do I have to give my ex-girlfriend a job reference?

A reader writes:

I have been asked for a reference, in my capacity as a manager, by an ex-girlfriend.

The relationship ended very badly for me (depression and on-going anti-depressant medication), so I’m quite gobsmacked/angry about this. I was her line manager’s manager at the time of her employment, but unfortunately she was made redundant at the same time, or otherwise it could of gone to her.

I’m sure I could be objective (well, I think), but this feels like a massive liberty. I’m hoping a generic HR reference will do, but is it reasonable for her to expect me to do this (frankly nothing surprises me from her)? And do I have a legal obligation?

Well, first, do not date people in your line of authority, even if there are other managers in between you and them.

Do not do it!

It is Very Bad Practice.

But you’ve already done it, so that doesn’t help. The pickle you’re now in is one of the many, many reasons this type of dating is a bad idea. Of course she should be able to ask her manager’s manager (you) for a reference, without you feeling like it’s a “massive liberty.” And at the same time, of course you shouldn’t be in the position of needing to give a job reference for an ex. Such is the pickling that results from manager-subordinate relationships.

But ideally you’d be able to be objective about your ex-girlfriend’s work and give her a reference that’s unbiased by your relationship with her. You should do this because you want to be a mature and civil person, and the type of manager who doesn’t let personal biases get in the way of professional assessments. There’s no legal obligation to provide a reference (assuming you’re in the U.S., which you might not be, since you said “gobsmacked”), but there’s a professional one, assuming the person did good work.

But if you can’t do it, or if it’s too painful for you, you can tell your ex that you wouldn’t be a credible reference since the two of you dated — which is true. Reference-checkers don’t want references from exes (or best friends, or spouses, or so forth).

And frankly, she should be using her direct manager anyway. It doesn’t matter that the direct manager was laid off; your ex should track her down and use her as the reference, and that would be true whether you dated or not. It’s just extra true since you did.

{ 71 comments… read them below }

  1. JulieInOhio*

    Last paragraph second sentence, “made” should be “matter”, I think. And hopefully I didn’t make a typo here. :)

    On the topic, when I first read the headline, I thought “heck, no!” since no one should ever HAVE to give a reference to anyone. But I can see why she’d want one from someone in authority. If it’s going to be a written reference, see if you can remove all names and have someone outside the situation read it for any lingering emotional baggage. If it’s verbal, practice answers in advance for wording and tone.

  2. $0.02*

    I just don’t understand why is it so difficult to stay away from co-workers? Is it the forbidden fruit rule?

    Since it has already happpened this is where the term “professional” comes in. Being held to higher standards and giving reference without your emotions come into play.

    1. WWWONKA*

      Now the OP has to worry about if he doesn’t give her one she might drop a dime on him to the old HR department.

      1. $0.02*

        That’s why I don’t understand, there is always more to lose than to gain from these relationship. It’s like these executives or politicians who date “prostitutes,” (think Carlos Danger). The prostitutes has nothing to lose and ALL to gain.

        If I were to cheat (IF) i would at least choose someone who has more to lose from the relationship as I am

      1. Jamie*

        If I were single I honestly don’t know where else I would meet people.

        99% of the time I’m one of two places – work and home. And if there were someone to date at home I wouldn’t be single. Hypothetically.

        Man does this make me glad I’m married.

          1. Ruffingit*

            I met my husband on the internet. Work was never a place where romance bloomed for me, nor do I think I would have wanted that. Keep the faith Elizabeth. I had to go through some hell and high water without a kayak to find the relationship I have now. The good ones are out there.

    2. camelCase*

      I seem to remember a similar post a long while back where a good chunk of the readership felt it dating co-workers was no big deal and they could handle it. Sure hope they chime in this time! That would be a fun conversation!

    3. Trixie Leitz*

      I’m not getting any sense from the letter that the OP deserves to be accused of pursuing a relationship with a co-worker. Maybe they began dating before one or other of them joined the company that employed them both. Maybe they even broke up before one or other of them joined the company.

      Nonetheless, this sounds like an uncomfortable situation for the OP, and I hope they find the advice here helpful.

  3. loxthebox*

    I’m curious, did OP date her *while* they worked together? The wording to me suggested that they had dated possibly before she started working there.

  4. JC*

    Is it rude to be this person? If so, I’m sorry:
    “It doesn’t made that the direct manager was laid off…”

    Should “made” be “matter”?

    1. Ruffingit*

      Also, this should be in italics as well: I have been asked for a reference, in my capacity as a manager, by an ex-girlfriend.

      1. Anonymous*

        This entire article was confusing to me. I had to read it a few times to understand what was the issue. Maybe OP isn’t from the US.

        1. CathVWXYNot?*

          Same. I only really understood it after mentally editing “I was her line manager’s manager at the time of her employment, but unfortunately she was made redundant at the same time, or otherwise it could of gone to her.”

          into: “I was her line manager’s manager at the time of her employment, but unfortunately her immediate manager was made redundant, otherwise she would have been the one to receive the reference request”

          1. Lindsay J*

            I didn’t understand what that sentence meant until I read your edit.

            Initially I had read it as, “I was her line manager’s manager at the time of her employment, but unfortunately my ex was made redundant at the same time as I was, otherwise the line manager position could have gone to my ex (when the line manager was promoted into my position).”

            My way didn’t make much sense and was fairly irrelevant so I’m glad you posted this.

            The letter really is horribly written.

            1. Rose*

              Huh?? this still doesn’t make sense to me.

              Also, what is a “massive liberty?” I’ve never heard liberty be used that way.

  5. WorkIt*

    The CEO at my former company is now dating one of the sales managers. I can’t imagine how that works. He’s also like 30 years older than her. This was after she had an affair with her married boss, a different sales manager, on a company trip. It’s a weird place.

  6. themmases*

    Am I the only one who was really rubbed the wrong way by this letter? I find it really strange that the OP would consider it a “massive liberty” for a former subordinate to want a reference from someone she worked for. If anything, the “massive liberty” was the OP’s decision to date a subordinate.

    Unless this woman lacks any people sense at all, she must realize it’s at least a possibility that the OP did not take their breakup well, and she probably wanted to ask for the reference even less than the OP wants to give it. If the OP– understandably– can’t be objective now, they should show the maturity they lacked during this relationship and help the ex-girlfriend get in touch with her direct manager.

    1. Ruffingit*

      Agreed, I think the OP is really out in left field on this. He was her manager’s manager. There is nothing wrong with her asking him for a reference. It’s totally normal. It’s hard to believe that as a manager, he’s never before been asked to give a reference for subordinates who had managers that the OP was the boss of. This is totally, completely normal and the fact that he thinks it might be unreasonable shows me where his mind is at. He’s still bitter about the breakup. Get over it and be a professional or assist in finding her previous manager, but using this to insult the woman as in …but is it reasonable for her to expect me to do this (frankly nothing surprises me from her) is out of line.

      1. some1*

        Not to mention that at one time he was going to promote her. Either her work was good enough to get the promotion, or he was going to promote her because they were going out.

        If the former, she obviously deserves a good reference. If the latter, he’s in no position to slam her for anything because that’s way skeevy and unfair to the other employees who wanted to get promoted.

        1. Emma*

          Where did you get the sense that the ex was going to be promoted by OP? I missed that.

          If it was this line:

          I was her line manager’s manager at the time of her employment, but unfortunately she was made redundant at the same time, or otherwise it could of gone to her.

          I understood that to mean that the reference would have gone to the manager had she not be laid off, not that the manager’s job would have gone to the ex had the ex not been laid off. Unless I read it wrong?

          1. Jamie*

            That’s how I read it. Like if the line manager wasn’t laid off she could do the reference and he wouldn’t be dealing with this now.

      2. fposte*

        Eh. I think it’s normal to be asked to give a reference for somebody two levels below you, and that he was indeed personalizing it. But I also think it’s inappropriate to ask your ex to give you a reference, whether it ended well or ended badly. So I don’t think she’s the scheming witch he seems to be making out, but I do actually think it was wrong of her to ask him for a reference.

        1. Ruffingit*

          She has two options for a reference – her line manager or the ex. Some due diligence may locate the line manager, but perhaps he’s dead or otherwise difficult to reach. If so, the ex is the only choice and I see nothing wrong with her asking him to be the reference. It’s business and if he can’t deal with that, he’s the problem in my eyes.

        2. EngineerGirl*

          But that doesn’t change things really. A good reference checker will contact the OP even if she didn’t list him as a reference.

          OP really is out of line on his expectations. The only way to get out of it with reference checkers is to state that you were in a dating relationship. Then they might not give what you said credance.

          Another issue – if the OP gives his ex a bad evaluation it could be seen as retaliation for ending the relationship. That would put it squarely in a sexual harassment area. So if you must give a bad evaluation you better be able to back it up in spades.

          1. fposte*

            Not sure where you’re going with the sexual harassment thing–that doesn’t apply to ex-employees. Retaliation might be an issue if she’d reported him for sexual harassment, but that’s not what happened (and even then qualified immunity might cover him as long as he’s truthful and in a state that provides qualified immunity in such situations).

            1. Anonymous*

              But she was laid off. You see where this can go, don’t you? If he keeps her from getting another job because he gave her a bad reference due to the breakup she has standing for injury.

    2. some1*

      Nope, I had a similar reaction. I think the LW is still in a very hurt and betrayed place right now (and he may have every right to be, I don’t know), and he wants to believe everything she does is suspect, when the reality could be that she’s just as uncomfortable asking him for this favor and is doing it out of necessity, not to hurt him.

    3. Nichole*

      I took it to mean that the “massive liberty” was to ask anything from the OP after her behavior in the relationship. This attitude neglects the fact that OP’s responsibility to her is nil for social niceties, but still exists completely intact for professional niceties. I think Alison covered that pretty well, though. It sounds like the OP kind of knows that, and luckily for the ex came outside of his/her head enough to ask for advice before telling her future employers that she steals iPads and defecates in potted plants.

      1. Ruffingit*

        +1 for she steals iPads and defecates in potted plants. Still can’t get over either of those letters.

  7. Elizabeth West*

    Ugh, I won’t date people at work. 1) I don’t want to talk about work when I get home (mostly), 2) if SO and I are having an argument I want to be far, far away during the day, and 3) I cannot afford to lose a job over a guy. Not even if Christian Bale started working here and wanted to date me.

    Okay, I might quit for that. 0_0

  8. Claire MKE*

    I’ll admit that work romances seem pretty normal to me because my parents and one set of grandparents both met at work, but they weren’t in positions of power over each other (and in my grandparents case, weren’t even in the same department). All the power struggles inherent in that seem like way too much of a minefield to be worth it (not to mention kinda eeshy)

    1. Jamie*

      Intellectually I know that they are a bad idea. But since my parents met at work and my dad was my mom’s boss…

      Yeah, kinda glad they didn’t adhere to the rule because I do appreciate having been born and all.

      1. Claire MKE*

        Being born is nice! One of my college friends had pretty much the max creep factor of working relationships – her parents met when her dad was the editor of a local paper and her mom was a teen intern. But…it worked out for them, I guess!

        1. Jamie*

          Yeah – my mom wasn’t an intern but she was a 17 year old hired to feed punch cards into the computer. Punch cards that my dad, the Sr. System Analyst (at the time) programmed.

          He was 32 – they married on her 18th birthday. I keep reminding myself it was the 50’s and things were different then – heck even Laura Petrie got married at 17!

          So yeah…creepy – but yay for being born for me and your friend.

      2. jmkenrick*

        When you have chemistry with someone, I think it can be really hard to be intellectual about it.

        That said, there’s definitely professional ways to handle the situation.

  9. WDG*

    Alison, I realize it’s not your job to teach grammar, but for Pete’s sake, can you make a general announcement re: “could of” versus “could have”? I don’t know how you even tolerate some of these poorly written messages. /trolling

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Whoops, I should have corrected that in the letter; I usually do.

      I always want to make a PSA about who/that — as in, it’s “I have a boss who likes oranges,” not “I have a boss that likes oranges.” If you’re referring to a person, you must use “who.”

      1. businesslady*

        also “try to,” not “try and” (although I definitely say the latter in informal speech, which is how things like this drift over to print–just like could have/of).

          1. Julie*

            Just because it’s “standard” doesn’t mean it’s correct (or that it won’t make me wince when I hear it). :)

    2. Windchime*

      I see a lot of people doing the “could of” thing lately, and not just here. It’s strange how this is all the sudden becoming a thing.

        1. fposte*

          I don’t think so–I just think the internet and social media means oralisms get into print more often.

          1. bobby*

            People have said it for years. It’s just that recently they somehow manage not to realize that it’s spelled “could’ve,” not “could of.”

            1. fposte*

              I’ve seen students writing that for decades–it’s just that now they get to write it for all to see :-).

    3. Martha*

      I agree with the whole “could of” or “should of” business! IT MUST BE STOPPED! How can people not know the difference between have and of? Ok rant over. Thanks for pointing that out it drives me bonkers! Major pet peeve.

      1. Kit M.*

        I assume it’s an honest typo in most cases. I certainly know the difference, but I’ve still written “could of”. It’s not always a matter of ignorance. I once was writing quickly and wrote “torcher” for “torture”.

  10. EE*

    I would say you *should* give her a reference if she, professionally, deserves one. Obviously it’s a tough situation though.

  11. Tahnya Kristina*

    HHHHMMM that’s a tough one. If the breakup is fresh and you still aren’t over it then I would say NO WAY.

    But if she has been your ex for a while and she really was a good employee then I would say YES DEFINITELY.

  12. Tara T.*

    The manager should be a reference for his ex-girlfriend even though their romantic relationship did not end well. He should keep his personal feelings out of it and simply comment on the work (assuming it was ok), just a few sentences, and that would be enough. He should not have become romantically involved during the time when he was her manager, but that is water under the bridge. Now, she needs a work reference to get a job and to support herself. He should have put his personal feelings aside during the time they worked together, and now he should once again do that, and not make the same mistake twice, of letting his personal feelings get in the way of a work situation – in this case, the professional need of an ex-employee for a work reference.

  13. Tara T.*

    He should NOT mention that he was ever her boyfriend – that would sabotage her efforts to get another job. He should just give a few neutral comments on the work, like he would for any other ex-employee, and let bygones be bygones.

  14. teclatwig*

    I’m gobsmacked that the OP thinks there is something inappropriate and grasping about his subordinate requesting a reference.

    I think I lost confidence with this poster in the first sentence, which seems to be saying that his girlfriend is responsible for his mental health. I get how much a bad breakup can mess with your head & heart, I do, it’s just that something about this assigning of blame that, at a minimum, shows a complete inability to step back from the situation and think objectively about the ex as anything other than the author of his pain. (I also wonder if maybe the ex asked him because she thinks things are basically okay between them, while he has a wholly different view.)

    So, AAM’s response is spot-on. Yes, it is appropriate for her to ask you for a reference; no, it’s not a good idea; you should suggest she use the laid-off manager since you are not a reliable resource right now.

    1. Ellie H.*

      I don’t think the OP was implying that his ex-girlfriend was responsible for his mental health, but just that it was a bad breakup with extenuating circumstances and it was a really bad time for him and likely both of them.

      Honestly, I don’t think it’s fair to make any kind of speculation about his character based on his assessment of a breakup. If he and she have different views of their breakup and the reasons for it, who cares, I don’t think it’s relevant to this question. If one of the parties thinks it was a tumultuous breakup and that there wasn’t a reasonable expectation of cordial social relations following it, I think it’s more likely than not that the other party has the same view of the breakup. So from the evidence we have it does seem unusual that she would ask him for a reference, and reasonable for him to feel unable to provide a legitimate reference.

  15. Rose*

    That threw me off also. I’ve struggled with depression in the past, and of course it is VERY hard, but I don’t see in any way how that automatically means it was a bad breakup. I think it’s kind of like saying that your grandfather had just passed away, so it was a bad breakup. That’s very sad, but what does it have to do with the relationship? It’s just a sad part of your life. It’s just a bit odd, because he doesn’t go on to explain how that changed things with her, or what she did that was so terrible that she now shouldn’t get a reference.

  16. Rose*

    If you’re saying “frankly nothing surprises me from her,” you obviously cannot be objective about this person.

    Is it really such a “massive liberty,” to talk on the phone about what she did in the office? You’re not going to have to talk about the break up. You knew going into the relationship that you were going to have to continue to function as her manager, regardless of what happened between the two of you. It would be one thing if she had really wronged you (ie cheated, abused you) etc., but this sounds like an uncomfortable bed of your own making.

    To everyone who said she should have asked her own manager/someone else, it’s not like they only ask for one! Some of my job applications have required five or six references. At the time, I’d been at one company since graduation, so that usually meant asking all three of my coworkers, my manager, her manager, and a completely random “character reference”. I’m sure she wouldn’t be asking her X if she had other options.

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