when a positive reference suddenly turns negative

A reader writes:

My sister was recently chosen for a permanent position at a large organization where she had previously worked as a temp. They performed over three weeks of scrupulous recruitment procedures, and she passed a background check with flying colors. She was asked for a list of her references, which of course included 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 that she is being rejected due to an unfavorable reference from him. 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. 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. The hiring manager did tell my sister that this person’s review completely went against his own 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.

Needless to say, my sister is gobsmacked. 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.)

You can read my answer to this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and often updating/expanding my answers to them).

{ 90 comments… read them below }

  1. The Cosmic Avenger*

    OK, before anyone else says anything: yes, “360 degrees” means you’re facing in the same direction as before, but it’s obvious that they meant a 180, the greatest vector change possible. It’s imprecise, but also very obvious what they meant.

    I know I won’t be the only one who feels the need to get that out of their system, but let’s not get too hung up on word choices. :)

    1. Kyrielle*

      This is even funnier if you go read the original of this – apparently it said “380” and then got ‘corrected’ to “360”. Heh.

      1. Wendy Darling*

        LW knew they meant 180 but scrambled up 180 and 360 in their head and compromised on 380?

        At least that’s what would have happened if I’d been the one to write that!

      1. The Cosmic Avenger*

        Nice! That has the added bonus of implying that the sudden change made you dizzy.

        1. Pokebunny*

          Yeah, but is it 520-degrees clockwise or counterclockwise? Details!

          (and don’t you mean 540?)

  2. Amber T*

    Question – what’s your opinion on going back to that manager and asking what happened? Not in an accusatory way, but saying something like: ‘Based on all the reviews you gave me while working for you and our conversation about me applying to this organization, I thought you would have given me a great review. What makes you think I wouldn’t be a good fit here?’

    Or something much more eloquent, I’m recovering from a lunch food coma.

    1. Aunt Vixen*

      I would, but I’d want it to be 100% clear both to me and to the manager that I was asking just so that I would know what I could do better or at least differently in future – not to try to persuade him to change his mind.

    2. AMG*

      I agree that it’s worth finding out. If she had applied to another job in the company after this one, applied for a similar role somewhere else, or any other role anywhere, would the reference’s opinion change? She needs to know before she potentially loses another opportunity. Hope it all worked out ok for her. Time has a way of smoothing over things like this, I think.

  3. Anonymous Educator*

    As part of the #3 (“something else”) category, it could be that at the time he had a positive view of her, but now, when looking at her work with 20/20 hindsight, he thinks differently of her work. That could be him misperceiving or misremembering things, or it could be your sister actually not having done that great a job, and he didn’t realize how much damage she did until long after she’d left.

    1. Nicole*

      That’s a good point too and something I’m sure we’ve all run into at one point regarding a coworker who seemed ok until the mess they left behind came to light.

  4. Duncan*

    I’m wondering if the reference had her mixed up with someone else? That could happen if they have a lot of temps, similar names, or something along those lines. Otherwise, I think it’s likely he wanted to help until it put his reputation at his own employer at risk and suddenly he’s not as confident.

    1. Kelly L.*

      I remember this from before, and this is exactly what I thought. We had one year where we had like three student workers named Elizabeth. I’m guessing his memory was fresh originally, and now it’s not anymore.

    2. Stranger than fiction*

      He put his reputation on the line when he gave her a good reference in writing though. Does he have the worse memory ever or does he think that wouldn’t get back to someone??

  5. sunny-dee*

    Something similar happened with OldManager, but it’s because he’s a jerk. I had a coworker who left. She had great performance reviews, good bonuses, and he gave her a good reference when she left for an internal position. However, OldManager sucks, so she was just the first of a half-dozen people (myself included) leaving over the next 3 months. He was increasingly vindictive to everyone who left. When annual performance reviews rolled around, her new manager asked her if she was comfortable with him getting feedback from OldManager for the months she’d worked with him and she said absolutely, go ahead — because she had left on good terms. He apparently slammed her to her new manager — to the point her new manager said he wouldn’t use any of the feedback and would look at is as a teachable moment to tell OldManager how to be more professional in giving reviews.

    1. Wendy Darling*

      When I left academia my academic advisor/research assistantship PI was my best reference because I’d worked under her for YEARS, and it turned out she was telling everyone who called her how I was going to go back and finish my PhD. :/ She’d tell them how great I was but follow it up with how I was so dedicated to getting my PhD and would definitely go back to school within a year or two.

      Still not sure if she actually believed that or if she was just sabotaging me on purpose. I’m not even sure if she knew!

    2. TrainerGirl*

      I did a job transfer at a previous company. OldManager sucked as well, and at the end of the year NewManager asked OM for feedback for my review. OM waited until 4pm on the very last day before the reviews were due and gaslighted me. NewManager didn’t use any of it and let OM know that they should’ve been more professional when things didn’t go their way (OM wanted to fire me, but had so many complaints to HR that the only choice was to transfer me to NewManager, hoping they would do it). I’m amazed that people like this manage to hang around forever.

  6. Not the Droid You are Looking For*

    #2 is why I always ask for a copy of the job description before I agree to be a reference.

    I have managed a few people that are great at what they do, but I would not be comfortable recommending them for different positions that are beyond the work history/potential I have witnessed.

    For the one time I was caught off-guard in this situation I found myself saying things like, “Unfortunately, I can’t speak to that, however they were great at X…”

    1. Lily in NYC*

      I would avoid using words like “unfortunately”, because even though you don’t mean it that way, the person you are talking to might hear it as a negative. And I would warn the people who ask you for a recommendation that you will only discuss what you have witnessed. I would likely look for a different person if my reference told me they had narrow parameters on what they are willing to say.

      1. Not the Droid You are Looking For*

        The use of unfortunately was in a very specific situation where a former employee had not told me they had applied for a job with a current client and it was quite a position jump…a teapot polisher with a total of about four year’s experience applying for a Vice President, Design and Polishing Division. Knowing the client/industry, I knew this position would be responsible for developing overall strategy of things they had never even touched when they worked with me. I applauded their willingness to shoot for the stars, but when a recruiter says, “I wouldn’t have even considered someone at their level, but if you were willing to be a reference…” it put me in a really bad spot, where I had to put the best spin on things.

        beyond the work history/potential I have witnessed

        Personally, I don’t think that those are narrow parameters at all. I have recommended people for management positions who have never had a supervisory role because of the way they have managed projects and programs, for example.

        But I am also incredibly upfront about what I am willing to say when someone asks me to be a reference because they are trading on my reputation when I recommend them. I just recently had a former intern reach out and ask me if I would be a reference for a job that is in a completely different industry and my response was, “I will happily sing your praises as an employee, but wouldn’t you be better using someone who can speak to your skills with requirement 1, 2, and 3?”

        1. TootsNYC*

          I once said to someone, “I can happily talk about your professionalism, and reliability, and what a pleasure you are to have in the office. And about Important but Not Primary Aspect of the job. But I would have to say that I don’t think Primary Aspect of the job is your strongest suit. So I don’t think I’m your best reference for that. I would be an excellent reference for the other things I mentioned.”

      2. fposte*

        I think only discussing what you’ve seen the person do is the norm, though. It’s not reasonable to expect me to talk about your swimming teacher prowess when you’ve only been making teapot lids for me.

    2. Catabodua*

      I agree – I always ask for the job description prior to giving a reference. There are several benefits to this – you get a true picture of the requirements, but also, if you are very positive about the candidate you can use the job description to highlight things that you think might play well with the hiring manager.

      1. Not the Droid You are Looking For*

        I make super detailed notes and try to put together an example for each of the requirements, so I am ready to give concrete examples to the recruiter.

        It’s also helped me reach back out and clarify if there is something that they didn’t work on when they worked for me, but worked on at a different position.

    3. BusSys*

      Interesting concept. I can get behind that. None of my references have ever asked for that, but I do have a phone chat with each of them about the role I’m applying for where we cover what the new role is and where, which I find beneficial because I can get their opinion on my trajectory and fit and get a sense of what they’ll say. I’d see providing or asking for the job description to be beneficial if we couldn’t connect by phone within the right timeline.

      1. Not the Droid You Are Looking For*

        I process better by reading :)

        I definitely try to connect by phone, but it’s easier for me to have the job description and cover letter…especially when someone contacts me at the beginning of their job search.

  7. TootsNYC*

    So would it be a good idea to call the reference, describe the job and company, and say, “Would you be able to recommend me strongly to that Hiring Manager for that specific job?” ?

    1. Ultraviolet*

      I was thinking she could call the reference right now and ask what kinds of jobs/workplaces he could give her a strong recommendation for. I like this because:

      1) It might provide useful insight for the job seeker into her own strengths
      2) If the reference has just realized he’s not impressed with the job seeker after all in any way, she can start figuring out now what other references to use/cultivate
      3) If there’s any chance of mistaken identity, this is a chance to clear it up. (Even if it’s too late to then get the job she wanted after all, she’ll be in a good position for future openings, and will know she can use this reference again.)
      4) It shows some initiative, which might suggest to the reference that his impression of her as lacking initiative is off, or out of date.

      1. TootsNYC*

        That’s a nice way to suss this out!

        “What sorts of jobs or workplaces would you be able to give me the best reference for?”

    2. Michelenyc*

      Something I learned very early in my career was to always ask if my reference would be able to give me a positive recommendation. I only had 1 person tell me no and that is just because we had a personality conflict more than anything.

    3. Uhuh*

      Also thinking this. I would be hesitant to continue using this reference going forward and clarifying if he still wants to be a reference and for what types of jobs might be worth noting.

  8. oranges & lemons*

    Another possibility that occurred to me is that the reference checker for this position was a lot more thorough in their questioning than the previous ones. Perhaps a bit more probing about particular qualifications led him to give a more nuanced answer.

    1. Not the Droid You are Looking For*

      I’m always amazed at the difference in questions from people doing reference checks.

  9. Apollo Warbucks*

    My first reaction is the letter of recommendation was a lot kinder than he might otherwise have been simply because it was going to been seen by the person it was written about.

    Ultimately there’s not much to be done other than moving on.

    1. Elysian*

      That’s a possibility – when jobs I apply for request a letter, they’ll often go out of their way to get it directly from the writer so that I can’t see it for just this reason.

      1. TootsNYC*

        And some scholarships, awards programs, etc., request a SEALED letter of recommendation.

  10. YogiJosephina*

    So, I want to get some opinions on this. Re: confidentiality.

    In the older post, there was a discussion about how the hiring manager was unprofessional for sharing with the interviewee what negative stuff was said, because it breached confidentiality and thus, if it got back to the former boss, would discourage him from being candid with references in the future.

    I know how Alison has said in the past that the point of reference checking is for the employer to find the best candidate for the job. I respectfully, yet strongly disagree.

    OK, yes, that is PART of the purpose of reference checking. But I also think that equally and as importantly, the second part/purpose of reference checking is to help a job-seeker GET a job. People typically aren’t thinking about helping out the hiring manager when they give a reference for someone. They’re doing it to help a former employee obtain employment.

    So I guess my question is: why the blatant prioritization of the hiring manager’s needs/wants/desires over those of the candidate’s? Why is the hiring manager entitled to candid feedback and protection, but not the candidate? BOTH are, from what I see, equally and importantly served by this process, so I find the whole “we have to protect the confidentiality of the reference-giver” at the expense of the job seeker (who, let’s face it, has a hell of a lot more at stake/to lose here than the reference-giver does) very odd. I mean, being confronted about a reference you’re giving might not be pleasant, but what this OP went through is way the hell more unpleasant with real, more severe consequences for their life.

    Plus, if you give a reference, make sure you can stand by it and can handle being asked about it. If we WERE less “confidentiality! Protect the reference-giver at all costs!”, people would probably be way more careful about agreeing to give references when they don’t want to, saying untrue things, and the like.

    Can someone explain this to me? Why is this skewed so heavily in favor of hiring managers when it’s a process that serves/benefits both equally? And if it doesn’t, why?

    1. Uhuh*

      I agree the job seeker should know if someone is giving them a bad reference so they stop using that person. If you’re concerned that your negative feedback will be relayed to the job seeker, then you shouldn’t be a reference for this person in the first place.

    2. Kimberlee, Esq*

      It’s not that it’s specifically helping the employer over the candidate, it’s that the goal is to get a good match for both parties. Candidates are much more likely to think they’re a great fit for a particular job than hiring managers are, because hiring managers just have access to more information. If you help a candidate get a job they’re not a good fit for, you’re setting them up to get fired or quit. It’s easier in the short term, but far less kind in the long term.

      Also, references are theoretically independent third parties; they don’t have skin in the game, and thus are probably the most objective source of information during a hiring process (the candidate is marketing themselves, and the hiring manager is interpreting those marketing messages). Candidates can and do advocate for themselves, and employers advocate for themselves, but reference checkers are (theoretically) not advocating for any position, just proving true information. Its valuable to preserve that.

      1. YogiJosephina*

        This first paragraph is a good point that I hadn’t considered. The hiring manager does have more information in this regard. Thanks for the input!

    3. fposte*

      ” People typically aren’t thinking about helping out the hiring manager when they give a reference for someone.”

      I think about them every time I give a reference–they’re my colleagues in the field. Why wouldn’t I think about them?

      1. Not the Droid You are Looking For*

        This. I work in a pretty tight industry and thanks to professional engagement opportunities, I have gotten to know most of the hiring managers in one capacity or another. If I wouldn’t hire the candidate to do a specific role, why would I recommend someone else hire them to do it?

      2. LBK*

        Agreed – I’ve only done it once, but my “allegiance” (such as it is) is to the hiring manager when giving a reference, not the employee. To me, the subtext of a reference call is “Manager to manager, talk to me about what it’s like to have this person work for you.” Don’t waste my time by giving me the same shined-up version I already got from the candidate in their interview.

    4. MK*

      If people only ever gave references when they could be wholly positive about the candidate, that would make the whole reference checking pretty useless. Say a candidate has had 4 former jobs and I get two good references and two people who refuse to say anything; what am I supposed to conclude? I would argue that in many cases it would be better to have a negative reference than someone who refuses to give one, since a negative reference might be about things that aren’t important for the job I am hiring for or might contradict my own opinion of the candidate, while when there is only silence I have to assume worse things.

      But I think you are looking at this the wrong way: giving a reference is neither about helping the hiring manager fill the position nor about getting the candidate a job. It’ about creating a culture where people can express honest opinions about others’ work skills in a confidential manner, so that when and if you need to hire someone you can get true information about them and when you apply for a job you can call upon testimonials the hiring manager can trust (which they won’t be able to do, if only positive references exist or if they know the reference is worried you will hear evsrything they say).

        1. A Bug!*

          I agree with that sentiment, or at least I thought I did until just now, because I’m having trouble understanding how it reconciles with advice to job-seekers to have a friend call references to find out what’s being said. If references can’t be candid when they’re not sure that the reference will be held in confidence, then I don’t understand how a fake reference-checker is any different from a loose-lipped but legitimate reference-checker. Don’t they both introduce the same element of uncertainty from the point of the reference, since they’re both equally indistinguishable from a discreet and legitimate reference-checker?

      1. YogiJosephina*

        “It’s about creating a culture where people can express honest opinions about others’ work skills in a confidential manner.”

        Yeah but…only between managers. This is what I’m saying. This culture you’re talking about ONLY seems to care about honest exchange of opinions between managers, while completely excluding the candidates from that same candidness and honesty. That’s the problem I have with this. The candidate is the only one at risk of being burned by this system.

        By “always protecting confidentiality,” we’re creating exactly the OPPOSITE culture between candidates and those they ask to be their references. Because hiring managers know that they won’t ever be taken to task, they know they can lie to a candidate’s face about giving a good reference with impunity. If we got rid of that confidential protection, hiring managers would know they HAVE to be honest with their former employees about what they’d say.

        Now, you might say that this would render the entire reference checking system useless, because of course based on that, candidates won’t provide people who would give negative feedback as references. Would it, though? I’m not convinced. How is that any different than managers calling folks who are not on the reference list provided (a practice I know is advocated here)? They get to “cheat,” but not the candidates? And what’s more, truly crappy candidates, or even candidates who aren’t a good fit for the job you’re trying to fill, simply won’t be able to provide a solid list of positive recommendations for that skill set. They just won’t really have any, at least not any that are solid and reputable. So even if they TRIED to fake it with friends, colleagues, etc., the phone call from the hiring manager with a few probing questions will probably be able to suss that out REAL quick.

        As a general rule, I think those with less power and more to lose are entitled to the most protection here, or AT LEAST equal protection. The current confidentiality-based system of reference checking does not provide that by any stretch of the imagination. It heavily favors the employers, even dishonest ones*. I’m very, very uncomfortable with that.

        *I know that there are honest, candid employers. But it sounds like it does happen quite a bit that people fudge how positive they can be to avoid unpleasant conversations. I just HATE the idea that they can get away with that. They NEED to be held accountable.

        1. MK*

          Look, if you really think candidates are deserving of special protection because they are (admittedly) more vulnerable, we have to agree to disagree. As I said, I don’t believe the system only favors managers; I want people to be able to speak about my professional skills freely, which they simply cannot do if they know everything they say will get back to me, and I want potential employers to be able to believe that what they are hearing about me is the reference’s honest opinion, not a watered-down version they think won’t offend me.

          But you you are just plain wrong in your reasoning, if you think that by giving each candidate a reporeport on what their references said of them, it will protect them from lying managers; because, as Alison said, people cannot lie about facts, but they can give any opinion they want. Suppose a previous manager is willing to tarnish your reputation by saying you were unmotivated; why do you think they HAVE to stop saying that if they think you will hear of it? They are much more likely to do it anyway and,if you complain, to tell you that, sorry, that their honest opinion. As for the people who agree to be references because they don’t want to say no when you ask them, this won’t make them refuse; they will agree anyway and then give a lukewarm reference that might do more harm than good.

          1. YogiJosephina*

            I don’t think they deserve “special protection.” They deserve the same amount of candidness as managers and reference givers do. No more, no less. That’s why I clarified “at least equal.” Equal doesn’t mean “special.”

            I also don’t think it’s outrageous to think that if someone knows what they say is likely to get back to them, they’ll be more upfront with their employees. That just seems like human nature to me, since we’re likely to take the path that will cause us the least amount of conflict. If I know I’ll be held accountable for what I agree to, I’m going to be more transparent in my dealings with people. That’s hardly undebatable. I’m also not talking about getting a report after every single reference, or being able to stop someone from being negative. I’m talking specifically about those who are misleading. Sure, if you say I was unmotivated, then fine. But if you say I was unmotivated AFTER you told me you’d give me a glowing reference, and then when I confront you you respond with, “sorry, that’s my opinion,” then I get to at least put you on the spot about why you lied and create a situation you’re likely to not want to revisit in the future. I don’t find that logic all that unsound.

            But yes, we’re not going to agree on this. I do see where you’re coming from, FWIW.

            1. MK*

              I must say that ibeing more upfront when you know what you say can beheld against you sounds totally opposite to human nature as I have seen it. People are much more likely to be vague and unhelpful, exactly I order to avoid conflict. Also, you seem to harp on the idea of holding people accountable, but I think you are overestimating the importance of this. Yes, it might give you a momentary satisfaction to confront an inconsistent reference, by you are much more likely to antagonise people further and end up having a useless argument. After all, it’s rarely so clear-cut; in your example, what’s to stop them from simply saying they thought better of it or that you misunderstood them? Really, the drama isn’t worth it.

              Also, your argument isn’t about equality. Equality in confidentiality in this case would be that the hiring manager should keep what the candidate says about their former boss private, which I actually agree with; it would be inappropriate for a hiring manager to contact a former boss and tell them a candidate expressed themselves negative about their company. What you propose is that the hiring manager reveal to the candidate what the reference said about them in order to protect them and I simply don’t see why it’s their job to do that. Managing their relationship with their references is the candidates’s job.

              1. Anna*

                I don’t see this as protection. I see it more along the lines of everyone being candid across the board.

                And that an employee speaks negatively about a past employer gets back to the old company happens all the time. We’ve seen people advise against it here with that very reason being one given for why it would be a bad idea.

                1. MK*

                  But that a reference is speaking negative about a candidate gets back to the candidate is also something that happens all the time, so I am not sure what your point is.

                  And the reality is that no confidentiality will not result in “honesty” across the board. Do you really think that a reference who was positive and turned negative, if confronted about their change, will be chastised? And then do what? Most likely they will stop giving references altogether to avoid being grilled on what they said by resentful ex-employees.

        2. Colette*

          But the employee can ask to talk to potential coworkers and use their network to get opinions from people they might know at that company to get their own view of what the company and manager are like. That’s the same thing a manager is doing when reference checking.

          1. YogiJosephina*

            Very good point. That is true. I like the idea of “reverse” reference checking that’s come up more and more lately. I think it’s great.

            Honestly, I’d feel better about this whole thing if it was the norm to say “you want references? Great, here they are! Also, can I have a list of yours please so I know what you’re like to work for?”

            I actually do wonder why it’s not more common.

            1. esra*

              That would be fantastic, if nothing else it would be good to see both sides acknowledging that interviewing is a two-way st.

  11. K*

    I’ve been thinking about the ‘not right for this position’ conversation. I have a co-worker with whom I share a manager, and am more senior than, but am not her supervisor (so I doubt she’ll ask me to be a reference). She’s not a top performer, but I think in the right environment she would be ok. I think her future success will depend 20% on job responsibilities and 80% on her future manager as she’s someone who needs quite a bit of external accountability. She’s young, so I imagine she will need a reference from this job, and I’m having a hard time imagining how to give a reference for her.

    1. Not the Droid You are Looking For*

      I think her future success will depend 20% on job responsibilities and 80% on her future manager as she’s someone who needs quite a bit of external accountability.

      I had someone say something fairly similar for a person I ended up hiring. They said something along the lines of “she’s great, but she struggles when working without strict instructions.” I was able to probe a bit, and it turns out that when handed a project and a due date this person did not thrive. Knowing that we had pretty established process and timelines where this person could follow step by step instructions, it wasn’t worrisome to me.

      1. Murphy*

        I’ve said something like this before when I’ve been a reference. I’ve clearly said that the manager would need to be open to this person asking lots of questions before they were comfortable with beginning work. Some managers (like me) are fine with that (even if I prefer a less-needy approach) whereas for other managers this would drive them to drink at work. It doesn’t make this person a bad employee, just one who needs a specific type of management style. It’s best for everyone if they know there’s a match there before going in.

        1. Not the Droid You Are Looking For*

          I think this is exactly why candid references are important.

          Honestly, I know my current boss would say, “she works best when giving a project/problem/task, and then is left alone to finish it.”

      2. TootsNYC*

        Somebody said something almost exactly like this to me about someone. And I weighed that, but found it not quite so worrisome. It did mean I picked someone else, but I kept her on my list, because I often have very clear procedures and steps.

        1. Not the Droid You Are Looking For*

          It’s funny how things that worry one manager are a easy for another to handle.

          1. TootsNYC*

            In my case, it’s probably not so much that I’m a better manager, but that process is chaotic enough, and my workforce fluid enough, that I’ve had to deal with that weakness before. It’s more “the workplace” than “the manager.”

            In other situations, I wouldn’t hire her at all because of that weakness in handling processes.

  12. SandrineSmiles (France)*

    Thinking of references makes me so, so mad right now.

    I was in a job for two years and a half. People raved about me: despite some flaws I was working on, my supervisors liked me or at least made it look like they did.

    At some point, it was known that I would be a better fit for another type of job. I finally got fired and, one day, got a job interview for this type of job everyone said I would be perfect and wonderful for. Well, the same supervisors who knew me and claimed I was so fantastic in the first place flat out refused to help me out when it was time for references. One agreed to only e-mail questions, and the other one… I don’t even remember, but I was pissed.

    Sure, it’s not illegal to give out a reference as long as what you say it true. But sometimes, you just really wish you could put some sense into some people. Of course I’m not going to give a raving reference to a really, really bad employee. But… yeah.

    *I’ll go ahead and hide in a corner now, bad memories are coming back*

    1. HRChick*

      I won’t give references for people who are terminated for poor job performance even if I personally like them.

      It’s nothing personal, but my professional reputation could get damaged if you perform poorly at your new job.

    2. Nerdling*

      I’m not entirely sure what you were expecting. They fired you. For cause, from the sound of it. Were you honestly expecting to get that good a reference after being fired?

      1. SandrineSmiles (France)*

        I’ll be more precise.

        I worked on the phones and they were very happy with my work, except for the “taking more time than others” part. However, when it became clear that it was too much for me, during evaluations it came up that I would probably be a better fit for a clerk position, like maybe a cashier in a clothing store or something. They kept saying that, given how bubbly and nice I can be (and other things) , it would be such a perfect thing for me to find a job like that!

        Yet, the moment I *do* find an opportunity, they backtrack. What gives ? The new industry had *nothing* to do with the previous one, and this wasn’t about them liking me personnally. They knew exactly what circumstances I was in, they knew exactly what I needed, yet they turned around as if I had never performed to the standards everyone said I did.

        As far as the firing goes, they fired me for bogus reasons and they know it. It would be too complicated to get into the details, but it was a huge stab in the back and it has opened my eyes to what it really was: a really toxic work environment that I’m glad to be free of, though I really wish I could have obtained that clerk/cashier position when it came up.

        1. HRChick*

          Yeah that doesn’t change anything for me.

          I may think you may be a good fit somewhere, but I’m not sticking my neck out to get you there.

          It’s strange that they suggested you’d be a good fit for a clerk position when you had trouble with timeliness in your phone position. A clerk position usually requires a certain amount of adherence to deadlines and detail-focus. It’s definitely more than being bubbly and friendly!

        2. Nerdling*

          I’m with HR Chick. It’s unfortunate, but I find it pretty unsurprising given that they can only speak to your work record in the position you actually held with any certainty – they might have said you’d be good at something else to you, but that doesn’t mean that they’re going to risk their professional reputations when they don’t actually know you can do the work and have only your inability to do the work you did for them to go by.

  13. Roscoe*

    Yeah, its likely that he gave a much more honest opinion at his company. This makes a lot of sense if you think about it. Giving a really good recommendation to someone you don’t know and a company you have nothing invested in is easy. When you will have to work with that hiring manager in the future, you are going to be a lot more honest in your assessment of someone. He may really have liked the person, but it doesn’t mean they were without their flaws.

  14. Velociraptor Attack*

    I don’t see it mentioned, but I would wonder if she specifically asked him if he would be a reference for this position. I have a standard set of references, I still always ask them if they are willing to be references for any specific position I apply for and provide them with the job description. This is a courtesy that I also appreciate being extended to me when I agree to be a reference. If someone is speaking on my behalf I don’t want them to be blindsided by a call.

    It’s possible that’s not what happened here but it is also possible that if she had asked this manager, he would have declined to be a reference for this specific position.

  15. Ruthie*

    I think it’s always worth letting an internal reference know you are applying for a job at their office. Hopefully so they can help put in a good word if they know the hiring manager personally, or to flag any issues like this that could come up.

    I had a manager who absolutely loved his interns. He brought them everywhere with him and fawned over them, and I was not allowed to be critical of them or assign them anything without running it by him. He would often reassign intern projects to me and asked me to prepare special materials for them. We got in a massive disagreement once when I gave a particularly poor performing intern an honest performance review. He got very upset and demanded that I complete a new one indicating excellent performance. He felt I was an unfair judge of their effort and performance, and that they were all performing competitively.

    That is until I gave my notice and my position became available. An intern who just completed her term with us was looking for a full-time job, and when I suggested he invite her to reply, he was adamant that she was not at all prepared to handle the entry-level position, and that he couldn’t think of any former interns who we be good candidates. Seriously, dude?

    Some people think very differently of someone’s performance when they will have to work with them than when others will have to work with them.

  16. Not So NewReader*

    It takes guts to be a boss. Sometimes having guts means telling people to their face that you cannot be a reference for them, or you cannot be a reference for a particular job involving specific tasks. I am not clear on why this boss could not tell OP’s sis that he could not be a good reference for her for this one job. Sis has copies of the other references he wrote. How did she get those? I am thinking there was some regular or semi-regular communication between the two of them. He must have sent her copies of what he wrote. Then, all of the sudden, he writes her a bad reference instead of just saying something to her? (Notice she did not have a copy of that one.) I don’t blame Sis at all if she believes that her old boss somehow is lacking in character or ethics. When you don’t explain what you are doing and why, people tend to fill in the blanks themselves. Granted, what they fill in the blank with could be the furthermost thing from the truth, but it’s human nature.

    Early on in my working years, I allowed name to be used as a reference. After getting burned a few times by having it fall back on me, “oh, you referred this person that was a huge problem”, I started telling people that I do not do references. In present time, references are less random than they used to be and people are more careful about whose name they write down. So it’s turned into a non-issue for me. But I still think that it is kinder to tell the person to their face, than it is to tell an employer and let the person be surprised by the outcome.

    1. Sadsack*

      Not sure I understand what you’re saying here. When you allowed your name to be used as a reference, were you actually called to discuss the person? Did you give honest feedback about the person? Did they do something really uncharacteristic for them, or did you give a reference for someone whose work you were really not that familiar with? I am trying to figure what you mean by getting burned so now you just won’t act as a reference for anyone.

    2. MK*

      From what I can tell, the ex-bosses wrote one positive letter of recommendation, gave positive references for other jobs and a mostly negative for the last one. Nowhere does it say that these references were in writing or that the candidate got copies; in fact, for the last one, the letter mentions that the reference was given in a discussion between the ex-bosses and the hiring manager, who in turn told the candidate. Alla, there is no mention that the candidate had informed the ex-boss that she was applying for the job in his company or that there was any other direct communication between them since she left. She probably also found out that his previous references were positive from the hiring managers too. I really don’t think the circumstances are as suspicious as you are making out.

    3. Anna*

      Did you not know the person’s work habits very well? Because if you did know their practices, then you were going on your best possible knowledge and as long as you weren’t trying to do them a “favor” and give them a good reference when you knew they would be a poor hire, how could it possibly have been a reflection on you?

  17. Rachael*

    This is very similar to my situation. My whole group was laid off in an acquisition. We had all worked together for more than 10 years. I was happy to give positive references for a coworker to other companies regarding his working habits, but I was not be okay with giving a reference for a position in the company I eventually landed a job. He was very unprofessional to me in the workplace (flirty – harmless, but annoying) and I did not want him to follow me and spend another 10 years with me.

    I felt very mean, but I did not pass on any job openings and filled one with another person i worked with due to the level of professionalism I wanted to maintain at my new job.

  18. Vicki*

    This is the problem with references.

    They age. They forget. They change their minds. They start to prioritize the fact that you LEFT over how well you did in the job.

    They don’t know anything about the current job you’re applying for.

    And a single poor reference should never be enough to derail a possible hire, in-house or not. Do more interviewing. Get more feedback. Get referencers for the reference.

    But never allow one past manager to sabotage a hire.

    1. MK*

      While I generally agree that one bad reference should not be definitive (unless it’s something objectively bad), it also makes no sense to treat all references as equal. In-house references should be treated as having more weight, because they are by default more substantial. In the OP’s case, all those people who gave the candidate stellar reviews were the ones who knew little about the current job, while the negative one was the only one who knew both the company and the candidate.

    2. Abby*

      I agree–many references allow petty and personal feelings to get in the way of an objective review. They don’t realize that in a very few words they can completely damage a person’s career.

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