did a reference lie to me to stop me from hiring a candidate who she wanted to hire herself?

A reader writes:

A few months back, my organization had a job opening for which we had a lot of internal candidates. We have a number of part-time, front line staff who are actively seeking full-time jobs, and whenever a full-time position comes available we usually get a lot of interest from those employees — and this time was no different.

One of those internal candidates is a superstar on our front line, and was in the top three for the position but not our #1 choice. Still, we have a policy of calling all finalists’ references, so I spoke to all three of her listed references. One of them is a manager at a partner organization of ours, and is someone with whom I have a decent working relationship, and she gave a very negative review of this candidate.

Now, her review was not the make-or-break of our decision. As I already mentioned, this candidate was not our top choice, and we also had the existing relationship with her to be able to put the negative review in context. Still, wanting to help her in her full-time job search (and knowing that other organizations don’t have the benefit of an existing relationship), the candidate’s direct supervisor at our organization gently suggested (without giving the reason) that she diversify her list of references, which the candidate did, and continued to interview for a variety of jobs in our field. All good and done, right?

Except now the candidate has given notice because the supervisor who gave her such a negative reference has hired her! Which makes me feel icky — as though she was intentionally talking the candidate down so as to keep her in need of a job. This is compounded by the fact that the job this candidate took is not a particularly great one, by her own telling — it’s still part-time (albeit with benefits) and pays less than she is making here (though offers more hours). As a result, I worry that this hiring manager took advantage of this candidate’s desperation to lowball her.

So, two questions: First, am I obligated to share any of this with the candidate? Henceforth I had avoided doing so out of respect for the reference’s confidentiality, but the fact that she has offered a job to someone she felt so compelled to give a bad reference makes me feel a little less loyal. Second, if I’m not obligated to share this with the candidate, to what extent am I obligated to *not* share it with her?

You’re not obligated to share it with her, but I think there’s an ethical argument for saying something.

That said, it’s true that references tend to assume that what they tell you will be kept confidential. Otherwise, people would be much less likely to speak candidly, so it’s in everyone’s interests to assume a certain amount of confidentiality. And that’s especially true when the reference you’re talking to is someone who you know personally, as it was in this case. People will often give more candid references to people they know — there’s a “let me give you the real unvarnished lowdown since we know each other and I know you’ll keep it on a need-to-know basis” thing in play.

But in a case like this, where someone you know trashed a candidate you were considering hiring and then soon after hired the person herself? That’s pretty shady looking, and you’re right to be thinking of speaking up about it.

I suppose it’s possible that there’s a non-nefarious explanation here. Maybe she hired her for a totally different type of job, one that won’t involve any of the skills she talked to you about (if the bad reference was focused on very specific areas that wouldn’t be in play in this position). Or maybe the hiring decision was made by someone else. Who knows.

But it still looks really bad, and surely the reference-giver wouldn’t be surprised to hear you’re wondering what happened.

Because of that, I wonder if you could start with her, rather than starting with your candidate. Since you have a working relationship with the reference, you could call her and say something like this: “I heard you hired Jane Warbleworth! I was so surprised, given our conversation when I was seeking a reference for her. I’m worried that I might have misunderstood what you were telling me, and if I did, I want to make sure that we don’t have an unfair bad reference for her in our files in case she applies with us again. I had come away from our conversation thinking you’d told me ____. Did I somehow get that wrong?”

It’s possible that you’ll hear something that will make this all make sense to you — for example, that Jane is their CEO’s niece and she couldn’t avoid hiring her, or that she thought you were asking about Jane Warblestocking not Warbleworth, or that she has been hit on the head by a coconut and is now suffering a terrible case of amnesia and doesn’t even recall working with Jane in the past. Or not — she might be evasive or awkward or try to blow it off or say things that you can tell aren’t genuine.

From there, you can decide if you want to say something to Jane or not. I’d argue that there’s a higher ethical obligation to let Jane know that one of her references did this to her (if in fact you do come away from your conversation still thinking that) than to protect a reference who seems so shady. On the other, you’d be giving Jane information that risks totally blowing up her relationship with the person who’s now her boss — although I’d argue it’s still better for Jane to have full info about things that impact her life, even if the info is inflammatory.

Ultimately it should probably come down to exactly what the reference said (was the reference middling or truly terrible, for instance), your sense of how well it lined up with what you know of Jane from working with her, and your previous sense of the reference’s integrity and credibility.

{ 109 comments… read them below }

    1. fposte*

      That sounds like threatening legal action, though, and that’s going to make the conversation (with a partner org, no less) immediately adversarial.

      1. me again*

        I think the person who provided the negative reference has already made it adversarial…. It’s not like she can hide this new hire.

        Regardless, I think she needs to warn this reference that this is not harmless and it could lead to legal action. It’s possible the individual does not know and has not thought this through. They should be thankful that they were warned.

        1. fposte*

          It’s not going to lead to legal action unless the candidate strikes it rich. Defamation suits cost well into the five figures to pursue.

          1. Aurion*

            Also, legal action is usually about compensation, not correction. Right now, this bad reference didn’t even cost Jane a job at OP’s organization; she was legitimately beaten by a better candidate. This is the most solid lead we have, and even then there is no loss to be compensated for (if Jane would’ve been the winning candidate maybe one could argue that Jane lost out on the potential increase in salary from OP’s organization vs Negative Reference’s organization, but Jane doesn’t even have that).

            Maybe this is slander in principle, but invoking that wording will make the situation more adversarial without any gain. OP’s organization still has to work with Negative Reference’s organization.

      2. OhNo*

        I wouldn’t mention it to the reference, but if the OP comes away from that conversation with a really bad taste in her mouth, she may want to hint to Jane that it is something to consider. Although even then, I might hesitate.

      3. Mike C.*

        You’re not wrong, but lying about someone in such a way that’s likely going to harm them is very likely a crime.

      4. Mike C.*

        Look, let me add this – if you lost out on a job due to someone else lying about you, you’d want to know, correct? I’m not sure I totally understand the reasoning for keeping things secret in this situation.

        1. fposte*

          I didn’t say anything about keeping things secret–I just said raising the specter of a lawsuit (it’s likely a tort and not a crime) isn’t the way to go. Another reason would be that it would be the candidate, not the possible employer, who’d likely have the cause of action here, and also slander suits are generally hugely expensive and pointless unless there was major financial loss.

          1. me again*

            What’s the harm in saying, “Hey ReferenceLady, FYI this classifies as slander, so you may want to be careful in the future so it doesn’t come back to bite you in the ass?”

            It’s possible this reference is otherwise a good person that did something stupid and didn’t consider the consequences.

            1. fposte*

              Because it’s obviously bogus–the OP isn’t a lawyer, we don’t know the details of whether it rises to the standard of defamation, and it’s almost never going to go to court–and because it turns a conversation between two people on the same level into a reproof, which kills the possibility of anything useful in the future.

              I’m not saying it would never be appropriate to mention that such an act is exposing one’s employer to liability–I’m just saying there could be harm, and I don’t right now see much advantage in the mention beyond our desire as spectators to make the person who did a bad thing unhappy.

        2. Ineloquent*

          Plus, it’s quite possible that the candidate applied elsewhere and the reference lied there too – in which case she could have legitimately lost out on a great job b/c of this crap. You should tell the candidate so they can protect themselves in the future, though I think legal action now is probably to hard and expensive to pursue.

    2. Elle*

      Are we conflating a negative reference with lying though? Just because it was negative doesn’t necessarily mean it was a lie.

        1. SarahTheEntwife*

          Or it could have emphasized weaknesses that are genuinely things the employee has problems with, but that are eclipsed by all the ways that they’re awesome.

      1. Annonymouse*

        On the contrary.

        OP knows employee is a superstar in their current role. If the full time position is similar then there is no reason to think OP wouldn’t be good there too.

        If the role was different and reference has experience with superstar in a role like that and expressed concerns that would also be different.

        Or if they weren’t a superstar and the reference brought up things OP was already aware of / concerned could be issues.

        However OP has told us that the reference gave a really negative reference for someone they (OP) knows is great. Then the reference hires the person.

        If the person is that terrible then why did reference hire them? Why didn’t they use their pull to get someone “better”?

        I’m assuming part of the reference was things like being reliable, finishing projects interpersonal conflict management etc.

        It doesn’t make sense. Unless there is sabotage involved.

  1. Mike C.*

    I believe a candidate should be quietly told that a reference is saying negative things about them. I’ve had friends who were losing opportunities left and right because they had a reference who said they’d be happy to help them out only to badmouth them in private. That’s going to really screw over someone who’s likely a perfectly fine candidate and prevent them from being able to work for a living.

    Coupled with the naysayer hiring that individual, that’s sketchy as all hell. I might go to HR/Ethics with this sort of behavior, as such actions misappropriate people within the company and will lower morale when employees get wind of this.

    The script is fine for directly addressing the person in question, but the behavior is so suspicious that I would seek out help elsewhere first.

    1. fposte*

      Though it was an internal candidate, I don’t think the bad rec came from somebody at the same employer–it’s a “partner organization,” the OP says. I’m guessing the candidate had a prior job or second part-time job with that org.

          1. OP*

            OP here: yes, it’s a bit complicated. Two separate organizations; the candidate currently works part-time for both. I know the other supervisor professionally, having made reference calls to her in the past, but not that well personally.

    2. Artemesia*

      I agree. I know someone who had a manager who had praised him when he worked there but then shafted him out of two really good opportunities after he had left; he was a finalist and had been told to expect an offer and then it evaporated a couple of times. One of the interviewers tipped him that this guy was trashing him and he dropped him as a reference and got a great job almost immediately (where he is doing great).

    3. Sas*

      Yep, one of the reasons that I don’t think references are all they are supposed to be anyways. Too seriously taken. I mean if this sort of thing happens here or there (and it does), that is TOO MUCH. Ruining people’s lives, really. A good reference checker should be able to distinguish this and DO something about it. (Not anything about the OP.) References affect so much. Coming from someone who worked in a small, family owned business for several years (Read corrupt), good grief. HR doesn’t exist at all jobs.

  2. Calcifer*

    I’m not sure how desperation could be the basis of Jane’s decision if the new job is also part-time, with a lower rate of pay. Maybe they promised her a full-time role down the line? In any case, ultimately she chose to join the partner organization, and I’m not sure jeopardizing her relationship with her new manager is the right call here. Yes, she has a right to know, but will knowing actually help her?

    Also, Alison, I think a couple of typos might have slipped through… *candid references and *amnesia?

      1. Calcifer*

        True – I guess I automatically think of “less money per hour” as just less money, but re-reading it, the OP does say Jane’s new job offers more hours.

      2. OhNo*

        This. I can think of several fields (mine included) where part-time employees would jump at the chance for benefits even if it meant a lower pay rate. At least in my field, most of those positions are meant to give you experience and help you build a resume while you hunt for a full-time job, not be careers in and of themselves, so the decision might make more sense in that context.

        1. MsChandandlerBong*

          Absolutely! A few months ago, my husband took a part-time job that pays $1.75/hour less than he made at his previous (full-time) job. However, it came with benefits–GOOD benefits. Even though he was part-time and making less per hour, we actually ended up with way more money in our pockets due to the improved coverage. If I go to a specialist and he submits a claim for $200, the insurance adjusts it based on the contractual rate and then pays the entire bill minus my copay. If the contractual rate is $150, I pay my $25 copay and the insurance co. pays the remaining $125. Our previous plan paid nothing until we met our deductible. So in the same scenario, I would have to pay the entire $150. We have SO much more money now that I am not spending $8K per year on medical expenses (even after we met the deductible, we still had to pay 20% of all claims until reaching the $8K out-of-pocket max).

          Sometimes it makes a lot of sense to give up a little more money in your paycheck to take advantage of better benefits.

    1. Jessie*

      It could be desperation – new job comes with benefits. Lower rate of pay but more hours, so adding in benefits and she may be coming out ahead. Benefits are a Very Big Deal for some people, especially if benefits includes insurance.

    2. AD*

      She chose to take the new position, yes, but she did not have the benefit of knowing she was being trashed behind-the-scenes. I think Alison’s advice here is best. And this employee was a “superstar” in the OP’s organization – shouldn’t she be given the opportunity to arm herself with the knowledge that her new employer essentially tried to sabotage a previous employment opportunity for her?

    3. BethRA*

      I would argue that knowing her supervisor isn’t an honest person might very well help Jane down the line.

      1. sunny-dee*

        This. ^^^ I think this more than anything could help Jane understand a potentially toxic environment.

        1. Tyrannosaurus Regina*

          I agree. She certainly doesn’t have to do anything with that knowledge, but it would be good to know.

    4. Whats In A Name*

      I also think if she is a star performer and passed over for a position she could be feeling a bit like she won’t have opportunity to grow at current org. Benefits and opportunity may outweigh current situation in her eyes.

    1. Candi*

      One article I found interesting was one that described real-life amnesia -and said the fictional character with the closest traits was Dory. Yes, the fish.

  3. Jessie*

    Please tell Jane. She should know – she is going to want a full-time job at some point in her life, right? Her shady new boss may end up needing to be a reference for her, and if you do not tell her how shady her new boss behaved, Jane will likely have her as a reference again. And shady new boss may well be shady again, to keep Jane. This could end up following Jane and harming her career for a long time.

    It may well be that she took this new part-time job because she has had just no luck finding a full-time job. And yet, you say she is a superstar for you. So why such trouble? You are probably not the only potential employer to whom shady new boss has trashed Jane. Right? So Jane thinks she just can’t get a better job, but she might be able to get a better one if she dumped shady new boss from her reference list. Give her the information she needs. You don’t need to protect a reference who has behaved so unethically.

      1. fposte*

        Might also be quite the albatross boss as well; if this was a deliberate action, that’s hardly somebody who’s likely to be kind, fair, and transparent in her dealings with her staff.

        1. EmilyG*

          This is what I was thinking. I do think OP should try to get a better read on the situation from the reference first, but if it still feels fishy, the employee has to know before she goes to *work* for this person!

    1. The IT Manager*

      I agree. It should be quiet and LW might even stress that Jane was not the front runner and it didn’t cause her to lose out in order to help her not be bitter about her new organization/boss.

      But if Jane wants to keep looking for a full time job, she needs to know her current boss is unscrupulous enough to sabotage her with bad references.

      1. OP*

        This is a helpful point – part of what kept me from having this conversation up front is not wanting her to think that she lost the opportunity as a result of this reference.

        1. Lana Kane*

          Very much agree. I recently left a job where I was a top performer but was hitting walks when trying to advance. If I were her I’d be assuming that this place was not for me and looking to move on.

          1. Lana Kane*

            Sorry, this was supposed to be for another comment!

            But I also wanted to say – I think it’s good to talk to Jane *and* stress that the reference was not the defining factor in your decision. Because if I were a top performer at my current employer, where I’m a known quantity, I’d be upset that a bad external reference was weighed so heavily against the good work I’d been doing.

        2. Annonymouse*

          She might not have lost the position at your work based on this, however I imagine she applied elsewhere with the reference still on her list,

          This reference trash talking her to everyone eventually leaves reference as the only job choice available.

    2. Newby*

      She especially needs to know since she is working there now and therefore when she next looks for a job they are probably going to talk to this person.

    3. Candi*

      I’m remembering all the stories from the archives I’ve seen (so far), not to mention the comment threads, where people mentioned they discovered a reference was trashing them -including bosses that didn’t want said asker/commentator to leave, while refusing to offer any form of advancement or pay or benefit increase.

  4. Mike B.*

    Confidentiality is expected in return for an honest and helpful review. By lying to further her own ends, this person forfeited that right. Tell Jane and tell HR at the other manager’s company.

    1. Mike B.*

      And while I’d usually proceed under the assumption that there’s an innocent misunderstanding at play, the betrayal involved in giving a negative review to someone who trusts you is so remarkable that it would be difficult to imagine such a circumstance. Someone who deliberately damages a former colleague’s reputation, yet can’t remember who she actually is, doesn’t deserve any better treatment than a Machiavellian schemer.

      1. MK*

        I don’t understand where you got the “betrayal involved in giving a negative review to someone who trusts you” melodrama. We don’t even know if Jane informed this other manager that she was putting her as a reference; and it’s possible that the reference was sincere and even perfectly true (if, say, Jane really was a disaster in the previous role where she worked with this reference, but has since matured and improved).

        I do agree that the “I thought you meant someone else” explanation would be highly dubious. But it’s very possible that Jane was hired over this person’s objections; since she is a superstar at her current role in a partner organization, maybe she impressed a higher-up who pushed for her to be hired.

        1. Mike B.*

          I don’t think we’re being particularly melodramatic here. I did overlook that Jane never confirmed that she’d asked the other manager for a reference–it would change matters if the recommendation had not been solicited, but only somewhat. I don’t see “she was bad enough to give an unequivocally poor reference, but good enough to hire in a different role” as a remotely plausible scenario, though. We actually rehired someone who left under strained circumstances some years ago, and any reference I would have provided for her in the intervening years would have stressed that the job she was in was not quite right for her talents or personality, not that she butted heads with people and made too many errors. Had I had any inclination to say anything that would damage her chances of getting another job, I would certainly not have entertained any thought of bringing her back onboard, and I’d probably have held my tongue too.

          No, this was actively malicious to both Jane and the OP. I don’t see any excuse.

      2. Beezus*

        It depends on the nature of the reference, though, and the difference between the two jobs the applicant applied for! For example, I once gave a bad reference to a coworker who applied for a job that involved a lot of independent decision making and problem solving, because he was really bad at those things (as in, he was still pinging me for help solving problems two years after I stopped doing the job where we worked together.) I’d recommend him in a heartbeat for a job that involved following clear, standard processes and with some kind of support for problem solving, but he’s not strong at figuring out complex problems on the fly.

  5. Emmie*

    Do you have any influence on your company’s reference checking policy? It’s quite an imposition on candidates, and their references to call them for the top three candidates.

    1. AMPG*

      My last company strongly recommended checking references simultaneously for at least the top two finalists, preferably the top three. Reference checks can often take a couple of days, and if you lose your top choice for any reason (references don’t pan out, they turn down the offer), you want to have another offer ready to go.

      1. OP*

        This, plus the fact that calling all our finalists’ references can be helpful in simply confirming your inclination is correct.

    2. Emmie*

      I’ll now ask potential employers about this at the reference check phase. I am already really uncomfortable asking for people to be references :) It might be a deal breaker for me.

      1. Piping Plover*

        I think Big10Professor means is that if the OP mentions to Jane the negative reference Jane’s New Boss had given, only to turn around and hire her, then it might jeopardize Jane’s new job – whether that be Jane suddenly turning down the offer or word getting back to that other person and there is a rescinding of the offer.

        It’s a catch-22, and unfortunately Jane could get hurt either way.

    1. Mike B.*

      I don’t see how anything here could put Jane in a bad light. But you’re probably right that she should be told about this before anyone at her new company should; if she still wants to go work for them under these circumstances, that’s her call.

      Personally, I wouldn’t be able to stomach the thought of ever seeing this awful, two-faced person again, let alone reporting to her.

  6. hbc*

    I completely agree with Alison’s order of steps here. Not just because you need to weigh the factors in order to decide what (if anything) to say to Jane, but because you’ll be dealing with Reference again. You want to know for sure if you’re dealing with a manipulative schemer the next time someone else uses her as a reference or she asks you to share some information that she’ll totally, totally, cross-her-heart keep confidential.

  7. Barney Barnaby*

    “Hi, Jane. You applied for a job with us a few months back. We always thought you were a superstar performer, and that’s why you were among the finalists for the full-time role. You weren’t our #1 pick – that particular candidate was just outstanding – but we called your references anyway. One of them had some very negative things to say about you that were at odds with the person and employee we know you to be. It wasn’t dispositive in our decision-making – again, you weren’t our first choice before that – but I wanted you to know that this is happening.”

    1. Mustache Cat*

      I think that’s a very nice thing to say at the beginning of the process, but the real issue now is that Jane has been hired by the negative reference.

    2. Chriama*

      One thing to note – this should probably be said in person or over the phone, not by email. Shady reference is shady and Jane has a right to know, but you don’t need this out therein writing.

    3. MK*

      “Jane (speaking to her in person, while she stil works with the OP), I heard you got a job working under Manager X. When you applied for a full-time job with us a few months back and listed her as a reference, Manager X said A, B and C (negative thing) about you. Her reference wasn’t a deciding factor in our decision, because we know your work from your part-time job with us, but I was very surprised to hear she hired you and I thought you should know.”

      I don’t see why her not being the top candidate is relevant at all.

  8. Tiny_Tiger*

    This all sounds incredibly shady no matter which way you look at it. To start with, Jane chose Reference because she believed he/she could give a positive review of her, which it’s clear that they didn’t. Normally you check with people before adding them as a reference to avoid someone giving a negative review of you, whether it is deserved or not. Secondly, Reference’s review of Jane implies that he/she would not be considering giving Jane a second chance if the review was genuinely bad. And yet, not only have they considered hiring her back but they are “one-upping” OP’s business by offering her benefits she doesn’t currently have. I would definitely bring it up with Reference in the way Alison suggested, because they’ll either get caught in their lie or provide a valid explanation (although I’m leaning more towards getting caught in a lie). If they are caught in a lie then definitely notify Jane that Reference may not be the best person to keep on a resume in the future.

    1. MK*

      You would think that people would make sure the references they offer are positive, but there have been plenty of letters to Alison from people who had been listed as references without being asked and from people they had bad experiences with.

      In my opinion, we don’t have the crucial information of a) how bad was the reference and b) in what way was it bad. I mean, if this manager worked with Jane in sales and gave a bad reference about Jane’s abilities as a saleswoman, it’s not that shady that she later hired her for an office manager position. Alternatively, if Jane was unmotivated and lazy in her previous role, but has since matured and can point to specific accomplishments that speak for her work ethic, maybe she convinced the manager to give her another chance.

      1. AD*

        Your second paragraph does not match up with what’s in the OP’s letter and her subsequent comments here.

  9. H.C.*

    OP – also, if you are on good terms with Jane (sounds like you are, given her candor when she gave notice) – I would also keep her apprised of new full time openings and encourage her to (re-)apply, esp since she was in the Top 3 in the last vetting process.

    1. OP*

      Oh, definitely. I’m technically not her supervisor here, but I work closely with the person who is, and we’ve all been very involved in helping her with her full-time job search.

  10. orchidsandtea*

    If you’re willing to keep Jane despite her having given her resignation, that would give her more options than just “knowingly go to work for someone who apparently sabotaged her”.

  11. RVA Cat*

    As I understand it, the OP, Jane and the negative reference all work for the same company. Wouldn’t this be something to go to either HR or the company’s ethics hotline (if you have one) about? If this manager is lying in a reference there’s ethical concerns about the whole way she conducts business. Who’s to say she doesn’t lie to get people fired too?

    1. fposte*

      I wish I were good at ascii diagrams :-). The OP works at Org One; Jane worked part-time for her there. Negative works for Org Two, where Jane may have previously or concurrently worked, and which is a partner to Org One.

  12. LawCat*

    I wonder if the reference agreed to be a positive reference or if Jane just put her down because she thinks you have to list former supervisors. I might inquire of Jane how she came up with the list of references and if she just listed people she had worked for, coach her on putting people who agree to be a positive reference. If she says Jane agreed to give a positive reference, that gives you more info.

    I would follow-up with the negative reference giver using Alison’s language.

    If after this bit of sleuthing, it looks like the reference giver was being shady, I’d let Jane know before Jane leaves so she can make a fully informed decision about whether she really wants to continue with leaving your org or moving on to this other one.

    It’s a pickle for Jane since she will actually have no idea who is actually trying to sabotage her here (even if OP is on the up-and-up and the reference giver was shady, Jane may not really be sure who to believe) :-(

      1. nofelix*

        Yeah it might feel like OP is more motivated by trying to retain Jane than ethics, especially since this kind of above-and-beyond looking out for people is kinda rare.

    1. ThisIsNotWhoYouThinkItIs*

      Jane could try the “have someone professional-sounding check your references” bit. So maybe once the OP has said something she could recommend this strategy to Jane for the future.

      Sucky situation all around.

      1. Zillah*

        The danger with that, though, is potentially making the employer think that she’s still job-searching after accepting the job they offered her.

        1. Candi*

          Depends on the timeline, since most people are applying to multiple jobs. During the first couple weeks/month, it wouldn’t be that surprising to still have class from people reviewing applications.

  13. vanBOOM*

    Wow. This is a such a strange situation, and I think Alison’s script for first addressing the reference is a masterful strategy. I can’t wait to read the update.

  14. Aurion*

    Not to detract from the very good advice here, but I broke out giggling when I read Alison’s line ” she has been hit on the head by a coconut and is now suffering a terrible case of amnesia”.

    You really have a way with words, Alison–I admire your ability to add levity without detracting from the sound advice you give.

  15. Laura*

    Love your wording, Allison. If it comes back fishy, I would be tempted to go to your HR as well. If you’ve gone to the Manager before for references, I would think you may in the future. Who knows what she’s saying about Huey, Duey, and Louey as well? Your organization might want to discount her going forward.

    1. OP*

      Interestingly enough, there are rumors that this reference has also done this internally to her own organization – i.e. to keep people from getting hired out of her department. We work in a small sector, so there’s inevitably going to always be people from our organization applying to work for her, and vice versa.

      1. Chriama*

        Wow, that’s a very important data point and I’m surprised you didn’t mention it in your OP. Did you hear about the rumors before or after you called her about Jane?

      2. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Whoa, wait that is huge. If that’s the case, I would actually go over her head to her boss (since this is a partner organization and you presumably have a relationship with the org) and say “hey, this happened, I’ve heard similar things in the past, and I think you should know about it.”

        1. OP*

          Fair enough – and to be clear, I heard these rumors just this morning, so it wasn’t intentionally left out!

        2. Clinical Social Worker*

          This is why you read the comment section folks. Thank you for being so responsive OP!

        3. Minocho*


          I can only say that if I were Jane, I would really appreciate finding this out before I spent much time working for the new boss – because then I could look for something else and move out before a significant portion of my work history is tied to this potentially disastrous reference!

      3. Annonymouse*

        This reference has a messed up thinking/understanding of what it takes to keep people working with her.

        I.e best way to keep people working for you:
        Have good work for them (challenging, autonomous, important)
        And be worth working for (good pay/benefits, transparent, able to be talked to about concerns even if aren’t able to change)

        References way: destroy all chances of leaving
        Smile at your new indentured servants.

        1. Sas*

          Good gosh! She still has a job? Uhh, but this always happens. Probably one of those people who thinks that stealing (pens) from a place of employment is somehow so much worse than this

  16. Wendy Darling*

    I got similarly screwed by a reference at one point — when I was trying to leave academia my advisor didn’t really want me to go (though she was mostly the reason I was going). She told me she would be delighted to serve as a reference for me, and then every time someone called her she made me out to be a massive flight risk by telling them all about how I was going to return to finish my PhD very soon. As a bonus, whoever had interviewed me had inevitably asked me about this and I had already told them I was leaving the program and had no intention of finishing a PhD soon or ever, so I looked like a big old liar.

    This was at the very least a contributing factor in me not getting 2-3 jobs before someone took pity on me and told me what she was saying. I didn’t get that job either but at least I KNEW.

  17. Jaguar*

    Christ. I would go nuclear in your shoes, OP. I’d still talk to the supervisor and grill her about why she hired the candidate after trashing her on the phone, and then I’d immediately talk to the candidate and tell her what happened. Manipulating people is awful in any situation – manipulating their employability is one of the worst and most loathsome types of manipulation. Better to take Alison’s cautious approach, of course.

    I will disagree with Alison about choosing whether you share this with the candidate on account of it possibly ruining their relationship, though. That’s you making the candidate’s decisions for them. Either the supervisor hasn’t told the candidate she will provide a good reference, in which case your information wouldn’t or shouldn’t be a surprise to the candidate, or the supervisor has said she would provide a good reference and is sabotaging her, in which case it’s pretty clear you have a moral imperative to tell her. Additionally, you make it sound like the reference you received does not match the worker you know, so on a human basis (as opposed to a professional one), I would say you still have a small moral imperative to let the candidate know what sort of reference they’re getting from the supervisor anyway.

    1. Annonymouse*

      What you’re overlooking is that this reference is soon going to be superstars boss.

      And they’re a partner organisation to OPs.

      Must tread carefully.

  18. Milton Waddams*

    The problem is an over-reliance on references, when there are measurable benefits and few consequences for giving bad faith references to your competitors. The over-reliance on references is due to HR taking a CYA approach to hiring, which in turn is caused by a lack of training for HR staff — not knowing how to hire correctly, a self-preservation panic kicks in, and all time is devoted to hiring in such a way that blame can be diverted, rather than towards picking candidates that are actually useful.

    The lack of training is due to the withering of HR as a field — with no basic research branch and SHRM/HRCI operating what is essentially a diploma mill, a lot of HR folks are being thrust into an environment where they have not been given the tools to succeed, so instead they simply focus on their own survival.

    If it is an organization that tends to promote based on “last woman standing”, this can be an almost impossible knot of a problem.

  19. Agness*

    I think the advice to check with the reference first is spot-on, but unless the letter writer comes away with a genuinely satisfactory answer, I feel she should let “Jane” know.

    This was school, not work, but someone did that for me once. The vice principal at my conservative Catholic high school torpedoed 100% of my college applications by putting apparently awful things in the Secondary School Report. I had no idea, of course; an admissions officer at Yale took pity on the heartbroken (atheist) 18-year-old who called them up. I had thanked the officer for considering my application as far as the waitlist, then asked, “What should I do differently?” I still remember how her voice changed after she looked through my file. In a carefully neutral tone of voice, she said, “If I were you, I wouldn’t ask your high school for another SSR when you do your transfer applications next year.”

    It’s been over 20 years, but I still think about that officer, whose name I never learned. What I feel for her is pure gratitude. It may not have been strictly within guidelines, but without that tip-off, would I have ended up being accepted at another Ivy League college as a transfer? I have my doubts.

    When it comes to suspected shenanigans, verify, but always err on the side of helping the underdog.

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