It may be that if she’s hired they could simply be honest about what they heard? e.g. “We heard from various references that you have a history of anger management issues and while we think you’re great and want to offer you the job we need you to understand that that kind of behavior won’t be tolerated here. ABC are the consequences for such behavior.” I haven’t heard of that happening, but who knows.

{ 10 comments… read them below }

  1. saro*

    Thanks for the update! In my experience, I do think that if an office lays out ahead of time what the expectations are, employees stay within those boundaries. I’ve only seen problems if the employees got away with the behavior for a long time and a new manager tried to change it. I would hope that your former manager would react positively to preemptive standard setting. I think you handled it well.

  2. Just a Reader*

    In my experience, employers are more likely to pass on that kind of risk instead of confronting the issue head on. I’m curious if others have had this experience or if some employers are willing to proactively address reference red flags?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I’d say it depends on what they are. If it’s not something that’s key to the job, maybe. But if it’s “she’s a jerk”? I’d be really wary. Especially if the interviewer is actually going to be reporting to her, which the update makes it sound like …?

    2. fposte*

      I think that’s a big “it depends.” On the applicant, the hiring organization, the candidate pool, the nature of the negatives, etc.

      For my part, when I’ve heard about weaknesses in a candidate that I end up hiring, I don’t task them with the information, I just stay particularly alert for that problem. But the problems I’m talking about have been smaller ones like “tends to get overwhelmed when juggling too much,” that kind of thing.

  3. Lisa*

    Brilliant jerks can be rehabilitated in the right environment, in my opinion — but it takes both managing down and managing up, and they have to really be brilliant enough to be worth the effort. Getting fired once sometimes helps, at least in the tech world. The words “You’re brilliant, but we don’t want brilliant jerks here any longer,” are a clear message along with a termination letter.

  4. Gary Winters*

    Can’t help but think brilliant jerks are only tolerated at a certain level … yet wonder how they manage to get to that level. You are a good soul, though, being honest about her actual skills.

  5. Anon*

    But sometimes…They aren’t all that brilliant. I know of a case where a company tolerated a “brilliant” jerk for years. Finally after just one too many complaints, they took her team away from her and she works on her own. And they are finding out…She just isn’t all that. I see a termination letter in her future.

    The jerkiness may be a cover for something. Not all the time, but a lot of times. It just isn’t worth it, to me. There are too many brilliant and PROFESSIONAL people out there. You don’t have to deal with jerks.

  6. Not So NewReader*

    That was a tricky situation, OP, and I think you accomplished your goals.
    The goal was to be fair to both people. But, how? Not easy stuff, at all.

    Take satisfaction in knowing that you got the message across “she is good at x and y. But z–not so much.” The ball is no longer in your court. They have to decide how to proceed. It could be that they have another candidate that is good at x, y AND z. We just don’t know.

    I cannot picture an interviewer using “anger management issues” as part of his explanation for not hiring someone. After all, the interviewer does not want the applicant yelling at HIM.

    Going forward, perhaps you can find a way to say “I prefer not to give references for people. It is not a reflection on that person, but rather my own personal choice.” In recent years, I have found myself saying this more often than I would like to count…

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