how do I give a reference for a terrible former manager?

A reader writes:

My supervisor was recently moved out of my department and I believed she would be looking for new jobs. Lo and behold, I get an email from an out-of-state colleague saying she has applied for the director position there, and would I be able to unofficially tell him anything about her? He made it clear it would be a respectful off-the-record chat, not a full recommendation.

My problem is this: I think she has a lot of great qualities that would make her a wonderful director for their program: vision, dedication, guts, ability to work well with high level people, etc. But she was also verbally abusive to us, the peons in the department who did the actual work. I don’t think she has great people skills at all, but she can write grants like a whiz and is otherwise very competent at big-picture stuff.

So what do I say? How honest should I be? I truly admire her skills and think she would make a great director for their program and would potentially lead them to develop interesting work that would benefit their state. I don’t, however, think she should be in charge of people, and if the director’s position was very hands-on with project management, personnel assignments, or interpersonal issues, I think she would be just as volatile and problematic there as she was here.

I want to be careful because I will need her recommendation — currently a raving positive one — for my future career, and I certainly don’t want to scuttle hers either. I would hate to leave out the negative information because it’s really important. Do I have to decline to answer my colleague altogether, in some kind of “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all” kind of way?

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

{ 29 comments… read them below }

  1. Stellaaaaa*

    I don’t view it as petty REVENGE to hold adults accountable for their past bad behavior. If Jane truly was verbally abusive and caused you stress or made you dread going to work every day, I don’t see any need to protect her or to help her career. By helping her, you’d be rewarding her treatment of you and perpetuating a system where abusive managers are one version of the norm. I’m not one for relativity in situations like this. I don’t care if Jane’s good at the work-parts of her job. If she treated me badly, I wouldn’t say nice things about her or give a second thought to her career track.

    If you really only care about protecting Jane’s reference for you (which is fine!) I’d take Alison’s advice but limit it: say that you’ll only speak on condition of anonymity, and then state that you can’t give her a positive recommendation.

    1. fposte*

      I don’t think it’s that simple a binary, though; as the followup makes clear, the job in question is one Jane would likely be really good at, and the OP had had a decent relationship with her despite Jane’s treatment of her staff. It’s not obligatory, but it’s fair and legitimate to say that Jane would excel in this job if you think she will and to note your reservations just because you think it’s true; it doesn’t have to be about preserving a recommendation, and accountability doesn’t have to mean she loses any future job if they ask past employees.

      1. Stellaaaaa*

        I guess I’m just not interested in shielding people from the logical consequences of their actions, nor do I want to make people feel pressured to be nice to people who haven’t been nice to them. What incentive does Jane have to change her behavior otherwise?

        1. Koko*

          It’s not necessarily shielding her from consequences. It’s just giving an honest assessment that includes both the good and the bad. That’s not what I would consider shielding.

          OP mentions in her follow-up that she had a good working relationship with Jane. This isn’t someone who made her dread coming to work or gave her an ulcer. There’s a spectrum of bad boss behavior and sometimes you recognize that your boss sucks at something, but it doesn’t make a big enough impact on you to really build animosity.

          I had a boss like Jane once. She wasn’t a tyrant or mean, but I could see some of my coworkers describing her as “verbally abusive” because she had a tendency to lose her patience when she was stressed out and not be as gentle or emotionally neutral as one would prefer a boss to be when giving feedback and corrections. Used language that would be more appropriate for expressing exasperation with a friend or child than for business purposes, or corrected people publicly in a way that shamed them (which I am not even sure was part of her thought process, I think she just corrected in the moment without thinking).

          She was also completely brilliant and her work output was staggering, not only what she did for us but many para-professional roles she held in our field and industry, serving on multiple advisory boards and BODs. She just wasn’t good with people.

          Despite her prickliness, I did have a good working relationship with her because I generally did my job correctly. Now my coworker who she laid off because he kept not doing his job correctly…she had to correct him a lot and he got the brunt of her impatient/exasperated criticism and so he did not have a great relationship with her. I could say, “She won’t be kind to people who consistently forget to do their work,” but I’m not going to say “She’s a jerk,” because to me that feels not only unfair to Jane (who I don’t see as a jerk, just brusque and emotionally unintelligent), but also unfair to the reference checker. In a department of high performers my Jane’s brusqueness would hardly be noticed. It only really came out when she was really frustrated with a low performer. And that’s certainly something a future manager could coach her on.

      2. neverjaunty*

        ‘despite’ Jane’s verbal abuse to her staff is like “Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?”

        There’s nothing wrong with a reference that both acknowledges someone’s actual skills (like grant-writing) while being plain about their drawbacks (like their being a divisive asshole).

        1. fposte*

          But the person who actually worked with Jane doesn’t feel the same way. Shouldn’t her opinion hold the most weight?

    2. Harryv*

      Plus. If the OP gave a raving review and the out of state colleague makes the hire, then OP will take the rap for giving a false recommendation.

    3. Milton Waddams*

      The major gap in thinking when it comes to folks who give bad references is that they assume that the Janes of the world will vanish into the mists if they can’t find work, when really it’s more like that old joke about the magician who throws a smoke bomb to disappear, but when the smoke clears, they’re still there — I mean, where exactly would they go?

      If I were in this situation, I’d reach out to Jane and tell her that I can provide an outstanding reference, but only for non-supervisory roles, and ideally a set of measurable actions she could take that would make me change my mind. She could try to move ahead without my reference, but with the number of references required growing all the time, this is becoming harder and harder to do — that provides incentive for change, if change is possible, without expecting any sort of job miracle to happen where you give her a bad reference, she never works in the field again, or any field that involves people, yet you don’t see her on the corner every day on your way to work, panhandling for cigarettes.

  2. Chriama*

    I think OP could definitely say to the reference checker most of what she said in the letter to Alison. Maybe she just needs some formal management training and someone to keep an eye on her. Maybe the job doesn’t necessarily need her to manage people and they like her so much they’re willing to hire her and move that responsibility to someone else. Or maybe, like Alison says, if she took this job she’d yell at the wrong person and get fired. Especially in the case where the employee has strengths so it’s not an all-around negative review, I think there’s value in providing that nuanced reference to potential employers. Rather than worrying about it costing her a job, realize that you’re actually probably helping her find a job that fits her well.

  3. MillersSpring*

    This is a letter to AAM from several years ago, so I’ll give this advice to anyone who’s now in a similar situation:
    If you can speak confidentially, per Alison’s advice, recommend to your colleague that Jane should be in an “individual contributor” position only, not where she’s managing people. I’ve worked for a Jane and the overwhelming consensus was that she was intelligent, creative and hard-working with outstanding experience and skills; she just couldn’t interact with peers or direct reports without being sour, defensive, condescending or abusive. You have an opportunity–some might say an obligation–to keep Jane from abusing staff in her next role.

    Also, for your own benefit, start looking at coworkers or peers of Jane’s who know your work and could be a reference for you instead of her. She doesn’t sound trustworthy or someone you’d want to count on as a reference in the coming years.

    1. Chaordic One*

      Your advice is excellent and it is pretty much what Alison recommended and what the OP ended up doing. The only other thing I would add is that I’ve worked with a Jane, who was normally OK to work with but who, when under a lot of stress, would take it out on her underlings.

      This doesn’t excuse her behavior, although it sort of explains what brings it on. I don’t know if Jane wasn’t being supported by her supervisors or if she lacked the skills to ask for more support from them. It doesn’t really make a lot of difference. Alison’s advice and the actions taken by the OP should stand.

    2. Bwmn*

      To me this letter also screams of a case of “know your industry”.

      In the nonprofit world, someone who is excellent at grant writing/bringing in money will often have opportunities for promotions that have nothing at all to do with having any experience, know-how, or affinity to management. But if you’re the best fundraiser on the block, that can still get you pretty far. As a result, a lot of organizations are designed to buffer this – and also a lot aren’t. Therefore, if I heard someone talking about a director candidate as being an excellent grant writer, strategist, etc. but then (again, on the phone) perhaps not as strong as managing personnel – that would speak volumes to me. In nonprofits – and particularly in positions that have fundraising/income targets – this can paint a strong picture without totally bad mouthing someone. And if the other person on the line really wants more details, there can be opportunities to talk about this in more detail – but if this person is just doing a due diligence or the call doesn’t feel like it’s going well – it can be an easy way out.

  4. animaniactoo*

    I once referred to this as someone’s people skills trickling down about as effectively as the economic policy has worked out. It was the only way I could think of to be clear on “Sucks to people on the bottom end” without saying that outright.

    1. Lemon Zinger*

      Thanks for sharing! I knew I remembered an update! Sounds like the OP handled it really well, but I’d love to know what happened to the manager.

  5. Lora*

    You can say that she has vision, dedication and guts and works well with high level people and then say, “her strengths are really as an individual contributor rather than a manager.” And sometimes they will press you to say more about whether she could improve with training.

    I’ve been called plenty of times informally because employers will say, “hey, didn’t you work with Jane at MegaCorp? What was she like?” I always ask, for what role were you thinking? Sometimes they are trying to fill a role where that person’s liabilities won’t be an issue. One guy I gave a reference for was great in some respects but really needed to work on following through rather than starting things and sort of assuming it was handled – he needed to learn to do check-ins and keep communication channels open. The position they were hiring for was for purchasing things in a one-shot-deal way, and he was great at dealing with persnickety vendors and negotiating prices and getting permits and things like that. So he was a good fit.

    I mean, I think I’m awesome, but in real life I am very bad at following orders if I think something can be improved. Employers SAY they want continuous improvement, but in real life lots of people don’t want someone tinkering with their system all the time and questioning their decisions as a boss. It’s annoying in roles where organizations don’t actually want any changes or improvements. I’m great in R&D though, give me a problem to solve and I’m all over it. Sometimes people are just not a good fit for certain roles, and Jane wasn’t a good fit for a people manager.

  6. neverjaunty*

    Here’s something that puzzles me about that letter: Jane supposedly is a whiz at certain things, but the people she verbally abuses are ‘the ones who do the actual work’. So Jane’s skills seem to be glad-handing managers and squeezing work out of skilled people, but not actually doing the work herself.

    1. RVA Cat*

      “I’d like to move us right along to a Jane Doe. Now we had a chance to meet this young woman, and boy that’s just a straight shooter with upper management written all over her.”

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      It could be that she’s great at working with clients, or that she’s a masterful fundraiser (which requires a lot of relationship-building), or a whiz at coming up with communications strategy … that’s all stuff where you often have one high-level person doing that stuff while a staff executes the details.

      It’s not really accurate to say that’s not “actual work” — it’s very much work. But sometimes staff executing the work talk about it that way.

      1. neverjaunty*

        It could be that she does have those high-level skills (which are work), but the OP’s letter is kind of vague on those specifics; it’s not clear to me whether Jane really is great at fundraising and meeting with donors, say, or whether Jane just mouths a lot of “big picture” stuff and then leaves it to the staff to frantically make it happen.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          The OP seems to be saying she does have valuable skills: “I think she has a lot of great qualities that would make her a wonderful director for their program: vision, dedication, guts, ability to work well with high level people, etc. … I don’t think she has great people skills at all, but she can write grants like a whiz and is otherwise very competent at big-picture stuff. … I truly admire her skills and think she would make a great director for their program and would potentially lead them to develop interesting work that would benefit their state.”

          1. fposte*

            Yeah, I encounter a lot of situations where somebody like that is an asset. They can lead but not manage.

  7. Tuckerman*

    It seems strange he’s asking you to be a reference (albeit an informal one) for a former supervisor. Shouldn’t references come from higher up? Is it possible the out of state colleague doesn’t know that “Jane” directly supervised you?
    I’d probably call and say something along the lines of, “Because Jane was recently my supervisor, she’s the best person to be a reference for me. Because I’m relying on her to help me secure future employment, I don’t think I can give you a truly unbiased reference. “

    1. Anna*

      Not if exactly what you’re looking for is what kind of manager she was. You won’t get that information from Jane’s boss; that can really only come from someone who worked for her. I’m willing to bet Jane’s boss was giving her all sorts of accolades for the higher level stuff she did at her job, but what the OP’s colleague was looking for was something more on the ground.

      At one point at a past job I tried to get out of giving feedback on my supervisor to our manager because I knew I would have to give some honest criticism. I tried to tell our manager that because Bobert was my supervisor, I didn’t think I could give an accurate portrayal of his work. My manager came right back at me saying that because he was my supervisor, my input on how he interacted with me and our coworkers was important.

  8. Jesmlet*

    Somewhat off topic but I’ve never actually heard the word ‘peon’ before and am now thinking of ways I can use it in casual conversation.

  9. Not So NewReader*

    People can be amazing.
    I recommended someone once in a limited way, along the idea of what OP is talking about here.
    I said “Nancy does x, y and z very well. For her A and B are about average. She does not do D or E well at all.”
    Nancy’s app was accepted. It could be that they re-arranged the position. It could be that I misunderstood what the position would entail. It could be that Nancy beefed up her skills. Sometimes you put people in a new environment and they change their ways. Like OP, I thought I had cost this person the position and in the end, I did not. It’s important NOT to decide for the employer what the employer wants. I think that talking about a range of abilities helped the interviewer to make a fair assessment and allowed the interviewer to consider different angles.

    If this boss did nothing right, then my answer would have been different. Most people have something about them that others respect/admire. And -big picture- I can get to thinking, “Hey, this person has to eat and keep a roof over their heads, just like me. I would not want someone to just dwell on all my negative aspects.” Again, there are a few people that I cannot muster a supportive recommendation and therefore I would decline, knowing that a decline can sometimes send a message.

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