my boss said inappropriate things about me to a reference-checker

A reader writes:

I started job searching in earnest last year for a number of reasons — mainly, no raises despite glowing performance reviews over the past several years, no chance of a title change despite increased responsibilities, and no opportunity to move into a better position. (It’s a small organization.) I recently interviewed for a position I’m really excited about, and last week I found out that the employer was calling my references. Hooray!

I’ve kept my boss in the loop on my job search, so he was a reference as well. He’s pretty upset about my leaving because we work well together and I’m a good employee, but he’s been mostly supportive, despite the grumbling, and I knew he’d say good things about my job performance.

He had the reference call last week, and he wandered into my office afterward to let me know how it went. I was pretty horrified when he told me that he’d told the hiring manager — one of my would-be immediate bosses — that if they made me an offer, he’d make a counter-offer and it would be a “battle.” He also “jokingly” told her I was a drug addict. He said she laughed (I’m guessing awkwardly) about the drug joke, and that she responded to the counter-offer comment by saying that their department had recently lost a great employee as well, so she understood. Unfortunately, I don’t know what tone he made the mention of a counteroffer in — whether he was lighthearted or serious.

I was angry about all of it. First, the drug addiction joke — my anger over that doesn’t need explanation. But I was also incensed that he mentioned a counter-offer to her at all, when I have no intention of taking one (though gee, it’s funny how an organization can scrape up money or a new job title right when an employee is about to leave and no sooner…), and it’s really none of his business to mention it anyway! I would want to save talk of a counter-offer with my current boss, at which point I’d just turn it down. I’m sure he was trying to emphasize that I’m so awesome that he’d “fight” to keep me, and it’s great he thinks so highly of me, but I really didn’t want my potential employer to get the impression that I might try to use a counter-offer to get more money from them.

From the reference call the hiring manager had with a coworker after the one with my boss, it sounded like they were still excited about me despite the weirdness with my boss’s call, but what if (hypothetically) they’d been trying to decide between me and another candidate and ultimately pulled an offer to me because they didn’t want to get in some kind of bidding war?

It hasn’t even been a full week, so I’m not exactly panicking that there won’t be an offer coming, but I’m still pretty steamed. Am I right to be really annoyed about this? What should I do?

You’re absolutely right to be pissed off about it. Your boss made the reference call all about himself, when it’s not supposed to be about him at all. And while it sounds like the reference checker knew that he was joking about the drug addiction remark, that’s a ridiculous and wrong-headed joke to make on a reference call.

I don’t think you need to worry terribly about any of it, though. Employers are well aware that candidates’ current jobs might make counter-offers; it’s not like they’re going to be stunned or disturbed to learn that that’s a possibility. If it happens, it happens — they can deal with it. They know that candidates turn down offers for all sorts of reasons, and they know that counter-offers tend not to work on candidates who have made up their minds to leave for other reasons. So it’s very unlikely that they were thrown by his mention of that.

The way your boss conducted himself on this call did probably read as slightly loony to them — but that reflects on him, not on you.

I don’t think your boss is going to cost you a job offer here. That said, if you use him for a reference in the future, it would be worth saying, “Hey, I know you were joking around with what you told that other reference checker, but this is my livelihood and that makes me really nervous — so I’d really appreciate if you kept it serious with any other calls.”

{ 159 comments… read them below }

  1. Trout 'Waver*

    A reasonable hiring manager is going to realize this reflects poorly on your boss and not on you. It’ll also clue her in as to why you’re leaving. If you were polite and diplomatic about the “Why are you leaving your current role?” question, you’ll come across as especially respectful and professional now.

    1. AdAgencyChick*

      Yup. If I called a current boss and got this kind of reaction, I’d probably just think, “No wonder OP wants to leave. What a weirdo!” The comment about counter-offers would probably just confirm in my mind that hiring OP is a good decision, since even weirdo boss doesn’t want to lose her!

    2. Milton Waddams*

      It won’t reach the hiring manager. Sadly, few risk-averse HR people are going to pass along someone with a “they’re a drug-addict” reference, even a joking one — even if it is in the best interests of the company to do so. If for any reason that employee gets fired, the drug-addict reference will come back with a vengeance, and the HR person will be in the hot-seat. There is no personal reward for passing along a great-but-risky candidate over an acceptable-and safe one.

      1. Trout 'Waver*

        You misunderstood the situation here. In this case, it was clear the old manager meant it as a joke because they wanted to retain the employee.

      2. Honeybee*

        I don’t understand this logic. If it’s clear that the drug addict reference is a joke, I see no reason why the person wouldn’t get passed along; there’s also no indication here that this is an “HR person” making the reference check and not the hiring manager. (In fact, it sounds like from context that the hiring manager is the one doing the reference check, since the OP says the hiring manager had a conversation with a coworker next). I also don’t see how the HR person would be in the hot seat if the employer decided to hire an outstanding employee who later ended up not working out for reasons completely unrelated to drug abuse, which is not a problem she actually deals with.

    3. Christine*

      Why doesn’t the letter writer leave her current boss off as a reference in the future? Employers have been known to give a great reference for someone they want to get rid of, or a bad one when they wish to keep one. I wouldn’t trust that counter-offer would materialize at this stage. He can suggest it, but the budget approval probably has a few steps to go through for approval. I know at my employer, the counter offers can take 2 – 3 weeks to go through the approval process, which is mute when you have given a two week notice.

  2. neverjaunty*

    “Joking” about a drug addiction to try and tank somebody leaving isn’t just poorly timed or ill-thought-out, it’s horrible and bluntly Boss is lucky it wouldn’t be worth your while to sue for defamation (yet).

    I hope you get away from this pantload soon, OP.

    1. Amber T*

      I’m trying to figure out how the heck that came up in the call anyway. Perhaps if OP is in the medical/pharmacy field… but then that would be even less funny and more inappropriate.

      1. designbot*

        I’m imagining a purposeful faux-jokey thing, like, “Oh yeah, she’s excellent if you can look past the drug addiction! yuk yuk.” Where it’s obvious to everyone that it’s not serious, but it’s still not cool either.

        1. JanetInSC*

          I just think he has a quirky sense of humor…I would have laughed. It’s obvious old boss is very impressed with LW’s work. I don’t think she has anything to worry about.

    2. hbc*

      I can imagine someone saying, “Oh, she’s just so good, I want to tank her interview, ha ha. What will it take? She’s a drug addict, she was the zodiac killer, she takes 3 hour naps in the supply closet….”

      There are certain people who could pull that off and then get down to a serious reference, and there are a few more people who *think* they can pull it off but just make it awkward for the person on the other end.

      1. neverjaunty*

        I don’t think anyone could “pull that off”, really. Varying degrees of the interviewer knowing they weren’t serious, but this kind of crap has no place in a reference where somebody’s livelihood is at issue.

  3. ace*

    Wow, OP — your boss sounds like Michael Scott!

    Alison, do you think a proactive email to the hiring manager might be advisable? Or is that making a mountain out of a small molehill?

    I’m thinking something like this:
    Dear Manager,
    Thank you for your time last week, and I remain very excited about this opportunity. I understand you spoke with Michaelrecently, and he told me that he joked that he would provide a counter-offer if i was ultimately offered this role. For transparency, I wanted to reiterate that I remain very interested in working for Co. and would not be interested in a counter-offer to remain in my current position. I look forward to speaking with you again soon.

    1. AdAgencyChick*

      I wouldn’t. The hiring manager probably wouldn’t be thrilled to know that the reference went and blabbed everything that happened in the call!

      1. Amber T*

        I agree. It’s super tempting to call/email the hiring manager to get rid of that concern, but I think it would be better if OP didn’t. Of course, now OP is prepared that it may come up in another interview/discussion, but only if hiring manager brings it up first.

    2. Unegen*

      Do not send an email like that unless you actually want the hiring manager to make your salary offer at the low end of their range. Don’t, just don’t.

    3. Artemesia*

      Don’t give up your bargaining power. Of course they should be concerned that your business will try to keep you. Don’t hand over that bargaining chip. Yeah, the reference was a clod — but now that he has made clear he will counter, this may get you a better offer.

  4. Nunya*

    Wow. I don’t think I would tolerate someone trying to sabotage the economic survival of my household like that.

  5. Snarkus Aurelius*

    If you haven’t seen it, OP, watch the Friends episode where Rachel was gunning for a promotion in another department and her boss sabotaged her in a group interview, insinuating that Rachel slept around.  Later the boss finally copped to not wanting to lose Rachel, which Rachel accepted but said sticking around as an assistant wasn’t a sustainable solution.

    Life imitating art.

    Yes, this situation was embarrassing and awkward, but not for you, OP.  This is 100% on your boss.  If you made a good enough impression in the job search process (and it sounds like you did), then you need to have faith and confidence in that.  I know it’s easier for us to say that right now, but it’s true.

    As for the counteroffer, you are spot on about not why it’s unwise to take it.  Pulling together a counteroffer as someone is walking out the door is akin to agreeing to marriage counseling as the other half of the couple is walking out the door.  You can’t fix what you don’t have anymore.

    If your boss ever gave you reasons why you didn’t get a raise and/or promotion before all this, I’d love to know why.  

    If it helps, I know of an employer who refuses to give raises unless there’s a counteroffer.  For example, my friend went to HR to ask for one, got denied because of budget reasons, presented the counteroffer, and HR immediately pulled out paperwork for a pay action increase.

    1. Joseph*

      “If it helps, I know of an employer who refuses to give raises unless there’s a counteroffer. For example, my friend went to HR to ask for one, got denied because of budget reasons, presented the counteroffer, and HR immediately pulled out paperwork for a pay action increase.”
      So the theory is that if you underpay your employees for months (years?), suddenly dropping extra money on their table when they get another offer is going to make them forgive and forget? And you don’t think it’ll make them even more irritated that you apparently had the budget all along and/or make you wonder about your employee’s loyalty?
      Also, this seems like a policy that would cause otherwise-content employees start job searching – after all, if you can’t get a raise without an outside offer, then the clear message is that you should job search on an annual basis in order to get an annual raise.

      1. BRR*

        This policy it not uncommon and for all the reasons you mentioned plus more it’s dumb. It’s asking employees to put their time and energy into interviewing to get a raise versus putting that same effort into your company. I know if I have another offer, it’s probably for a better job as well so bye.

      2. neverjaunty*

        Yes. A wise commenter at Captain Awkward had the perfect response to people (spouses, employers, etc.) who frantically offer to fix things only as you’re walking out the door – “You didn’t care about this problem when it was hurting me. You only cared when it started to hurt you.”

        1. Camellia*

          Wow, this is powerful. I wish I had had this to say when I left my first husband after twenty-two years. When he started suddenly saying [those kind of things] I asked him why he hadn’t [tried] sooner. He replied that he thought I was just going through a phase and I’d get over it.

          My response: Ten years is a pretty damn long phase.

          1. Anonymousse*

            OMG, this made me think of my ex-husband too. “Give me another chance!” he said when I left. “I gave you years of chances and you treated me terribly!” I said. “I didn’t know it counted then!” he said!

            1. Church Lady*

              Oooff! My situation when I left my husband. After years of begging him to get counseling, he agreed when I told him I wanted out. Looks better to the court when they award spousal support.

      3. Artemesia*

        In academia in private universities (not covered by some sort of pay scale) this is pretty much the only way people get raises. It is one of the reasons the gender disparity is so huge in salaries for similar role. Women as a rule tend to be less mobile than men and so can’t use this threat to move (and men are more likely to be perceived as ‘stars’ and thus get counter offers.)

        1. Just let people go when they want to go!*

          Women also have the issue of undeserved awkward loose cannon references at a much higher rate. Unconscious bias can take over and lead to things like what happened to the OP or much worse. We are trained not to speak ill of men or to “give them a chance.” People look for negative things to say about women and often make very weird awkward remarks about them when they cannot think of a valid criticism. There are also weird possessiveness and competition issues that can manifest. I heard a tv show refer to this a “dwanting.” You don’t want them enough to put yourself out there to help them, but you can’t see someone else taking them on as anything other than someone taking something that belongs to you.

          1. Not So NewReader*

            Sadly, from what I am have seen women teach this rule to other women about never speaking ill of men, but with other women, gloves are off and anything goes.
            Just my opinion, but women could be a little less harsh with each other, too.

            1. Nobby Nobbs*

              I assume that’s why they said “people” rather than ” men.” And yeah, I’ve caught myself (female) doing that often enough!

            2. Navy Vet*

              That’s because we are taught to see other women as competition from a young age. We compete with each other for the attention of men. Whenever a husband cheats on his wife we spend time blaming the woman he cheated with. She’s a homewrecker. And husband thief. There are still people out there who blame a certain presidential candidate for her husbands infidelities.

              It takes time and effort to remove the internalized Misogyny most women carry around. Whenever I find myself silently judging another woman for anything. I remind myself that we are sister, and that it’s in men’s best interest to keep us at each other’s throats.

        2. Honeybee*

          I’m glad I scrolled down because I was about to make the same comment. It’s one of the dumbest things about academic employment conventions, IMO.

      4. Unegen*

        Or just find a friend who can build a simple website, print some fake company letterhead, and is willing to lie for you.

        I’m sorry, that is just a terrible policy on giving raises. Goodness.

        1. Happy Lurker*

          That is along the lines of my first thought…get really friendly with a headhunter and treat them to a lovely meal once a year. ugh!

      5. Girl friday*

        I think the idea is to avoid wasting raises on people who are not highly-valued by the market. Avoiding the idea of tenure before it starts?

    2. Letter Writer*

      “If your boss ever gave you reasons why you didn’t get a raise and/or promotion before all this, I’d love to know why. ”

      Same old, same old: there’s no money, we’re all lucky to have jobs so why quibble over money, blah blah. (Meanwhile, it’s very easy to check our Form 990 online and see that all the executives, my boss included, certainly aren’t hurting for raises and bonuses every year — bonuses that equal my entire yearly salary.)

      The last straw for me was when some months ago, my boss asked me to take the lead on an absolutely giant annual project — like, huge huge huge, to do on top of my existing job duties — and when I said that I would need a title change and raise in order to do it, since it was so far above and beyond my current duties and title, he said they might be able to scrape up a stipend. Might. Nope nope nope. I respectfully declined and he acted like he had offered me some huge gift (think of the experience!) and I had just smacked out of his hand.

      1. animaniactoo*

        I am curious to see how well they do at attracting a quality replacement at the rate they’re going to try to pay. You know, from what’s left over after they’ve taken their cut.

      2. designbot*

        I probably would have taken it, kept pushing for that stipend, and left as soon as it was done. After all he was right, it is good to get a higher level of experience, but you’re also right that it should be doing some good *for you.*

    3. CM*

      Friends came up in the discussion of another recent question too. I never realized how much of that show was about work, but now that I think of it, it went into a lot of detail about each friend’s jobs and work dilemmas. There could be a side blog: “Ask a Manager: Friends Edition!”

      And OP, your boss was totally inappropriate, but I doubt your reference checker took him seriously when he said, “I guess now would be a good time to tell you she’s a crack addict!” If she did take him seriously, I’m sure she would follow up with another question. I agree with what other commenters said — that comment probably made the reference checker think, “No wonder she’s leaving.”

      1. OldAdmin*

        I am beyond horrified about the drug addict “joke”.

        If the opportunity to comment on (hopefully soon) ex-Boss’s reference ever arises, I would recommend limiting yourself to: “Now you know why I left that job.”

        Best of luck!

    4. Whats In A Name*

      Isn’t that also the episode where the boss says she’ll rescind her bad remarks but then gets hit by a bus before she has a chance to?

      1. Snarkus Aurelius*

        That’s the one! I think Rachel was sympathetic but she also directly said she wanted to be a buyer no matter what. Then the boss relented and got hit by a bus before helping Rachel.

        It was pretty amusing to watch Rachel be sad and then, “Did Boss leave a memo…or did she say anything to that other department? Anything at all?”

        1. Whats In A Name*

          Oh I love that show. So relevant to everything in life! I wish I would have realized that during it’s run.

    5. the gold digger*

      refuses to give raises unless there’s a counteroffer

      It wasn’t until I had another offer that a former boss went to HR about my pay. He came back with only about three thousand dollars, but the new offer was for $25,000 more.

      When they hired my replacement, they gave him $16,000 more than I had been making.

      In both cases, I was ticked off.

      1. Adlib*

        Reminds me of a previous job I had. I got hired in at a higher rate than the girl who trained me, and she had been there 7 years! The reason she was given is that I had experience coming in to the job. I just had experience in the same position but in an entirely different industry. I was not shocked when she left and was happy for her.

        1. Your Weird Uncle*

          I was promoted after about a year into my first post-college job, and was happy about it until they asked me to do some brief phone interviews for the person who would be replacing me. When given the parameters of the job in case I got asked questions, they told me the salary range would be between $ and $$….with the low range of that figure coming in above what I was making…in my promoted job, as my replacement’s manager. .

          …not a happy discovery, that one.

          1. JanetInSC*

            What a wonderful way to lose good employees! (HR should review salary structure every year to make sure pay is equitable. If the pay is not equitable, people eventually discover it. Low morale and high turnover is not the right way to run a business.)

    6. Anonny*

      On refusing to give a raise without a counteroffer, the California state civil service system does this. It’s maddening.

      1. Megan Schafer*

        How silly. Don’t they realize that they’re causing themselves to waste time then, on the other end, interviewing employees from OTHER places that are only looking for a counteroffer, and wasting their own time and resources on hiring processes that won’t pan out?

  6. CMT*

    Your boss is an ass. Do you have somebody else you can use as a reference instead? I wouldn’t expect this behavior to get better.

    1. LabTech*

      I know it’s not always the case, but many, many applications require the names and contact information of your all of your previous supervisors. Sometimes a role is structured in such a way that more than one person could be considered a supervisor, but for the most part it’s not easy to get around not listing a recent supervisor as a reference, either explicitly or by giving their required contact information in an application.

      Some applications have an “Okay to contact?” option, but I’ve always worried declining to do so for any role except for the current one may invite more scrutiny to your performance there, making that potential reference even more significant to the hiring process.

      1. Megs*

        I strongly suspect that, to the extent those prior supervisors are contacted, it’s primarily to double check that you actually worked where you said you worked. I can’t imagine many employers wanting to take the time to go in-depth with every single supervisor someone has ever had.

        That said, I too am too nervous to ever click “no” even if I wanted to.

      2. Lemon Zinger*

        It’s generally accepted that you can absolutely say “No” if they want to contact your current employer. Reasonable employers know that job searches are often private. If you are pressed to list someone, you can put down HR, who can verify employment dates.

      3. Joseph*

        With the exception of your current one, I think you basically have to select “Okay to contact” unless you have a really good reason AND can provide a different contact from the time period. That said, I think it really depends on how long ago it was. If it’s 10 years and 3 jobs ago, it’s probably going to be a lot less scrutinized and weird than if it’s recent.

      4. KK*

        Operative word being previous. Some do ask to speak w/ a current superior but there’s nothing wrong w/ balking at this request as it can cost you your job or at the very least put you first in line when it’s time to hand out punk slips.

        This guy needs to be 86’d from her reference list. Loose cannon comes to mind.

        1. LabTech*

          Yes, but that just means putting off using the current supervisor as a reference until the next job search.

      5. Milton Waddams*

        This combined with the assumption that whenever there is a reference irregularity it is because of a bad employee rather than a bad boss can create a real lodestone around the neck of an applicant.

  7. Katie F*

    Yeah, I imagine the hiring manager hung up the phone after speaking to your current manager and said to herself, “Man, I’d be job-searching too.”

    This won’t reflect on you, and it shouldn’t be a huge deal, LW, but that grossly crosses a line and I’m ashamed FOR your boss. Ugh.

    1. LQ*

      This. I completely agree. If this hiring manager is at all reasonable they’ll get that this is wildly inappropriate and totally understand why you are looking for a new job.

    2. Not So NewReader*

      This. I think your boss just totally explained why you are job hunting, OP. Think about it. If he is will to say this to a stranger then what he says to people he knows is probably off the charts. I am guessing that you were probably respectful of your current boss while you interviewed. The contrast between the two of you will be stark and the other company will know what is up.

  8. Not Karen*

    gee, it’s funny how an organization can scrape up money or a new job title right when an employee is about to leave and no sooner…

    I can sympathize on this one. I spent 2/3 years at LastJob asking for a raise and they kept making up excuses about how they couldn’t do it even though they clearly agreed I had earned it. The day I put in my notice, my supervisor asks if there is anything they can do to keep me. At that point the answer was definitely no, but to this day I wonder what he would have done if I had said, “Yes, you could give me the raise and promotion I’ve been asking for for the last two years, and commensurate backpay for working at such a higher level for all that time.”

    1. Girl friday*

      I feel bad for the managers that have to watch that happen because of policies or it being turned down from higher-up. Must be very stressful and discouraging…

  9. BRR*

    I would be incredibly irritated if I was you OP but at least your boss did this in a way that doesn’t make it sound like you’re a terrible employee. If I was the hiring manager I would sit there are grind my teeth as your boss told these “jokes” similar to when my dad tells “jokes.”

    1. Lindsay J*

      Yeah, it reminds me of the terrible “jokes” you get working retail.

      “Well it didn’t scan so it must be free, right?”
      “Don’t bother checking that bill, I just made it this morning.”

  10. Jane*

    This is a good reason not to alert your boss that you are searching or have your boss as a reference unless the new employer absolutely insist on it, which I understand some government jobs and certain private sector jobs do unfortunately. I hope the new employer has enough sense to ignore the idiot boss.

  11. Marilyn*

    If it were me making that reference call, I’d be completely understanding as to why that employee would want to end their employment. What a stupid boss to make comments like that

  12. SouthernLadybug*

    This reminds me of the time we did a reference call and were about to end it when the reference decided that we needed to know more about him/her in order to understand how important his perspective was. S/he proceeded to spend more time talking about themselves, their intelligence, their role in mentoring the candidate etc than they did the candidate. Believe me, this did not in any way reflect on the candidate. But it did confirm some things about the reference we had heard through the grapevine……..

    TLDR; Most people can see through a crazy reference and it won’t reflect on you.

  13. Catalin*

    And how, precisely, does one work in a drug addiction into a reference conversation? I’m trying to imagine it…

    Maybe, “Man, that Cindy-Lou sure keeps our sales high — almost as high as she is!”

    1. Letter Writer*

      Oh, he gleefully gave me the full setup. At the end of the call, the hiring manager said, “Are there any final thoughts about LW you’d like to share?” And my boss said, “Well, I guess now would be a good time to tell you that she’s a crack addict.”

      I also learned from my coworker L. (who had a reference call right after my boss’s) that after my boss got off the phone with the hiring manager, he immediately IMed L., told her about the drug addiction joke, and said it would be super funny if she said the same thing in HER reference call. Luckily, my coworker is lovely and sane and did not do that.

      1. Dee*

        That’s starting to sound less like “ill-considered joke” and more like deliberate sabotage.

        1. Letter Writer*

          Without diving too much into our workplace dynamics, my coworker L. takes everything very seriously, including my reference call, and my boss knew that she would never in a million years make a joke like that with a hiring manager. I think my boss just wanted someone else to know how “funny” and “edgy” he was.

          1. neverjaunty*

            It really sounds like your boss was joking-but-not-really-joking. I doubt he expected the co-worker to literally say that, but he sure wanted to tank your chances and communicated that to your co-worker.

            What an ass.

          2. Rincat*

            Then you really do work for Michael Scott. I hope you get the job, or something else soon!

          3. Moonsaults*

            This chucklehead.

            Thankfully most people in the world know his kind well and are probably just horrified you had to work for him for any length of time. Such a bozo.

          4. Not So NewReader*

            He wanted someone else to know how funny/edgy he was….. because it’s all about HIM?

            Remember the saying, “people quit bosses not jobs”. I think that fits very well here.

            I would not get too upset over this, OP. I don’t think it hurt you at all, but I think he damaged his own rep. And it looks like his plan is to keep doing this. As the years roll by he will start to notice that people around him do not take him seriously and he will wonder why.

        2. Tiffany In Houston*

          I totally agree and would remove that boss as a reference immediately. I would be LIVID. This is how I feed my family and you think it’s cute to make a joke about addiction (which is no laughing matter at all)!!!???

      2. Mononymous*

        What the crap? Now I REALLY picture your boss as Michael Scott. Best of luck with your job search, I hope you’re able to get away from that idiot ASAP.

      3. Lucy Honeychurch*

        That’s definitely gross and unprofessional, but on the plus side, I’m pretty sure that context made it obvious to his interlocutor that he was joking. So at least they are unlikely to think you are actually a crack addict!

      4. OldAdmin*

        *clunk* (= jaw hitting floor)

        That’s sabotage plain and simple, dressed up as haha.
        Take him off your reference list, and don’t tell him where you are applying.

        That very much reminds me of my team leader who chose to call me a hooker he’d just slept with (!) in front of the entire team at a meeting, all dressed up as a joke, that I didn’t have a sense of humor yadda yadda.
        I left the team shortly after.
        (No, I didn’t give him reason to say that. Team leader just liked to be offensive and a power player, and did so with impunity.)

        1. Not So NewReader*

          See, OP? There’s lots of these idiots out there. You are not alone. Hiring managers know this happens, they are well aware.

          OA, I am sorry this happened to you, but I am glad you shared it with the OP.

      5. Mookie*

        The specificity of “crack addict” is just… ugh. This man sounds so exhausting and tiresome.

    2. TootsNYC*

      I could see someone saying, “What can I say so you won’t hire her away from me? Oh, I know–she’s a drug addict! Now you won’t hire her, right? I sure hate to lose her.”

      I’ve done a joking thing like that, as a reference. I said something like, “I’m going to have to lie about her so you won’t steal her. She NEVER comes to work on time, she does a LOUSY job proofreading, everybody hates her because she’s SO unpleasant, she can’t create custom keys in our software at ALL, and basically she’s just all around horrible. But of course, those are all lies, and if you hire her away from me, I’m going to be bereft.”
      Of course, I go on to emphasize that each of those are in fact the opposite strength, and provide a more conventional positive reference.

      I don’t do it anymore, but I’ve done it before. Maybe that’s what he thought he was doing. Still not cool, really. Mine probably wasn’t either–though the reference-caller laughed and said, “that’s a pretty strong endorsement,” and the person got the job and thanked me for being a reference.

  14. Jerry Vandesic*

    Do not use you current boss as a reference. It is not complicated. You need to give this some serious thought given that you felt it would be a good idea despite knowing that he was upset at your leaving. It was never a good idea to use him as a reference.

    1. CMT*

      That’s just not true, and there’s no way you can know the dynamics of the situation better than the LW. This kind of universal statement isn’t very helpful.

    2. zora.dee*

      He obviously made it seem to the OP that he would give a good reference (and it sounds like other than the dumb jokes, he kind of did). There was no reason for the OP not to take him at his word. This is pretty harsh.

      1. Whats In A Name*

        I have had managers upset I am leaving in the past but understanding because of my needs/wants and still gave me a good reference…and a counter-offer, though they didn’t share any of those details in the actual discussion with the person taking references.

        1. Whats In A Name*

          Oops replied to wrong person. this was in response to Jerry Vandesic’s blanket statement.

    3. JMegan*

      You need to give this some serious thought… Ouch. OP is not a child.

      Also, I don’t think she had any indication that he was going to behave like this. It’s a long way from him being upset at her leaving, to him making jokes about her being a crack addict. Obviously she knows now not to use him as a reference, but it doesn’t sound like she knew beforehand that he was going to be so inappropriate.

    4. Cookie*

      That’s not really feasible for everyone. I just left my first post-law school job. If I didn’t provide my current supervisor, I’d be stuck with internship supervisors who only knew me for 2-3 months or with professors who could maybe speak about my writing abilities and not much else. You make do with what you’ve got.

    5. Girl friday*

      A little harsh: it is sometimes true that negative emotions underly joking…but they are probably unconscious and might have nothing to do with OP. Might be a different conversation on any given day.

  15. TheCupcakeCounter*

    “though gee, it’s funny how an organization can scrape up money or a new job title right when an employee is about to leave and no sooner…”

    This steams me too. I was told repeatedly at old job that inline promotions and raises just didn’t happen. So I found a new job and when I turned in my notice there were all of a sudden all of these options and opportunities for me. After 3 people attempted to present me with counter-offers (I declined all of those meetings) I got a call asking me to come down to the VP’s office at which time he presented the counter-offer and seemed very proud of it. When I told him it was still less than my new role he really didn’t know what to say. I also told him that I had committed to this new job and that I did have a problem going back on my word even if he didn’t. I was pissed at that point especially since I had caught him in several lies (with paperwork to prove it) that directly affected me and that a major reason I was leaving was because I no longer wanted to work for him. I didn’t just burn that bridge…I blew it up. Not a single regret there either.

  16. Argh!*

    I have a cynical boss in my background who will never be on a list of references for me. I don’t trust her not to say something she thinks will be funny because imho cynicism and sarcasm are not funny in that context. Well, not really funny in any context.

    1. PB*

      I have a former boss who I knew I could never use as a reference after I heard her giving a reference for the person who had the position before me (we basically shared a single cubicle, it was impossible not to hear it). When asked why my predecessor left, her response was “Well, she had just gotten engaged and I think she wanted to try being a housewife for awhile,” which wasn’t even true, she had gotten another job. Some people’s ideas of “jokes” are horrifying.

  17. Anonymous Educator*

    I actually think this is a blessing in disguise to a certain extent. It’s much better to have a current-boss reference who sounds off the rails and jokes about your drug addiction than to have a current-boss reference who sounds perfectly reasonable and then throws you under the bus.

  18. more anon now*

    Is it possible your boss was just nervous about losing you and just couldn’t get himself to stop talking? I have an awesome manager, but I could totally see him doing something like this – not as sabotage, but because he really would be worried about what to do if I left that he wouldn’t be able to think straight. Granted, he is the kind of person who would apologize profusely afterwards, so I think there is a distinction there, but it is possible the boss’s reference isn’t mean-spirited.

    1. neverjaunty*

      1) Who cares if it’s mean-spirited? It’s unacceptable and, if the hiring manager was more credulous, could have destroyed OP’s chances of leaving the company.

      2) There’s a difference between nervous blabber and saying horrible, untrue things about someone.

      1. Aurion*

        I feel like I’m just following neverjaunty around and agreeing with them, but this.

        “I didn’t mean it” is a weaksauce defense for only the mildest transgressions. This situation is not one of them.

      2. more anon now*

        I agree that it is unacceptable, but people seem to be vilifying the manager when people say/do stupid things sometimes. It doesn’t make them bad people; sometimes it is just a momentary lapse of judgement.

        That being said, the LW made some comments in the thread that make it clear this wasn’t that kind of situation and he wasn’t mortified about what he said, so that’s the answer to my question.

  19. I'm not a lawyer, but ...*

    FWIW I had a strange reference check like that. After positive answers to specific questions, the response to “anything to add” was along the lines of “she’s pretty effective for a drunken pregnant crack ho, except when her pimp breaks her arms every week hahaha.” Believe me I knew who the wackadoodle in the situation was. No worries, OP.

  20. AW*

    If he was legitimately trying to ruin your changes then he messed up by telling them he’d make a counter-offer.

    I mean, the only possible interpretations there are either 1) he has a horrible sense of humor and no appreciation for how inappropriate that “joke” was, 2) he’s a liar, or 3) you are an awesome employee despite having an addiction, which would make him a huge jerk for weaponizing a medical problem against you.

    The only thing he did was make the caller sympathize with the fact that you’re trying to escape.

  21. Engineer Girl*

    One silver lining – they may give you a higher offer because the boss said he’d counter. His behavior is still inappropriate though. I’d say nothing to the reference checker. It’s obvious who is inappropriate here.

  22. Maria*

    What a silly thing to mention the drug thing – however, I wouldn’t feel bad about the counter offer comment. If it were me being the reference checker, I would understand from that that you are a valuable employee that he doesn’t want to let go.

  23. Alano*

    I think on this one I disagree with AAM and most of the comments. I think based on what OP said, it’s pretty obvious the boss was 100% joking, and the reference checker 100% knew he was joking. If you weren’t a party to the conversation, it’s hard to know what type of banter might have been going on during the phone call. I could easily imagine a conversation in which these types of jokes might occur and it wouldn’t be the slightest bit inappropriate.

    The boss was clearly giving OP huge compliments in a joking way. I once had a boss who would sometimes jokingly say things like “you better not be going on a job interview over lunch!” when people came to work dressed nicely. Everyone realized what she meant by the joke: (“you’re awesome and I don’t want to lose you!”). I think that’s probably what was going on here, and folks need to majorly lighten up.

    A few months back I was talking to someone from another country about working in the U.S., and they expressed astonishment at how completely obsessed Americans are with the concept of “being professional,” even to the point of absurdity. In particular, this person was noting how common it is for someone in the U.S. to get hired or promoted just because they know how to act and talk “professional” – even if they’re not actually good at managing, training, etc. Anyhoo, this situation strikes me as a good example of everyone being overly concerned about “professionalism.”

    1. TootsNYC*

      Having read the OP’s followup above about how it actually went down, I agree w/ Alano. I think it was a lame joke, not an attempt to sabotage the OP, and it will be recognized as one.

    2. Myrin*

      I could easily imagine a conversation in which these types of jokes might occur and it wouldn’t be the slightest bit inappropriate.

      I’m honestly having a hard time coming up with any kind of situation where such a joke would be appropriate and not in poor taste, but it’s absolutely impossible to me when talking about a reference call. I also don’t think anyone is arguing that the reference checker thought the boss must be serious/didn’t get the joke, people are just saying that this was not the time and place for it. If the boss felt there needed to be some humour injected in the situation, he could have said something lighthearted, harmless, and actually funny. (And, for the record, I’m not from the US, and this doesn’t strike me as an “absurd” level of expecting professionalism, either.)

    3. Marisol*

      I appreciate this response because I had the same reaction too. I guess there *are* some people in the world who just can’t get a joke, but most can, and an over-the-top joke like the one the boss made is not likely to be taken literally. I appreciate hearing Alison’s take also, as it gives me something new to ponder, but my gut reaction to this is a big fat “so what?” Or maybe I’m just an unprofessional person…

      1. Alix*

        Please tell me you’re not seriously implying that all of us who don’t find this either funny or professional are just the few people in the world who can’t take a joke.

        1. Marisol*

          I’m saying most people wouldn’t take the joke literally. I think that’s the real concern here–is the reference checker actually going to think the applicant has a drug addiction because the boss makes a joke about it? That seems unlikely to me. There’s liking a joke, and there’s “getting” a joke. Even if someone objects to what the boss said, for whatever reason–it’s corny, it’s unprofessional–I think *most* people would understand the intention behind it, and that includes the posters on this forum. I am not casting aspersions on anyone.

        2. OldAdmin*

          [quote from my life]
          Ahahaha! It’s a joooooke!
          Typical female crybaby, no sense of humor!
          Biyatch can’t take a bit of joshing huh?
          [/quote from my life]

          *deep sigh*

          1. Marisol*

            I just want to make the point here that *I* was not expressing anything like that sentiment. Alix, responding to my comment above, misunderstood what I wrote. It is my hope, OldAdmin, that you are not interpreting my comment in the same light.

    4. HRish Dude*

      “I could easily imagine a conversation in which these types of jokes might occur and it wouldn’t be the slightest bit inappropriate.”

      This was a person checking the reference of another person, referring to the person trying to find a job.

      It’s entirely inappropriate every time.

      1. Liane*

        And if I knew that the reference checker thought it was a great joke, well, that would be a at least a yellow flag for me about the company I’d applied to: This place has at least one employee in a responsible position who is clueless about professional conversations.

    5. Dynamic Beige*

      Some people can’t take a joke… and others don’t have a sense of humour. Unfortunately, you often don’t find out until it’s too late. There are people who would hear something like that and not pick up that it’s meant as a joke. I also think that if OP’s boss had someone give him a similarly “flavoured” reference, he wouldn’t think it was as funny.

    6. AW*

      …folks need to majorly lighten up

      Or maybe you could just accept that people have different ideas of what’s funny, when certain jokes are appropriate, and how the context the joke occurs in matters. A “Don’t interview elsewhere” joke from a good boss who treats you fairly is not the same as a “I gave you a bad reference” joke from a bad boss who treats you unfairly, and it’s disingenuous of you to insist that they are.

    7. Quilter*

      I didn’t think any of it was a big deal. I immediately got that the “drug addict” line was a joke that, if anything, just underscored that he didn’t have anything bad to say to the point where he’d have to make up some ludicrous claim (and that he wishes he could do so if only to keep OP around.) The “doing battle” bit I took as an attempt to get them to give OP the best possible offer or at least to express how much OP’s work was appreciated. “This is a person I’d fight to keep.”

      That’s good y’all.

      I think that’s why the boss got off the phone and told OP. He thought it would show how he was trying to help. Sure, I think the boss failed to think about how much on tenterhooks people are until they have a solid offer, but as indicated by the follow-up reference, it’s clear that he didn’t do anything to harm her chances. The employer got that it was a joke. That makes about a whole five of us!

    8. Not So NewReader*

      Professionalism to one side. It’s just plain good life advice that if you do not do humor well, then don’t do it. One of the first steps in doing humor well is to KNOW your audience and be aware of the current context. Some situations MUST be totally FREE of ambiguity.

      I have worked with a lot of people who used a negative as a high compliment, because the negative was so outlandish that it could not possibly be true therefore you have nothing but high praise for the person. The problem here is that it gives the interviewer/questioner no additional insight on what the potential candidate does well or where the person excels. But plenty of people speak this way so I am sure this interviewer was well aware of what was going on.

    9. Noah*

      This is exactly what I think too. I wouldn’t think any less of the LW or her boss. He made a joke and it seems clear he was joking. As a reference check I would be encouraged that current boss thinks highly of her and says he will counter. Maybe I don’t take things seriously enough but I’m a bit taken aback at how bad some commentary are viewing the manager.

  24. Moonsaults*

    He’s wildly inappropriate and how he got to a high enough level to supervise anything other than a game of dodge-ball is beyond me.

    However I cannot imagine this hurting your chances. When you check references you know that you’re going to run into a guy that the person doesn’t want to work with anymore, that could be for any amount of reasons. As long as he’s not using seemingly legitimate things like “well I’d say her performance is below our standards but maybe she’ll shape up for you!”

    I’ve never in my life heard someone refer to someone with an actual addiction as “LOL well there’s the crack thing.” or anything even remotely in a joking fashion. It’s not funny, it’s obnoxious and gross but I’m more shocked if someone took that serious.

  25. Alano*

    Reference Checker: “Hey, Bobby Boss, this is Sally Jo from Competitor Company. It was great seeing you a few months back at that convention. You’re always so funny. Anyways, I’m calling today because I’m trying to steal another one of your employees.”

    Boss: “Oh, Sally, you know I can’t stand it when you try to poach my folks. Let me guess. You’re trying to poach Edith Employee?”

    Reference Checker: “How did you know?!”

    Boss: “She’s been keeping me in the loop. You know I don’t like it when Competitor Company tries to poach our folks. So I’m going to tell you that you’d absolutely hate her. She’s umm…. a drug addict and hates kittens!”

    Reference Checker: “Like I said, you’re always so funny! You should take this on the road.”

    Boss: “No, really, she’s great – an excellent worker. But you know, we’ll fight to keep her. Be prepared for a counter-offer.”

    Reference Checker: “Oh, Bob, I hope you do counter-off! You know how competitive I am.”

    Boss: “I’m well aware. Anyway, any other questions?”

    Reference Checker: “Nope, that’s all I needed. I trust your judgment, and I know you wouldn’t speak highly of her unless you meant it. Thanks and take care.”

    Boss: “You too. I’ll see you at next year’s convention. And, Sally?”

    Reference Checker: “Yes?”

    Boss: “Quit taking my best folks!”

    There. Conversation imagined. It’s casual, but in certain industries casual conversations like this happen all the time (esp. if the conversation is with the hiring manager – and not an HR department). I personally would be very complimented if I were the subject of such a conversation.

    1. Alix*

      So you’re basically making up a conversation to somehow prove that the LW is being humorless and overly concerned, when you don’t actually know if she’s in a casual industry or how the reference conversation actually went down? And you think this proves your point? Wow.

      1. Myrin*

        Seriously. There is pondering “Hm, [situation] could have gone this way or that way” and then there’s making up an entire story and background and conversation and relationship when everything points to the majority’s read actually being true (as it is, it turns out, as per the OP’s comment right below).

      2. Alano*

        “when you don’t actually know . . . how the reference conversation actually went down.” That’s my point. None of us were parties to the conversation, and neither was the LW. And I think it’s a bit silly to jump to the conclusion that the boss was crazy or “unprofessional” or whatever just based on the information provided. I’m not accusing the LW of being humorless and overly concerned, but I think if she starts taking the comments above too seriously she soon will be!

        And I think it very much leads into the larger issue that sometimes happens in the world of HR, where there’s an unhealthy obsession with the norms/attitudes/gestures of “professionalism” at the expense of actually getting work done. I’ve had plenty of bosses over the years who were not terribly professional (blunt, dark humor, etc.), but who nevertheless were amazing managers and (most importantly) got stuff done. They were waaaay more effective than the”professional” folks who are really good at sitting in meetings, talking like they’re on NPR, and saying just the right thing at the right time.

    2. Letter Writer*

      I appreciate the thought that went into this comment, but this doesn’t describe my situation at all. My boss and the hiring manager didn’t know each other from Adam, and from what I learned from two of my other references who spoke to the hiring manager, the conversations certainly weren’t that casual.

  26. Marcia*

    During my last year at high school and while I was at university I worked weekends and holidays for a retail chain – in my home town initially and then in the city where I was studying. When I applied for my first full-time post after graduating I gave my retail manager as a referee. Fortunately for me, although the references were asked for before the interview, the one from the retail manager didn’t arrive until after my interview. My boss told me a few years later that the reference he received stated that I had been dismissed for stealing! He said to me that he simply couldn’t accept that the person he’d interviewed could be a thief and so he followed up with the retail company. My manager had been on leave when the reference request was made so someone else had looked up my, very common, name. Someone else with the same name had worked for the company and had been sacked for theft, but it was not me! My boss let them know how serious the consequences of their mistake could have been for me, and I was hired without any reference from that company.

    I’m sure, as others have also said here, LW that the hiring manager will see that your referee’s comment reflect badly only on him, and not on you.

    1. Moonsaults*

      This happened to my best friend’s father who has a common name, only not with a job reference. They ran a background check for a rental he was trying to get and it came back with some nasty things on there. They called him, asking if he were in a private location because it was a very serious talk they needed to have with him. He was extremely confused until it came out that the person had committed all their crimes in a state that’s far away and he’s never stepped foot in, let alone harmed anyone there. After he mentioned that, they realized that they had the wrong information and let it go.

      This is why you aren’t ever supposed to say anything about an employee you have no knowledge about. I’ve only been here a couple years, I’ve had a couple reference checks. My response is “They worked here and as far as I know, they are rehireable.” Both of my bosses don’t know anyone who comes in and out of here, even when they work with them every day unless it’s someone who was here for many years or was a trouble maker, so that’s as good as they get. In retail it’s the same kind of thing, I’m disgusted that anyone would go to the extent of digging up the wrong file and giving that much overshare that wasn’t even right in the first place. Argh, so glad the place you were hired at could see they were knuckleheads!

  27. YogiJosephina*

    Alison, for some reason it’s become where literally every single time I try to access this site on my mobile, I get redirected to another ad site. I don’t know if it’s pop ups or spyware or whatnot, but have you heard of this and is there anything I can do to stop it? I get redirected after less than 20 seconds.


    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      There’s been a massive wave of it over the last week and it’s proving hard to stamp out entirely — I’m so sorry. My ad network has been working on it, but it’s ongoing. Their latest email to me about it today said: “I just talked to our rep with a provider we work with and their query has been running for the better part of a day– really massive. With the sheer volume of impressions being passed it takes a lot to pinpoint the culprit. But they sound hopeful.”

      Anyway, that doesn’t help you. What might help as an interim solution is one of these:

      Change your cookie settings
      1. Click Settings
      2. Select Safari
      3. Scroll down and click “Block Cookies”
      4. Select “Allow for Current Website Only”

      Clear all website data
      1. Double-click your home button and close Safari
      2. Go to Settings
      3. Select Safari
      4. Scroll down and click “Clear History and Website Data”
      – Note: This will close all of your browser windows

      1. Red*

        I’ve done both of those things multiple times a day and still having the same problem on my iPhone, sigh. Sometimes putting it into reader mode for a minute helps, but you can’t read the comments that way, and it doesn’t always prevent the redirect.

  28. Seianus*

    Well now you learned to keep your current employer out of the loop. That’s what people normally do. It’s just safer bet.

  29. Real Life Leslie Knope*

    Can’t top the “drug addict” comment, but I did once have a supervisor who tried to sabotage my reference call too. It was the final nail in the coffin–confirming my decision that it was time. to. go.

    Both positions were in the federal government, but different agencies. When new manager tried to contact old manager, old manager intentionally avoided her calls for a week. Then when she did finally take the call, she would only speak to new manager in a “monster voice.” Like a mean muppet on sesame street. She made flippant comments about me. “Really? Why would you want to hire her?” And then when they were negotiating my release date, old manager demanded I stay another 2 weeks–just because she could. She didn’t give me a single thing to work on during that time, just made me sit there and not be at the place I’d rather be working.

    All that to say, some managers take staff moving on to greener pastures badly. You made a good choice to move on, your boss’s behavior is just confirming that.

  30. I'm Not Phyllis*

    Your boss is a jerk – and indeed made the reference check about him and not about you. I think Alison’s right – I doubt he cost you the job, but I would think twice about using him as a reference in the future.

  31. Rachael*

    To OP #4: I know what you mean about not wanting to have negative stereotypes when applying. I’m athiest and I work for a Catholic Hospital so I am very careful about who I tell because Athiests in Seattle have a bad reputation for being vocal and argumentative.

    I agree with Allison. I would say that you mentor as a volunteer job and answer truthfully when asked. However, I would also add anything that would assure your interviewers that while you have these beliefs you are not one to push them on others.

  32. Biscuits McGee*

    Wow, what a horrible thing to do to someone. I had something similar happen when I went to CBS, I found out that one of the employees said something completely untrue about where I previously worked. Thankfully, they let me know very subtlety that this person wasn’t the friend I thought they were, and I also listed my previous boss as a reference (and she gave me a glowing reference). But the damage was already done, and found it hard to change people’s first impression of me. I ended up leaving in a matter of months

  33. Granny K*

    Aaaaand time to cross that reference off the list. If you got an offer (and I hope you did), they probably know why you’re leaving.

Comments are closed.