should I warn a candidate that one of her references was bad, boobs in cover letters, and more

It’s four answers to four questions. Here we go…

1. Should I warn a candidate that one of her references was bad?

This is my first time chairing a hiring committee. We narrowed the field to three, and interviewed the first. After that, the first candidate withdrew, the second candidate withdrew, we interviewed the third and asked for references. Two references were fine, but the candidate’s most recent supervisor had many negative comments about the candidate’s ability to follow directions or work independently.

That candidate was very young and relatively new to job hunting. Do I have any responsibility to that candidate to recommend not using that particular reference in the future? The veteran teacher/advisor in me is dying to use this teachable moment, but the inexperienced manager in me is unsure whether I’m allowed to reveal something a reference said to me, presumably in confidence. This candidate just reached out to me, looking for an update on our job search.

You can’t do that. You’re asking references to talk to you in confidence; it’s implicit in your request, since you presumably want honest feedback. They talked to you in good faith because they figured it would be helpful to you. You’ll be betraying that confidence if you pass along details of what the person said. And if people have to worry that their comments won’t be handled with discretion, you’re much less likely to get useful references in the future.

At most, you could say something like “I had some concerns about some input that came up when I talked with your references” without identifying the specific reference. Even that is skirting the line a bit, and if you do it I’d do it only if you want to have an actual conversation with her about the specifics that concerned you — not to warn her not to use the reference, since that’s not your place.

For the record, if the manager felt she couldn’t give the candidate a good reference, she should have warned the candidate about that — but not everyone even asks references for permission before listing them. And sometimes the problems with someone’s performance have been so thoroughly discussed between reference and candidate that reasonable people would assume the reference would reflect that.

2. I sent a desperate-sounding email when a job I wanted closed

I got to the final round at my dream job only to be notified two days before the interview that the position was no longer available. I was a fool and asked the recruiter and hiring manager for more information and if we could carry on with the interview since it was already scheduled. I think I may have come off as desperate. (I wrote this: “Thank you for relaying this news to me. I am very sad to hear that this position will be relocated. Is there any further clarification on this decision that you may be able to provide? I have also reached out to the hiring manager to see if he too would be able to provide any further information about this decision. I have expressed to him that my drive and ambition to be a part of the software development team will ensure that I excel in this role. I strongly believe I would be able to provide great value to the team and your company with my background and skills. Is there any possibility for us to continue with my interview, scheduled for this Thursday, to determine if there is an opportunity for me to fill this position?”)

Now a similar position is open that fits my background but I have not heard back after seven days. The previous job posting moved very quickly, as I was contacted the day after I applied. It is the same recruiter and I fear I am not getting an interview because of what I did the previous time. Should I be worried about being viewed negatively after possibly looking desperate? If so, is there anything I can do to get on a positive note and hopefully an interview for this position? Or should I do nothing and try not to make it any worse?

Hmmm, yeah, that email wasn’t good. Positions get closed all the time — because someone has been hired, or priorities change, or roles get reconfigured, or there’s a budget freeze, or all kind of other reasons. You didn’t really need the details about why; they told you what you needed to know, which was that they were no longer hiring for it, so asking two different people to give you more information about why was a little overbearing. And asking to still interview sounded like you were missing the point — there was no reason for them to spend time interviewing you when they weren’t hiring for the job anymore, and it came across as if you thought that you could change their minds … which comes across as naive at best and pushy/presumptuous at worst. You said you wanted to determine if there was an opportunity for you to fill that position, but they had already determined that — and as they told you, the answer was no.

So I would definitely not do anything else now. It’s possible that they’re not going to consider you this time because that email was so off, but who knows, maybe they will. But your chances go way down if you remind them of it.

3. Should my cover letter reference my boobs?

I am about to apply for a job at a lingerie store which caters exclusively for bigger busted women. I have long been a customer at this store, as I love its clothes and its philosophy. Normally I would mention this in a cover letter but … to do so is basically announcing I have big boobs. The instructions are to email your CV to “”, or post it to someone with a female name. However, the job is in IT, so very likely to be male-dominated, and it’s possible my application could be shared more widely. Is this a really bad idea, or should I just go ahead and do it?

Go ahead and mention that you’re a long time customer and fan of theirs. It’s not going to sound salacious; this is their work, and it’s probably been thoroughly de-eroticized for them. I mean, obviously you shouldn’t write “as a large-busted woman…” but “as a long-time fan of your store” is just fine. You could also include a line or two about why you love their philosophy.

4. Should I thank my manager for interviewing my husband?

I’ve recently received a promotion at work, which I’m very excited about. I’m going from a general “information office” to a reference library within the same government agency; my direct supervisor will change but my supervisor’s supervisor will stay the same. My current job is nearly entry-level: the work itself is extremely easy, and most of the work is either data entry, ready reference, or figuring out which person within the larger office will be able to answer our customers’ questions and connecting them. The supervisors prefer that new hires have some knowledge of the agency (we hire a lot of former interns), but it’s not absolutely necessary. Turnover is fairly high, because our section is treated as a feeder pool — it is somewhat expected that we are hoping to move up in the organization, and many of the specialists and higher-ups started in my job.

My husband works in a completely different industry, but has been trying to transition into government service for awhile (he wants to be the next Leslie Knope). When the announcement to fill my job was posted, he sent in an application, and has an interview coming up next week. I suspect that a large part of the reason he was called is because my supervisor knows who he is, since we have a very unusual last name (also, she’s met him in passing). He would be able to do the work very well, but he has no background in the government. My question is: should I thank my supervisor for considering him, or should I just not acknowledge it? I’m planning to make sure that I’m on my lunch break when he comes to his interview so we won’t see each other, but is there anything else I should do to make sure that everything is on the up-and-up?

Don’t thank your manager for considering him, since that sounds like she’s doing you a favor, which she hopefully isn’t; she should be considering him on his own merits, not as your spouse, as it could be a little insulting to her to imply otherwise, even inadvertently.

But if things proceed, do make sure at some point that she knows you’re married. If she doesn’t already know, it’s important that you alert her — because she may actually prefer not to hire the spouse of a current employee (for all the reasons here). She also may be totally fine with that — but if she’s not, it’s much easier to find that out now than after your husband starts. Ideally he should be the one to mention it. If things progress, he should say something like, “I want to make sure you know that I’m married to Jane Warbleworth, who works in the X department. I wasn’t sure if you knew that and I wanted to mention it in case it poses any kind of issue.”

{ 356 comments… read them below }

  1. Jerry Vandesic*

    With regard to #1, I wonder if “the candidate’s most recent supervisor” is the candidate’s current supervisor? I am always skeptical talking with current managers as they might be biased toward keeping the candidate in their current job by providing a bad reference. This has happened several times with strong internal candidates looking for a new opportunity, but their current manager didn’t want to lose them.

    1. JamieS*

      I’d say it’s possible the reference lied but considering OP said the candidate was very young and relatively new to job hunting I think it’s more likely that reference is the candidate’s first supervisor in a “professional” job where you’re expected to work independently while the others are a school reference (such as a former professor), a reference stemming from an internship (where there’s often much more hand holding), and/or a reference from a job where working independently isn’t common.

      1. Snark*

        I still think it’s a jerk move to agree to be a reference, then drag the person. If the referent didn’t ask them, that’s kind of on them, but you agree to provide a reference, only do it if you can honestly provide a good one.

        1. JamieS*

          Why? A reference’s only obligation is to give a fair and honest assessment. Their obligation isn’t to sing the candidate praises when the praises are not warranted or refuse to give references if they can’t give a glowing one.

          There seems to be this mindset among some posters that only people who will give good references should act as a reference. However if we all did that then what would be the point of references? One of the main reasons companies check references is to find out if there’s something about the candidate that would give them pause to hire the candidate. Employers don’t check references because they want to spend the hour commiserating with the reference about how great the candidate is.

          Also I wouldn’t call a former manager saying an employee has trouble working independently and following directions to be “dragging” the person. Not to mention the most current former manager refusing to be a reference could plausibly raise more concerns than being told the candidate has some trouble working independently especially if the worker is young or has a limited work history.

          1. Delphine*

            Whether a reference is obligated to speak positively or not is irrelevant. The candidate’s goal here is to get a job, and if your reference would make that more difficult, then at the very least you should have the courtesy to tell the candidate what you plan on saying. They can then make an informed decision about including you on their resume. But not telling the candidate the gist of what you’d say, and allowing them to list you thinking you’re going to be a good reference, is incredibly unfair.

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              This makes it sound like references are pass/fail but they’re not. Good references are nuanced and provide more insight about your strengths and weaknesses, how you work best, what kind of management you do best with, etc. You could agree to give someone a reference and think that it will overall help them, while still sharing info about their weaker points. And hell, you might not even realize until you hear the reference-checker’s questions that you can’t answer entirely positively; it depends on what’s asked.

              1. fedelini*

                Exactly this. I agreed to be a reference for a former employee but when I was contacted, learned:

                1. The employee told the new company that I was her current manager, but I had moved on 8 months prior.

                2. The employee embellished her experience.

                3. The company was considering the employee for a position at least two levels above what I genuinely thought she could handle.

                I gave a measured reference full of pregnant pauses. It was tough. My obligation wasn’t only to that employee but also to the company to not saddle them with someone who wouldn’t be able to succeed on the job.

            2. JamieS*

              Snark contended a reference is obligated to only provide a good reference so whether they’re obligated is extremely relevant to my reply. I and everyone else knows what the candidate’s goal is. The candidate’s goal is irrelevant to what obligations a reference has to the person they’re acting as a reference for.

              1. Hiring Mgr*

                I think there is some sort of obligation that if someone askes you to be a reference and you agree, you generally feel the candidate has done a good to great job with you and that you can recommend them…It doesn’t mean lie and it doesn’t mean there might not be nuance, but overall I would never agree to be a reference for someone I had serious doubts/issues with.

                1. Ask a Manager* Post author

                  I think everyone here agrees with that! If you can’t give someone an overall positive reference, you should let them know that when/if they ask you to be a reference. But lots of references are called without the candidate ever talking to the person about it first (because lots of candidates don’t seek their references’ okay first, and some references are called off-list).

                2. JamieS*

                  I can’t control your opinion even if I don’t agree. However to be clear I, along with most people, would probably tell a candidate if my reference would be flat out bad. Although I’d assume most people would know if a reference is just plain bad since having some criticism isn’t the same as giving a bad reference. My issue is people saying a reference is obligated to only provide a good reference and/or tell the referencee if they can’t. I maintain a reference’s only obligation is to provide a fair and honest assessment. Everything else is up to the reference.

                3. Hiring Mgr*

                  Yes, all of this discussion (on my end anyway) is under the assumption that we were talking about the list of references given by the candidate, not backdoor, off list etc.. Two very different creatures! Interesting thoughts though on the reference checking process overall. I’ve had pretty good luck over the years hiring with the references as a minimal component, but always room to do better

          2. Stranger than fiction*

            Well, there’s the references you select and give out and then there’s simply your former managers which aren’t always the same, but you usually have to put on the application . A lot of potential employers call your former managers as well as whoever you gave for references, and that may be what happened here too.

    2. Mookie*

      My initial thought as well, and I’m not entirely sure whether LW1 is considering moving this applicant forward or not (I suspect not), in spite of the reference, and whether or not she regards the applicant as an otherwise strong candidate (she was placed third behind two others, obviously). Beyond how the supervisor characterized the applicant (unable to follow directions or work independently), did they substantiate that in any way or provide specific examples? Did this supervisor and their concerns sound credible? Did anything come up in earlier interviews with the candidate (self-evaluated weaknesses, situations where she’d performed badly and had to self-correct or work with strong negative feedback, et al) that might support the reference’s criticisms?

      If the LW is passing on the applicant based solely on this reference, I’d personally be inclined to tell her the truth (information from a reference check has given us enough pause to move on) while acknowledging that it would unethical to elaborate further. This puts this applicant in a pickle no matter what, though, because most recent references carry a lot of weight unless she was working under this person for a brief enough period that she can survive leaving the position and place of employment off her resumés and applications entirely.

      I’ve been on the receiving end of weird, factually incorrect feedback and I’ve been lucky enough to have had hiring managers give me a broad hint about it. That led me to check in with my references and gauge whether or not they felt it’d be helpful for both of us to continue on. What Alison says is true, of course; references are speaking to managers in strict confidence and it’s unprofessional and unethical to actively flout expectations of privacy. But it’s also true that references who genuinely have little good to say about a former employee or direct report rarely act as bad references out of malice; most would much rather not be doing it at all, unless the applicant had behaved so egregiously that they feel a strong sense of duty to warn others. So, in most cases, it’s in everyone’s best interests* that these references aren’t listed, where possible, at all.

      *arguably not for future employers inheriting poor staff, obviously

      1. Hmmmmm*

        My opinion on keeping references completely confidential changed when I overheard my boss giving a bad reference for someone and I realized he was completely mixing up two people with similar names. I started paying closer attention when he was giving references once I had institutional memory, he would misremember project details in general and be extremely critical of women, POC in vague, hard to pin down ways. I still believe that references should be checked, but I think they should be the lowest weight in the hiring decision. I’m a huge fan of three question reference checks: Employment verification, verifying what was written on the resume, asking if the employee was involved in unethical activity. Everything else should be picked up by a background check.

        1. JustAmblingOn*

          How can a background check tell me if someone worked well with their colleagues, or how they approached feedback and criticism, or how creative they are at solving unexpected problems?

          I totally get that reference checks can provide bad information, and that this can be biased along the same lines that many things in our society are biased, but I don’t think it’s workable to get rid of them entirely because there’s simply no other way to find out critical information on potential hires.

        2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          I’m now realizing that this happened to me (I’m a WOC), and I’m forever grateful to the person who told me to change my reference. My referee had said he could write me a strong letter, but in practice, he wrote something so short and unhelpful that it was damning with faint praise. I, of course, had no idea because it’s a confidential recommendation.

          A mentor called to let me know what the reference letter said and strongly encouraged me to switch referees because I may have been sabotaged without realizing it. To date, I believe my original referee honestly and truly thought he had written me a supportive letter. He’s one of the most wonderful people I know, and he believes he’s firmly committed to diversity. But when compared to the references he provided to men— particularly white men—there was no comparison.

    3. Detective Amy Santiago*

      This was the exact same thought I had reading the letter. If the other two references were solid and this is a current manager, the LW might still consider taking a chance if there weren’t any other red flags.

      1. Future Analyst*

        Yeah. Sometimes people just don’t gel, and that doesn’t mean that the applicant can’t do well elsewhere. If the overlap between what the supervisor said the applicant doesn’t do well and what the current hiring manager needs is <50%, I think the applicant would be a fine hire. (And vice versa: if you need someone with a lot of attention to detail, and the complaints are mostly about not paying attention to detail, then obviously don't hire them.)

    4. OP*

      Letter writer here.

      The candidate was no longer at the job where the supervisor gave a bad reference. Candidate’s reason for leaving that job was not exactly the reference’s reason.

        1. Murphy*

          That’s not necessarily fair. When you leave a job, you’re not obligated to tell your employer exactly why you’re leaving. (Obviously there are some reasons that the reference could mention that would be bad, but if it’s just that the reasons didn’t match, I don’t think that’s fair to count it against the candidate.)

          1. Gay Drunk Patriots Fan*

            Good point. I think I just in my mind jumped to a worst case scenario assumption (e.g. candidate said she resigned from job because her kittens had cancer, reference said she was fired for smoking meth in front clients, that kind of thing).

            1. Gay Drunk Patriots Fan*

              Ugh, I’m a longtime lurker but new commenter, just realizing that there’s no comment edit function. Please pardon my grammar and syntax typos. :)

          2. Kat*

            That’s true. The last job I left, I said it was because I wanted to move back to my home country. In reality, I was suffering from depression (that my job 99% caused) and didn’t want to disclose my medical condition. Unless the person in question here was fired or forced to resign, the reason for leaving shouldn’t be that important IMO.

        2. Judy (since 2010)*

          Because we’ve never heard of a candidate who told their manager they were leaving to shorten their commute, but they were really leaving because their manager was letting everyone else go on beer runs, mock them on snapchat and not help when asked. And by the way, that employee wasn’t a good cultural fit, and the manager really didn’t understand why the directors wanted a show off who could make really good presentations.

          1. Been there*

            I took the LW comment to mean the reason for leaving was one of the big 3; Fired vs. Laid off vs. Resigned/Quit instead of the reason for any one of those 3.

            In other words;
            Applicant: I resigned for better opportunities
            Reference: Fergus was fired for cause

            I could have misinterpreted the LW, though

        3. Captain Obvious*

          >>”Candidate’s reason for leaving that job was not exactly the reference’s reason.”
          >”THAT would be the ballgame, right there. Bye bye, candidate.”

          Why? We don’t know specifics, of course, but people do not always share their reasons for leaving a job with their employer.

      1. Sas*

        Ooo. Well, confidentiality is important, so is management being trained well to respond to discrepancies in human behavior. maybe in this situation it was another reason. At least Op you seem to be very good at what you do.

      2. Mephyle*

        “Candidate’s reason for leaving that job was not exactly the reference’s reason.”
        As others have described above, you don’t know whether that says something bad about the candidate or about the reference. Some more digging into specific examples when talking to the reference might (or might not) have helped to decide which case it was.

      3. Stranger than fiction*

        Well, what if they just didn’t get along? You can’t exactly say that when applying.

        1. Been There, Done That*

          Yes–it can be hard to sound positive about former boss/job if the relationship was fraught. We’ve seen enough posts about toxic workplaces and less-than-stellar managers. Isn’t it also important to get a sense of the reference as well as the candidate, what kind of manager they are, whether they don’t like the candidate, or, in the extreme, is out to derail their future?

      4. Annonymouse*

        It sounds like the ex boss in question gave a fair reference – they answered your questions honestly.

        But the thing with references (as we’ve seen here time and time again) is you never know their agenda.

        We’ve seen the following:

        1) crappy employee given outstanding references to get them out of their current workplace with minimal fuss.

        2) great employee given terrible references do they can’t leave the current job

        3) great employees given bad references because of a personal vendetta by the boss/person the reference checker reached

        4) honest reference from their work that isn’t glowing but isn’t terrible either

        Which is why I agree with Alison when she says “don’t contact the current manager”. In most cases it won’t end well for the job seeker. Even if the boss would have given a great reference to find out the employee is leaving is hard.

        Generally the only way you get a good reference from a current boss is:
        if they know the person is job searching (moving away, lay offs imminent or just a really great boss like Alison where they won’t be pushed out)

        The company isn’t toxic

        The boss in question is reasonable

        That’s a pretty tall order to get two out of three let alone all three.

    5. Cercis*

      Or, given the specific things mentioned “ability to follow directions or work independently” if maybe the supervisor was a micromanager. I went from a very hands off manager to a micromanager at a job. I’d been working independently and creating some amazing things (as verified by outside clients).

      New manager came in and decided that some of my programs needed some changes. So, I tried to see her vision and make the changes, but she was very vague. So I’d ask for clarification and get blown off. I’d do my best to take what little feedback she’d give and create a program that fit her vision, but given the vagueness, she decided I “couldn’t follow directions.”

      After the second time she insisted on day before changes to things like scheduling outside speakers, I started trying to get approval along the way. Suddenly, I couldn’t “work independently”.

      Then came the time when I presented a potential issue and a proposed solution. We talked about it for half an hour and I was told “this is not going to be a problem, you shouldn’t be worrying about this, just do this little half-assed thing.” I did what she told me and when it became a problem (as I knew it would) it became all about my inability to communicate with her, I didn’t make it clear that it would be a problem AND I didn’t even try to come up with a solution or do what she told me to do (and when I presented emails and meeting notes and proof that I’d implemented her half-assed solution, I was told I was being too defensive and negative).

      It all finally came to a head about another similar program. After her refusal to engage, the program didn’t launch on time and I was put on a PIP. I thought about it and realized that there was no salvaging this job, I was never going to be able to perform in the way she wanted (which, as far as I can tell, required being able to read her mind and know EXACTLY what she wants without needing her to respond to requests for clarification), plus we received news that a beloved family member was on his death bed, and I turned in my resignation effective immediately so that I could go be with my family member as he died (he died 4 days after I submitted my resignation, the two weeks after I submitted my resignation were spent with him then with family and the funeral). I did offer to be available for two weeks but was clear that the time would be spent with my family and my family was going to be my priority.

      Unfortunately for me, this is my most recent job and I can’t leave it off my application or resume. I’ve done what I could by listing references who can speak to the truth of my performance. However, if the hiring manager only listens to this boss, I’ll never get hired in my field again.

    6. Koko*

      I thought the same thing. Or, another variant on that, which is that the reason she’s trying to leave that job is due to conflict with the current manager. It’s good information to have even if it is conflict-related, but I’d definitely consider the full picture and use a larger grain of salt for a bad reference from a current supervisor vs a past one.

  2. Daffodil*

    I did not expect a title like ‘boobs in cover letters’ to result in ‘yeah, actually, that’s an okay thing to say’! But I agree with AAM, it’s not inappropriate to say you’re a long-term fan of the company and what you like about their approach to doing business.

    (I remember a story about a teenage boy applying to work at a lingerie store. He was promptly informed that most of their customers don’t look like their models, they look like his mom. If people who work at this company haven’t yet figured out that their customers are a very normal spectrum of people, just with larger than average busts, one hopes they will soon.)

    1. OP Boobs*

      I’ll admit, that in my paranoid, job-application-nerves-riddled brain, I have this imaeg of a group of men, the worst stereo-types of the software developer corssed with the worst stereo-types of the English Lad, passing around the cover letter going “Phwoar! We’ll have her in!”
      I’m also kinda hoping that given the nature of the company, they’ll ha more female IT staff than normal! That would be great!

      1. Effie, who is herself, and is moving forward without self judgement*

        Well, depending on the company, you could be a regular-chested lady who is a big fan of their panties, or their accessories (bath bombs, lotions, scarves, etc)!

        I think if you stick with Alison’s vaguer scripts of “a long-time fan of your company, especially your philosophy [explains why – philosophy, not products]” you’ll be fine. I once applied to work at Victoria’s Secret because a sales associate spent over an hour helping me and I thought that if that was indicative of their company culture it would be a place I’d love to work!

        1. Mookie*

          I sort of think mentioning the “products,” if they’re made in-house or manufactured according to the company’s own specs and you’ve a good sense how they’re ‘engineered’ specifically for larger busts and you can talk about that knowledgeably, I think briefly doing so in a cover letter is fair game. Coming ‘pre-programmed’ with product knowledge, provided you’re looking for a position in retail or in sales, design, or marketing, is always desirable, and particularly in interviews, too.

          Praising the philosophy behind any company marketing to a niche audience is a great gesture, but if you’re going to be dealing with retail consumers it’s an obvious advantage to be able to fit and sell them on something that you can readily explain works it serves their needs and how (or why it’s cost-effective, easy to maintain, has a greater-than-average longevity compared to competing brands, et al).

          1. neverjaunty*

            That might work if you are applying for a professional fitter position, but probably should be left to the interview.

            1. Mookie*

              The details, sure, but a passing reference, demonstrating familiarity with a brand, is not inappropriate for a cover letter.

      2. Elemeno P.*

        Hopefully it’ll be a very supportive role, and you won’t feel pressured to bounce to a new job soon after.

        (A+ name)

      3. caryatis*

        Well, if you do start working there, it is going to be obvious you have big breasts. As long as men you work with are professional about it, there should be no problem. For your peace of mind, I recommend not spending a lot of time imagining what male strangers are thinking about your breasts.

        1. neverjaunty*

          I’m not sure why the snark. The sad fact of being generously be-bosomed is that male strangers do in fact spend a lot of time paying attention to one’s breasts, commenting on them to one’s face and behind one’s back, etc. There’s no reason to shame the LE for having fleeting concerns.

          1. Kyrielle*

            This, and also, the sad fact of IT and programming is that it trends heavily male and it has a not-small subset (alas!) that trends misogynistic.

            That said, I *don’t* think most of those trends would worry me about hiring practices for an IT position at a company like this one. It’s *possible*, but I’d be a lot more worried about small tech-focused startups. ‘Brogrammer’ culture is strongest there. And even that group, from what I know, seems unlikely to hire someone for this sort of asset, *unless* maybe they’re staffing receptionist or HR. They’re far more likely to freeze out a woman, either from being hired or after she’s hired.

            I really, really hope that if OP B. gets the job, it’s because they think she’s the best candidate, and that they treat her respectfully. I do think there’s a very good chance of that, OP!

        2. Cleopatra Jones*

          Hmm, I’m not one to get into policing other people’s comments but if you’ve never had to worry about something as innocuous as having a large breast size, then count your lucky stars.

          As a large breasted woman who works in IT, the LW has probably encountered her fair share of leering, and gender bias. Hell, as a large breasted woman, she’s probably encountered her fair share just going to the grocery store. So it really isn’t all that fair to say that to her, when she’s had to worry about it most of her life.

        3. Jessie the First (or second)*

          A woman doesn’t have to “spend[] a lot of time imagining what male strangers are thinking about your breasts” in order to notice that male strangers are, in fact, spending too much time noticing/commenting/staring. The problem is not that the OP knows this happens – the problem is that some men do in fact notice/comment/stare and behave inappropriately as a result.

          To snark on the OP for being aware that this can be a thing is blame-shifting, and that’s not ok.

          1. pope suburban*

            My word, yes. In fact, I would go so far to say that you don’t need to spend any time thinking about it- because men are more than happy to tell you that they are doing or thinking these things. I’m pretty oblivious, as a general rule, and yet I know this happens because dudes insist on telling me. Yuck.

            1. Mananana*

              Ah, yes… the joys of having strange men ask me “are those real?” as casually as they would ask about the time. Or maybe the classy “wow!” as they point at my chest. Both situations have happened more than once to me at convenience stores, parking lots, and once, at the library.

              *And to fend off anyone who is wondering just what was I wearing to solicit such comments? My bosom was covered. I wasn’t wearing club-clothes, tank tops, or anything to accentuate. And it’s been happening since I was 14. So, no. I don’t have to imagine what they are thinking. Too many are too willing to tell me unprompted.

              1. many bells down*

                The irony is that many high-necked shirts only seem to make big breasts appear EVEN LARGER. I had a teacher friend who was told that showing “any” cleavage was inappropriate “at her size”, so she switched to a crewneck shirt and parents complained that her breasts looked too big.

        4. Agatha_31*

          “As long as men you work with are professional about it, there should be no problem.”

          I like it when someone states the problem without being aware they’re stating the problem.

          I mean, I don’t *like* like it, but y’know.

          1. Koko*

            “Don’t worry about getting sunburned at that outdoor festival in an open field. As long as you can be in the shade at all times, there should be no problem.”

      4. Been There, Done That*

        Remember mama’s old advice: If you’re nervous with someone, just picture them in their underwear. Even at a lingerie co., I’ll bet some of them wear tatty one-step-away-from-dustrags under their designer duds.

    2. strawberries and raspberries*

      I went on an interview at a retail store very similar to the company OP describes, and I was asked to describe the bra I was wearing, which in any other context would have been super creepy (and I think it even could have been asked differently, like “Describe your favorite bra”). But you can still, amazingly, talk about bras and fit and style without talking about your own boobs in great detail.

        1. Biff*

          I love when my “single serving friends” turn out to be fascinating individuals. I’ve been that person one time, and my seatmate just lit up with humongous interest. So much fun. It doesn’t happen too often, but it was pretty cool.

          1. Elizabeth West*

            Ha, you guys are lucky. I always end up next to the really boring creep who wants to discuss the Skymall catalog I’m flipping through with me. Or did–RIP Skymall catalog! :(

      1. Samiratou*

        “But you can still, amazingly, talk about bras and fit and style without talking about your own boobs in great detail.”

        I bet this is what they were getting at. Can you talk about bras without giggling or using euphemisms or acting like it’s an embarrassing thing to talk about? Can you describe the fit, cut, style, etc. in terms that make sense to people (or at least given though to such things)? Important skill to have in that situation, for sure, in that context.

        1. EvanMax*

          If it was a retail sales job, I imagine it was an update of the old “sell me this ballpoint pen” line.

          For that purpose, I like the idea of asking about the item currently being worn over a favorite item. You don’t always get to sell your favorite to every single custom, you have to be able to close a sale on whatever the customer happens to have in hand at the moment.

          I agree that it’s a bit personal to ask “sell me your bra”, but it would be far less appropriate for the interviewer to lift her shirt and say “sell me MY bra,” and if there were a third bra sitting out on the table then the interviewee would see it coming.

          1. strawberries and raspberries*

            In my case the interviewer was a man, so I’m loving the idea of him lifting his shirt to reveal a bra.

          2. NMFTG*

            *You don’t always get to sell your favorite to every single custom, you have to be able to close a sale on whatever the customer happens to have in hand at the moment.*

            Good specialty bra shops for big-busted women in the UK will generally not do this, in my experience. Given how many times I’ve experienced a “I’m very sorry, we don’t seem to have anything in stock that would be a good fit, I can’t recommend that you buy any of these. I’m sorry.” etc. after a fitting if they can’t find anything for my (admittedly difficult) size, I think this must be a staff requirement, that they don’t “hustle” the customers.

            People will happily come back to a store that wont sell you rubbish to get one sale, I think the big bust-stores in the UK are very much after repeat customers. They will send you anything not in stock in store, check a different store location for stock etc, but they wont knowingly let you buy an ill-fitting bra.

    3. the gold digger*

      their customers don’t look like their models, they look like his mom

      Makes me think of my first time on a nude beach in Europe. It’s not that they looked like my mom, they looked like my grandmother!

      1. Turquoisecow*

        My roommate dragged me to a nude beach in college. (She found out one existed and wanted to go, but didn’t want to go alone.) She was quite disappointed to find that the majority of people there were on the upper end of middle-aged, and crowded around her immediately (I was too uncomfortable to strip but she was definitely not). We left after maybe an hour and went to a nearby clothed beach.

  3. Ted Mosby*

    read the heading for #3 and was like “oh dear LORD NO!” then read the body and was immediately like “well… prob.”
    Anyone else love when AAM does that to them?

    1. Ramona Flowers*

      It’s basically clickbait, but done well! By showing instead of telling. Instead of saying “The ONE reason to mention boobs in cover letters – you’ll never guess why!” it just makes you want to find out why.

      Take note, Buzzfeed.

      1. Horse*

        Another reason to mention boobs in a cover letter: I was once coaching someone who was applying for an marketing internship for a company that was about to launch a new breast pump. The candidate was a fairly shy 20 year old lad, and I spent about an hour coaching him on being able to say “breast” without going bright red and stumbling.

    2. eplawyer*

      I for one was deeply disappointed when I read the actual letter. I totally expected that someone had slipped a pic of boobs in their cover letter and the hiring manager was writing all appalled at the gumption.

      Sadly, no. This was a perfect fine question to ask. AAM’s advice was great. I hope LW3 gets the job.

      1. fposte*

        Yeah, I was thinking this was an escapee from Kerry’s Tales of the Cluefree series. The truth is not as exciting, but it’s still pretty interesting.

      2. Mephyle*

        I was the opposite of disappointed. It was delightful, not sad, to find that the expected scenario was far from the actual one, and the answer, instead of “Of course not! What were you thinking?” was a qualified “yes.”

  4. Ramona Flowers*

    #2 As AAM says, the best thing you can do now – the best shot you have at making the previous incident go away – is to do nothing. Try to remind yourself that doing nothing is your best choice right now, however hard it is.

    That email was problematic partly because it seemed not to understand that this was a rejection – and also because it makes some claims that you couldn’t really make. It’s just not possible for drive and ambition to guarantee someone will succeed in a role.

    If this situation should ever occur again, you could thank them for letting you know, thank them for their time, and say you’d be grateful for feedback. That’s it. You can’t tell them you really really want the job and you think their hiring decision isn’t really a decision, which is pretty much what you said.

    But also, try to remember that there’s no such thing as a dream job. Link to come in next comment.

    1. nep*

      Well said.
      I’m cringing over an email I recently sent out — not exactly the same situation, but I think similarly a faux pas. I received a rejection email a few months back (I hadn’t even gotten as far as a phone screen). At the time I recognized a lot of parts of my application that could have been much better. Saw the other day that the post is being advertised anew — I wrote to the HR person who’d sent me the mail to ask whether there was a way to re-apply. (The online application process does not let me advance because of previous application.) She had, after all, in her email encouraged reaching out…Still I knew it was a lame step on my part. Anyway it’s a job I really would love to have and I figured I had zero to lose.

      1. C*

        When I heard the position was closed I panicked a little because I thought my skill set aligned very well and it was exactly what I wanted to do. I asked a couple people if asking to continue with the interview was a good idea and one person said you have nothing to lose. That was what I wanted to hear and went with it. It turns out I did have something to lose and didn’t realize it at the moment. Next time I will think about the long term repercussions.

        1. Gay Drunk Patriots Fan*

          You’re the OP for letter #2, I take it? Yeah, that’s got to be frustrating for you. But you’re not a bad person or a dumb person, and making a mistake (even maybe a whopper of mistake) doesn’t make you a bad person or a dumb person. You WILL both get past this and sooner or later get a new job that fits you and makes you happy.

        2. WellRed*

          I don’t think the idea of continuing with an interview is a bad thing, but they were telling you there was no interview to continue with.

        3. Matilda Jefferies*

          Learning through experience sucks sometimes, doesn’t it. But honestly, I wouldn’t worry about it too much. This second job might be closed to you for now, but it’s unlikely that this mistake will follow you anywhere else. It stands out to you right now because it’s recent, and because there may (or may not!) be an impact on your candidacy for this next position, but I expect the people you wrote to will forget about it very soon if they haven’t already.

          And hey, it sounds like you’ve already learned what you needed to learn from this one, and you won’t be making that mistake again. Good luck with the rest of your search!

        4. SusanIvanova*

          I’ve been on the other side of that more times than I can count. (In retrospect, they may have been trying to starve our team to death.) Sometimes jobs just vanish despite all the efforts of the hiring manager, and they’re even more frustrated about it than you are – they’ve made plans for that position, and now the team has to cope with being short-handed.

          All you can do is ask to be considered if something opens up again because there is absolutely nothing they can do.

      2. Kathleen Adams*

        Nep, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with asking if you can reapply. So long as you did so politely, professionally and without any drama or gushing about how this is your dream job or whatever, and so long as you don’t, I don’t know, try to email the HR person at home or anything like that, I don’t see any downside to asking.

        1. nep*

          Thanks. Indeed I made sure to remain very professional — no gush. It struck me to see it being advertised with a recent date so I thought what the hell.

    2. Koko*

      Op #2 – something Ramona mentioned here is that the problem isn’t necessarily that you came across “desperate.” I mean, nobody likes to be perceived that way and it’s probably a lot better for your ability to negotiate salary/benefits if you don’t seem desperate, but personally desperation doesn’t necessarily turn me off in terms of a hiring decision. Being desperate for a job is a totally normal thing! As long as I don’t get the sense that you’re so desperate that you don’t actually care about my open position and you’re not going to abandon ship as soon as something better comes along, I don’t mark down a candidate for coming across a little bit desperate.

      The reason the email was a problem, rather, is because you pushed back on a decision you didn’t really have standing to push back on. Maybe that was driven by desperation on your part, and maybe it came across as such, but the reason the email would turn me off is less the desperation and more because I would think some variant of, “This person thinks that rules don’t apply to them, this person thinks they have standing to challenge decisions that they aren’t a part of making, etc.” I’d be concerned that you might pull the same sort of thing as an employee and overstep your role with higher-ups, vendors, clients, admin staff, etc. and not understand when it is or isn’t OK to argue with a decision.

  5. Ramona Flowers*

    #4 In addition to the great advice already given, I think this could also sound like you’re hinting or even pressuring for your husband to get favourable treatment. Of course it wouldn’t be intended that way, it’s just possible someone could take it that way.

  6. Noel*

    OP1, I think you should definitely tell the candidate. A manager once told me that one of my references spent the whole time on the phone talking about drinking and would only say that I was “okay.” I still got the job, but I never asked that person to be a reference again.

    Managers are not in a club. You do not owe loyalty to these people. Of course, if your industry is super small and telling would hurt your career, then sure, keep it to yourself. But if it definitely wouldn’t hurt you and would benefit this person just starting out in their career, SAY SOMETHING.

    And quite honestly, there’s no reason to expect your references to remain confidential. If you’re not okay with the person hearing what you’re saying about them, maybe you should rethink what you’re saying.

    Of course, I am willing to acknowledge the whole “references are sacred” thing could be part of America’s “Employer first, employee never” culture that I’ve heard a lot about here. If that’s the case, then I guess I’m just not used to that.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      The reference did the OP a favor by agreeing to talk to her and giving her a (presumably) honest assessment. She’d be operating in bad faith if she violated the confidentiality of the conversation. How can she expect references to give her honest input if she’s going to report back to the candidate if she hears something negative? She could never ask for a reference in good faith again.

      1. Noel*

        I disagree. I think, and have seen, that it’s possible to give a truthful, negative reference even when the candidate knows about it. Confidentiality isn’t necessary for honesty, and apart from that, I don’t really get where you’re getting the idea that reference are supposed to be confidential, although again that might be American.

          1. Akcipitrokulo*

            Legal one too… in UK you can’t be required to disclose details of a reference you have given, but may be required to disclose details of a reference you have *received* … under data protection act you are entitled to apply to see any data held about you. But… it gets interesting… in most cases it would have to be disclosed, but there are exceptions…

            This article gives good detail on it!


        1. TL -*

          Some people might be different but if it’s someone you really liked personally but disliked professionally I feel like you’d be moderate in your reference if it was not confidential. I would hate to give someone I liked a bad reference and have it summarised to them, even if I would be willing to have a talk with them about why I felt I wasn’t a good reference. Or even someone I was fairly neutral about.
          Also I think the example you gave was more of a useless reference than a bad one. I imagine it reflected more on him than on you.

        2. Cambridge Comma*

          I’ve seen a lot of open references and in my experience they are only honest when positive. In the region I currently live in, all references are open — you receive a written reference when you leave an employer and submit your whole collection with a job application. References are therefore always formulated incredibly positively and are pointless to some extent. There is a coded language that managers use to indicate their true feelings, however. For example, someone can write ‘very very popular with colleagues’ to be understood as ‘spends all day socialising’ or ‘tolerant with regards to their work’ to mean ‘no attention to detail’. Or if all of the details given have nothing to do with the actual job duties, you can assume the message is that the candidate doesn’t know how to do the job. Based on my experience here, confidentiality has a huge benefit.

        3. Horse*

          They are very explicitly not confidential in the UK. Under the Data Protection Act, anyone can ask to see any data which an organisation holds about them, which includes references from previous employers.

          1. Cambridge Comma*

            If the reference is given over the phone, do companies keep a record of the content of the call? Just wondering.
            I suppose that if the place where you were interviewing became your employer, the references can’t have been problematic.

            1. HR Expat*

              Not usually. But we’re limited in what information we can provide and companies should be cautious about this because even though the reference didn’t put anything in writing, the other company might. And then we can get fined by the data privacy officer for violating the law.

              1. Mary*

                Really? So Company A says verbally, “Candidate was rude and late”; Company B writes it down; Candidate makes DPA request and sees it & wants to dispute it as inaccurate; Company A can be on the hook even though they didn’t create or store that information?

                1. Akcipitrokulo*

                  With a pretty limited number of exceptions… if company B writes it down, then under most circumstances, candidate has right to see it. Company A doesn’t have any DPA liability, but candidate will know what they said.

                  (hope I understood scenario correctly!)

          2. HR Expat*

            And there are also rules about what you can and cannot share under the DPA. Which is why you see so many companies providing a standard letter including dates of employment and job title.

            It’s going to change even more soon, with the new data privacy laws coming into effect in 2018.

            1. Akcipitrokulo*

              Yeah – I’m doing GDPR training next week… will be interesting to see details!

              (It’s going to cover how brexit will affect it too which is useful.)

              1. HR Expat*

                Which is funny because I don’t think any of us know how Brexit is going to affect anything yet! I’m on a project at my company to improve our immigration processes, and we just keep saying that it might not be relevant in a year or two.

                1. Akcipitrokulo*

                  I think it’s more that (as I understand it) “assuming brexit happens, this is what will no longer be legally binding and this is what we think (hope!) will take its place…”

                2. Akcipitrokulo*

                  Yeah… We have a lot of eu nationals. Company is being awesome and says they will do whatever they can but… it’s scary.

          3. Akcipitrokulo*

            It’s really interesting that the one who gave the reference is exempted from a DPA request, but the one who received the reference isn’t (normally) :)

              1. Akcipitrokulo*

                Yeah :) but basically unless you have a really good reason – hand the data, including the reference, over ;)

        4. hbc*

          Of course it’s “possible”, but is it likely? When I give a reference for my former nanny, it’s overwhelmingly positive, but I do warn people that she’s super chatty and you’re probably not getting her out the door for 15 minutes after you get home unless you are really blunt. (Maybe not even then.) I like her, I still call her for babysitting, and I’m sure she would be hurt to hear that I’m not immensely enjoying that time.

          It’s better for everyone that I’m honest about it–the last thing she needs is a job that lasts 2 months because her employer can’t handle that quirk. But I would never put it in writing or otherwise share it if I believed it would get back to her.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          If you’re not putting some weight on what references are telling you, there’s no point in checking them at all. That doesn’t mean you take a single reference as gospel, but you certainly look at patterns and use them to flesh out your overall understanding of a candidate.

          I realize that a lot of commenters here are uncomfortable with how references work in general. It doesn’t change the fact that breaking the confidentiality of the process would be a crappy thing to do.

          1. AliceW*

            This seems odd to me. I have served as a reference for a number of former employees and sometimes I had negative things to say (as well as positive). I answered honestly and never expected confidentiality. If a former employer came back to me and asked me what I said about them I would tell them. But if they ask me first to be a reference and I knew I couldn’t endorse them I would say no upfront.

          2. Super Anon for This*

            Allison, I guess my problem with references is that a lot of companies where I am in America only have a policy of confirming dates of employment and whether you quit or were fired. Not to mention even at companies that give more info, you have managers and coworkers changing jobs or moving. So you are far less likely to have enough references to dispute the “pattern”. One bad reference from a bad or confused manager can ruin you.

            I admit, I have had some experience recently with a few managers at my workplace who think they remember things well, but wildly mis-remember them. And I have both written confirmation of this from my notes, and verbal confirmation from reliable colleagues that *I* am not the one who is mis-remembering reality.

            When you know a person in a position of authority above you can’t remember hard facts of the order of events correctly, when they completely mis-remember the past in ways that always make them look good and you look bad, and then to hear so much emphasis placed on references, well. It’s kind of scary, knowing in the future people might take this person seriously, and it is also kind of silly, since you know firsthand how worthless references can be.

          3. Sunshine on a cloudy day*

            I think this might be where I’m getting hung up too – why do references need to be confidential? I understand that they currently are treated as confidential (generally) in the US (and we need to live in our present world not our ideal world), but do you agree that they *should* be kept confidential?

            Theoretically, if I were asked to provide a reference for someone that reported to me right now, I would try to give a factual accounting of my experience with them and wouldn’t care if they heard what I said about them, because presumably I would have already given them feedback on any shortcomings I was aware of. However, I’m not a manager with direct reports, so I’m wondering if I’m missing or overlooking something.

            1. serenity*

              I think you’re not taking into account two things:

              1) There are folks who have performance issues and their managers do in fact address this, sometimes in multiple ways, and regardless the employee doesn’t absorb this or doesn’t understand why they’re being criticized. Then, the bad reference is a “surprise” to them.

              2) There are other folks who have performance issues, are aware of it, maybe try to improve and work on the issues (or in other cases, they don’t). They need or want to move on to another job, and they realize the supervisor or manager is going to give them a not-great reference and there’s no recourse for them because it’s their last job. So it sucks to be them, but they do indeed get a bad reference.

              The problem with obliterating confidentiality is that, as Alison said, people will then be much warier of giving you, as the hiring manager, candid feedback in the future. Which means that you might just hire someone who has work issues that didn’t come to your attention – and then it sucks to be you. Believe me, this happens, and if you had experience with having direct reports you really do want to ensure you are getting the best person for the job. There was a letter to AAM I don’t remember when about a Jekyll/Hyde employee whose manager (after terminating him) found out that his previous reference lied and gave him a good reference to get rid of him. Situations like that are horrible.

              1. Sunshine on a cloudy day*

                I appreciate you taking the time to write out a response – but neither of these points help me understand why there *should* be confidentiality. I’m aware that this is currently the norm in the US, and a break from the norm is viewed negatively, but I genuinely curious where this norm came from or why it’s stuck around.

                I’m a manager. My employee struggles with X. I told employee I’d like to see you do better at X. I later I provide a reference that says “employee struggled with X”. Hiring manager tells employee “your manager said you struggled with X”.

                Even if employee disagrees or doesn’t remember that feedback – so what? Why is it a problem that employee knows this – whether they agree or disagree? What is employee going to do with this information that that would cause problems for me, as a manager, by knowing that I think they struggled with X.
                – maybe they don’t use me as a reference? Ok, but if I were a good manager I would have already said that I could not provide a positive reference for you
                – maybe they could try to sue for defamation/slander? It’s already been established that it is not illegal to provide negative references. I guess it could increase the liklihood of people trying to bring unfounded cases against “me – as a manager” – is this the crux of the issue? With more specifics there might be more unfounded cases?

                I get that in the current hiring space it is *seen* as a breach of confidence to disclose the specifics of a reference. So in the example above – I say to myself “hiring manager disclosed, I will not provide references to them again” – but my question goes back to why does it need to be confidential in the first place.

                1. chi type*

                  Because people are more willing to be 100% honest if they know it’s not going to get straight back to their former employee? Perhaps people shouldn’t ever say anything they’re not okay with saying to someone’s face but that’s not how most humans function.

          4. JulieBulie*

            I am a little uncomfortable with how references seem to work, because someone (perhaps a particular manager from a previous job who actually told me to my face that he didn’t like me) can say whatever he wants to the company I’ve applied to, and if he tells them I’m the devil and I get rejected, I’ll never know why.

            Obviously such a person would not be among the references that I’d tell my prospective employer about, but I can’t do anything about it if the prospective employer decides to contact previous employers that I didn’t list as references.

        2. Sas*

          I agree with Feo. I think Aam rides hard on references. But, would it be different if the person asking for the references was young and this was probably a job at the beginning level that paid very little ( I am thinking close to retail for some people), and the reference said they couldn’t give a good reference when called? However this reference apparently dived into all of the details. I think that kind of obtuseness is what might be unsettling for some people. I think most people at the very beginning have to adjust and that can mean a lot of things. Maybe this reference was far removed from that time.

          1. neverjaunty*

            Or maybe the reference was accurate?

            I’m seeing a lot of people wanting to protect a new to the workforce young person from the evil mean manager who said bad things about her. That’s not what references are about.

            1. PB*

              This. In addition, I don’t read Alison’s advice as saying “Take references at their word,” but rather that hiring managers should weigh references along with all other information about the candidate. If a candidate had a fantastic resume and cover letter, interviewed well, and had two glowing references, than a third negative reference wouldn’t necessarily tank their candidacy.

            2. Been there*

              Yeah, I’ve been wondering about that too. As a manager it’s pretty easy to figure out clueless newbie who will get better vs. not a good worker who happens to be young in their career.
              Even if the reference was negative, presumably the hiring manager would be able to suss out the differences based on what the reference used as examples.

              The red flag for me here is the LW indicated that the reason given for the applicant leaving was different. That’s not usually something that has a lot of room for misinterpretation.

      2. anathema*

        I disagree. This isn’t a favor, it’s a part of doing business. Absent a confidentiality agreement, people are accountable for their words. Even managers.

        1. Koko*

          It is a favor, in the sense that nobody *has* to serve as a reference if they don’t want to. Nobody at my employer is going to chastise or penalize me for refusing to provide a reference for a former employee.

      3. Been there*

        I’d be curious if the reference was asked to be one. I’ve had many calls saying I was listed listed as a reference by so-and-so without me being asked in advance or agreeing to it. I’m never sure if it’s a fishing expedition by the hiring company or if a clueless past employee has listed me without asking. In all cases where I haven’t been asked I will either refer them to my HR department for the general bland reference or if they were temps I would pass them off to the temp agency.

      4. Mike C.*

        I had a friend of mine who, as he was entering the workforce had a reference who was happy to serve as one, had a great working relationship with him and so on and then continually trashed him when employers would call. After months of not getting any work, a hiring manager told him to stop using this reference and he got a job easily.

        What is a candidate supposed to do if they have a reference that is essentially trying to screw them over? Under your advice, there is no way they can ever find out.

        1. Myrin*

          I’ve been thinking about this (the letter in general but also your point here) and now I’m musing; I hope you don’t mind my posting this in response to you, Mike, because it was this comment that sparked my thoughts. I can only approach this theoretically (reference calls aren’t a thing in my country and the whole interviewing process is quite different compared to the US) but my thinking is something along the following lines:

          Do people in your friend’s situation not get a job solely because of that one bad reference? I can understand a hiring manager already having doubts about a candidate and then feeling validated by a not-so-good reference. But if there are other references which have been stellar (or at least good/not bad) and/or the people hiring had only positive interactions with the candidate, is the one reference going to harm them so much that their formerly positive feelings suddenly become negative ones? After all, hiring managers are humans with brains who can weigh different impressions and observations against one another and then decide accordingly, including asking a candidate about something that came up during the reference check or just generally try to find out more about reported weaknesses.

          It seems to me that at least theoretically, one single bad reference shouldn’t really be able to single-handedly cost you a job unless it’s about something truly egregious (like beating up your former supervisor, for example). And if that’s the case, that one reference alone matters only a bit, it’s not the end of the world if it exists, even if it’s not favourable. On the other hand, of course, there are people in this very thread who say they were explicitly told a company decided against them because of one bad reference, so there seems to be a bit of a difference between ideology and reality.

          I’m finding this really interesting and I don’t have any answers since, as I said, I can only look at this from an outsider’s perspective, but I would indeed like to learn more about the morals and ideas and rules around this topic.

          1. Mike C.*

            You can’t ever say without a controlled experiment that the reference was the specific reason or the only reason. However, I can say that he was getting a lot of interviews to the stage of submitting references and kept coming up empty handed. Once he was told not to use this particular reference, he started receiving offers and quickly found work. He’s never had a problem since.

            So while your point is certainly well taken, I think that when you’re talking about decisions between closely qualified candidates (say, folks right out of college with limited experience), one red flag is likely enough to take you out of the running.

          2. Super Anon for This*

            I mentioned it above, but in short, if you don’t have many references (in my area many companies can’t give anything beyond dates of employment and quit/fired, not to mention managers/coworkers who leave the company/move away) one bad reference can ruin you, especially if it is your most recent.

        2. Danger: Gumption Ahead*

          I have a reference like that. She hates me, but couldn’t fire me because I was good at the job and upper management (due to her history) had to review and approve any of her personnel decisions. I had to list her as a past manager and she trashes me whenever she is called. After one of the times, a hiring manager (who hired me because she knew old boss by reputation) gave me a heads up, but I have never been quite sure how to say, “I left with glowing evaluations and you can talk to the grand boss, but I am pretty sure my former manager has an effigy of me stuck with pins and hanging from a noose at home”

          1. LizB*

            Can you list your grand boss as your manager from that company (maybe with their permission to go over your manager’s head)?

            1. Danger: Gumption Ahead*

              I don’t list her as a specific reference, just as my supervisor at a prior job, but could let grand boss know I am applying and know what she has done. They might at least rein her in. I can’t wait until that job is so far in the past no one bothers to call her

          2. Samiratou*

            Does she say anything that’s factually incorrect about you or your performance? If she has, and it’s costing you jobs (though it sounds like you’re ok at the moment), it might be worth a chat with an attorney. Probably not worth it if you’re happily employed now and the problem will likely go away over time.

            And, seriously, they know she’s so bad that they have to approve her personnel decisions, but she still has a job?!?! Your former company sucks.

            1. Danger: Gumption Ahead*

              It was a conflict avoidant sort of place. I think she was on 3 or 4 PIPs while I was there for the same issues and is still there 3 years (and a couple more PIPs) later. Of the times I know she badmouthed me, it was untrue. She has probably cost me 1-2 jobs, but, since I have never had to look for more than a couple of weeks and generally get offers for 90% of the jobs I apply to, it is more irritant and annoyance than anything else. I’m fortunate that I all my other managers are positive and have a solid set of references. I’m also fortunate in that my field is small and her reputation precedes her as much as mine precedes me.

        3. fposte*

          There’s the common gambit of having a friend or service call references for you to know what they’re saying.

          I don’t disagree with you that it’s a vulnerability for job seekers, but I think keeping references open and not confidential doesn’t ultimately make them less vulnerable; it just moves the vulnerability around a little.

          1. Koko*

            This exactly. If you keep getting to reference stage and getting rejected, or there’s something else that makes you suspect a problem with references, then you can always have a trusted third party be your “secret reference shopper.” That way you aren’t relying on potential employers to break confidentiality for you.

            There is a reason why when you apply to graduate school, you give your references a SASE and they send the letter directly to the university in question. Everyone recognizes that nobody is going to trash an applicant in a letter that the applicant can read, so the applicant never even gets to hold the letter in their hands.

        4. medium of ballpoint*

          Seconded. I’ve been around tech/science/other male dominated fields where women have been concerned that their bosses will give them undeserved poor references. “Please make sure other people in the lab help me clean up after experiments; I shouldn’t have to do it every time because I’m the only woman” can get translated as “She’s demanding, she complains, and she’s not a team player.” Or reporting sexual harassment can get translated as someone who’s dramatic, brings personal problems into work, and is too much of a squeaky wheel. Sometimes you can read these attitudes on supervisors, and sometimes you can’t. And as others have pointed out, if you’re early career or have been with companies for a while and have few references available, it can definitely be a problem.

          (To be clear, I’m sure this happens with people of all genders. In my personal experience, I’ve seen it most often with women so that’s what I’m basing my comment on.)

      5. Been There, Done That*

        Like Noel, I also disagree. Once someone who’d contacted my previous manager for a reference called me afterward and said bluntly, “He said things he shouldn’t have” and gave some pretty startling examples. Previous Manager had been career military and I believe this was his first civilian job. When I worked for him, he seemed truly baffled about concept of labor laws. I was very grateful for the warning and afterward referred prospective employers to someone at supervisor level at that organization who understood how to give a professional reference.

    2. MK*

      By your reasoning, the OP owes loyalty to the candidate then? Why exactly? Your story is quite different, because the reference wasn’t just negative, but irrelevant also, and they ended up hiring you. I can see why a hiring manager might feel obligated to inform someone who is now a colleague that on of their references went off the rails.

      And generally, I would make an exception for an obviously malicious or defamatory reference, or one that was incoherent, rude or otherwise inappropriate. But a simply negative reference, no.

      I don’t think hiring managers have any obligation to inform candidates of bad references. What they do have an obligation about, to their company first, is to evaluate them, instead of a usual practice of taking them aa gospel.

    3. Teapot PR consultant*

      I would argue that management, and particularly non-profit management, is a profession and managers owe each other a level of professional courtesy.

      And (a) returning phone calls asking for reference checks; (b) providing thoughtful references and (c) keeping them in-confidence is a big part of that.

      1. fedelini*

        I agree. Most commenters seem to think that being a reference for someone means agreeing to be a cheerleader for them. That makes no sense and would defeat the purpose of checking references if it were true.

    4. JamieS*

      I agree and disagree with Alison here. I don’t think references are inherently confidential and wouldn’t regard someone sharing my reference as a violation of that confidentiality. However I also wouldn’t be open to giving a reference to a person/company that has a reputation for telling others what references said which I’m pretty sure is what Alison was trying to convey.

      Also, whether intentional or not, it seems like you’re coming from the stance of the OP owing something to the candidate which I vehemently disagree with. The point of references is to help flush out a candidate and get a better idea of what they’ll actually be like as an employee. Actively working to ensure the candidate only provides good reference when applying to jobs defeats that purpose and also causes bad employees to be hired which is not only bad for the company but also bad for the other employees of wherever the candidate is eventually hired.

      1. Dust Bunny*

        I guess I’m a little iffy on the fact that two references were good and one wasn’t. Maybe the first two were lucky choices or well-curated, but maybe the third one is a bad manager who gets in his/her reports’ way, or doesn’t like the candidate personally, or etc. There’s an assumption that the reference is more plausible than the job candidate.

        1. JamieS*

          The OP notes the candidate is very young and new to job searching so it’s also possible that reference is the first manager at a job that’s considered “professional”. I don’t know if that’s what happened but some of the things mentioned such as working independently sound like “growing pains” young workers experience when transitioning into more professional work to me.

      2. Mike C.*

        I don’t think it’s an issue of “owing” the candidate but rather the fact that there is no other way they’re going to find out.

        1. JamieS*

          Other than owing the candidate something why would the OP think she has some sort of obligation to ensure the candidate finds out?

          1. Mike C.*

            Empathy for not ever wanting to be found in the same position and hoping at the hiring manager would help the OP out in the same way?

            1. JamieS*

              OP should tell the candidate her reference had some criticism because she hopes a different hiring manager may at some point do the same for her? If OP is a strong employee (I’ll just assume she is) she doesn’t need to worry about her references criticizing her.

              Empathy for what? A reference giving a couple criticisms? That’s hardly something someone needs to break professional norms over.

    5. nep*

      I think it’s good to keep confidentiality as an important and honoured component of this process. Perhaps I’m naive, but I would prefer it not be something that’s loosely or just sometimes upheld. That would make me hesitant to ever be a reference for someone.

    6. Kyrielle*

      Interestingly enough, I feel like telling you that was fine, but I do feel like OP1 should not tell this candidate.

      Why? First, you got the job. The manager now knew you better than just as a candidate. But second, this was not about factual feedback that reflects poorly on you but sounds normal (as OP1’s scenario is). This is about a loony-tunes reference who spends time talking about drinking. Had the reference called you ‘okay’ without the rest of that, that would be very different (even though it’s weak). But the reference signaled firmly that they were pretty weird/strange/hard to deal with/were the problem by that action.

      If OP1 hired this candidate, and a few months in found the candidate was just fine in those areas, then a small heads-up or asking whether that was a problem at their last job might be okay…but I hesitate even then. Because that reference *didn’t* signal they were to the weird side, they just didn’t give the candidate a great reference.

      The problem with *generally* sharing that is this: “If you’re not okay with the person hearing what you’re saying about them, maybe you should rethink what you’re saying.” Some types of people can get very upset or problematic when they hear what you’re saying about them, even if it’s factually true. And many of those are exactly the people other managers want good feedback about.

      1. JamieS*

        Agreed. I think there’s a very distinct difference between being a bad reference and giving a bad reference. The differentiation is a bad reference will be loaded when providing a reference for you; someone giving a bad reference will tell about the time you came to work loaded.

    7. Dankar*

      Are you from the UK by chance? When I asked for recommendations from the professors I worked under while studying abroad, I was given the letters directly and told to pass them along to the grad schools myself. When I questioned my recommenders about confidentiality and read waivers, I was told that if they weren’t comfortable with me reading what they wrote, they wouldn’t have agreed to write at all.

      It’s something I advise US students studying abroad about now, and I always thought the straightforward, non-confidential way of doing things in the UK is far superior to the US culture’s secrecy about these things (and about salary, Lordy!).

    8. TootsNYC*

      “Managers are not in a club. You do not owe loyalty to these people.”

      Actually, I disagree with this. (I don’t think “employer first, employee never,” by any means. But I do regard other managers in my profession as my allies. That’s why I tell the truth when giving references.
      And it’s really less about having any allegiance to other managers and more about believing in the power of the truth. (I don’t think it does anybody any good to have them end up ina job they can’t do.)

      I once got a resume from someone who had made a really bad error. The kind that can only come from a complete lack of attention to detail and to the standards of accuracy and thoroughness.

      I pondered whether I should alert them to the error so they could fix it. I decided not to–because I didn’t think that fixing the error on the resume would fix the lack of attention to detail and the carelessness about industry norms.
      I figured that I was glad of the head’s-up that this error gave me. And I wanted any of my colleagues at other publications to have a similar head’s-up.

      Now…with the job candidate/employee in our OP’s story:
      If I were her boss, I would demur when she asked me for a reference.
      I don’t like to say bad things, so I avoid it. I’ve given lackluster references when I felt that someone was OK, but not great.

      If I get one bad reference, I’ll weigh that against the others. And I always keep in mind that a reference might me malicious, or confused, or might have different standards. Or that people struggle with one job but not another. Or their lives change.

      If an otherwise promising candidate has a reference like this, I will try to figure out what I can do to probe a little in order to give them a fair shake.

    9. Starbuck*

      I think this approach makes sense for managers who are bad at giving references (like what you described) so their input isn’t helpful anyway, but not managers who are giving bad (but accurate) references.

  7. NL*

    I’ve checked references for more than a decade and provided them for longer than that. If I ever found out that one of my employees shared the contents of a reference with an applicant, I would consider that a serious error in judgment, even misconduct. We rely on references to help us make hiring decisions and we can’t ask them to do that if they can’t rely on our discretion.

    1. Just employed here*

      I’m guessing because she should just stay out of her husband’s job search (at least as far as the employer could tell) altogether. If it’s the candidate himself mentioning it, she never even needs to discuss the subject at work.

    2. Bagpuss*

      Because he is the one applying for a job. It’s an opportunity for him to show the employer that he is aware of the potential concern.
      If OP tells them then it can look as though he’s not alert to the potential conflict, and having your spouse speak for you isn’t a great look generally, when you are applying for a job.

      That would be my take on it,anyway.

  8. Channel Z*

    So if one applies to the IT department at Jack Daniels, should you mention you love their product?

    That was tongue and cheek, but I do have a legitimate question about company product/service name dropping in a cover letter. In OP3’s example, a brief mention of being a customer of the store seems fine. Sometime in the near future, I will likely be applying for a job at a company who makes my favourite snack food which is an international and popular brand. If I said truthfully that Crunchy Crisps are my favourite in my cover letter, would this come across as insincere?

    1. OP Boobs*

      Can you explain why they are your favourite? In my example I then waffle on a bit saying why I admire how they have filled a market niche for women of my shape etc, ect.

      1. hbc*

        I’d be a little less direct about it. Maybe “filled a market niche for women who are often ignored in the industry”? I’d probably expect that you are part of that niche or care deeply about it because of someone you love, but at least it’s a step or two away from giving them a measurement range.

        1. blackcat*

          I like this! The plausible deniability is there, too. It’s totally something my bff, who has listened to me complain about my boobs/the cost of good bras/etc since we were teens, could write. She’s flat as an ironing board and loves me to death. And when were were 15, we wondered why we couldn’t just be average together…

    2. ThatGirl*

      I got a new job over the summer at a teapot* company I was familiar with, but didn’t know a ton about, but I’ve always enjoyed buying, making and drinking tea. I think my enthusiasm for the tea industry and teapots, spoons, saucers etc in general — even while not being a superfan — helped me get the job. I also mentioned in my cover letter a love for making and serving tea in my own life and as a family tradition.

      *not actually teapots of course

    3. Koko*

      I’d mention it but not dwell on it.

      I hire for a nonprofit where having a personal connection our cause is very relevant to my hiring decision. I want to hire people who care about our work.

      That said, it’s more of a binary yes/no to the question, “Does this person know what we do, and seem to care about it?” I don’t really find myself comparing one candidate’s connection to our brand with another candidate’s connection and giving extra points to the person who seems extra-stoked about us.

      I want you to care, and once we’ve established that you do, the rest of my hiring decision is about your professional qualifications, so don’t waste valuable and limited cover letter real estate belaboring the details of how much you care. A superfan with mediocre skills still gets beat by a casual fan with great skills, even in the nonprofit world where passion tends to matter more.

      1. TootsNYC*

        In fact, if skills were equal, I’d rather have a casual fan than a superfan. I want someone with a little detachment, so they’ll be OK if I nix their great idea. I want them to have some perspective and balance.

    4. Anon Just in Case*

      As someone who works in the alcohol industry, yes, mention your love! :) If you apply to our company (think: craft Jack Daniels) and don’t at least mention that you think our industry is cool in your cover letter (along with all the reasons you think you’d be great at and are excited about the job), we give you a bit of a side eye. It’s definitely not a pre-req to working for us (we’ve hired recovering alcoholics, people who don’t drink, people who only drink wine, etc. — in fact, on my team, we have two such folks), but our industry is so sought-after that if you don’t profess a love for the craft (or at least the culture) in you cover letter, we think you’re a potential cultural red flag and will be sure to explore that in any phone-screen (and following) interview. You also risk falling to the bottom of the pile if there are a lot of enthusiastic-about-the-product folks with comparable experience to you.

      So to answer your question – I don’t think it comes across as insincere, but it shouldn’t be the ONLY thing you talk about in your cover letter. Mention it!

    5. TootsNYC*

      I think it wouldn’t look good.

      One huge distinction is that Crunchy Crisps are a huge brand. And this is a more local and specialized/peprsonalized store/service.

      If you said, “I value Crunchy Crisps’ commitment to an organic supply chain, and it is in sync with my own values,” then that would be OK. A bit smarmy. It’s the impersonalness of the product that makes it seem a little insincere.

      For our OP, it sounds like a local store, or perhaps a small chain. So having personal experience with their business model might actually affect how she does her job!

  9. Always Thinking*

    LW #3, I’d stick with the “I’m a long time customer” language rather than saying you’re a “fan.” The latter carries the risk of coming off as a breast-obsessed dude wanting the job to ogle the merchandise.

    1. Myrin*

      Yeah, I think “fan” alone doesn’t necessarily convey that you’re also someone who’s been regularly using their products in the past and had good personal experiences with them.

      1. Cambridge Comma*

        I think there can be value in being a fan of a company without being a customer, though. For example, I follow the writings of the company Basecamp, but I can’t be a customer (because it’s a business solution that my organization isn’t interested in). However, I would find a lot to say about the company in an interview that I think would communicate that I understood their product and brand.
        OP happens to have the physical features that make her eligible to be a customer (and saying that she is a customer is communicating that). Another woman might not need the products but could be a fan e.g. of the advertising or social media campaigns of the company. (Unfortunately the impression of a man being a fan of the company wouldn’t work

        1. Myrin*

          Ah, yes, of course. I was reacting more to Alison’s “as a long-time fan of your store”, which I think is just fine to mention, especially since OP says that it’s the store’s philosophy in particular that she likes, but since this OP has also been a regular customer for a long time, I’d think she should really mention that, too, because it makes her case even stronger. However, upon re-reading I see that I missed that Alison actually mentioned that, too, so I kind of just repeated her point. Oh well.

        2. neverjaunty*

          It’s crrtainly helpful to say good things about the product, but I don’t know that I would use the term “fan”. Many companies have problems with people applying who love their finished product, but have no clue about the work or process that results in that product.

      2. Cambridge Comma*

        You’re right that fan conveys something slightly different than customer but I think it can be equally valuable. For example, I follow the writings of the company Basecamp, but I can’t be a customer because my employer won’t use their products. However, I would find as much to say about their product, marketing and philosophy as a customer would in an interview. OP happens to have the characteristics to be a customer (and saying that she is a customer communicates that, which she indicated that she was slightly uncomfortable with) but someone else could be a fan of the advertising and social media presence without being served by their products.

        1. Elizabeth H.*

          I also think there’s a difference between being a customer and a fan in the other direction, that you may be a customer but not a fan! I’m technically a customer of Amazon but I am not a fan. I’m a customer of Boden and I am a HUGE Boden fan such that I talk about them all the time (I’m looking at a Boden ad at the bottom of this window right now!) If I were applying for a job with them, in any role, I would definitely describe myself as a fan and tell them what I admire about their philosophy – their commitment to incredibly well-made, long-wearing clothes; emphasis on classic style and comfort over trends; blah blah blah. There is stuff I like about Amazon too but it doesn’t really resonate with me the same way.

          1. Anon Just in Case*

            I think adding in the “why” you’re a fan is what makes this work so well – pulling it back to their philosophy. As someone who has always worked in consumer goods (alcohol now, but others before this), that’s something we look for and definitely will give applicants a thumb on the scale for discussing articulately when hiring.

      3. Danger: Gumption Ahead*

        I might take it beyond just the product and say something like, “My experience as a longtime customer, my experiences with X (corporate philosophy?), Y (website at end user level?), and Z (customer service experience?) makes me think my experience doing A, B, and C would …..

        Kind of clunky since I am only 2 sips of coffee into my day, but hopefully you get the customer experience+skills/experience=why good candidate thing I am going for

        1. Mookie*

          I think that’s a great idea. LW, if you had an especially good experience as a consumer, I’d find a way to mention it or the company culture that enabled that level of service.

    2. NYCWeez*

      At current job, we have a passionate customer base which we greatly value, but bc they are so into our product, we often get applicants who are more excited by getting a connection to our products (employee discounts!) than they are about making sure the job is a good fit for them. Because of this, when applicants simply say they are a big fan of our product, it makes us very skeptical. We prefer when they provide concrete examples of how they see their interests relating to the type of work we do, such as “As someone who values traditional tea making processes, I’m excited by the work Teapots Inc has been doing in revolutionizing steam venting systems. I feel my experience in whistle design would align nicely with this program.”

      1. Mookie*

        That makes sense. Something about the word “fan” evokes frivolity rather than passion. The commentariat and Alison have provided some good alternatives. I wouldn’t use “admirer” but “admire” as a verb could strike the right tone, particularly if that admiration stems from something you can specifically identify in either the company’s culture, its service, or its product line.

        1. Turquoisecow*

          Yeah I think you have to connect that to actual expertise or work ethic unrelated to the topic of the product(s).

          In the OP’s example, being a fan, or user of lingerie products does not indicate anything as far as whether you can do the job. If you’re applying for a job working for a comic book company and you’re a fan of comics, that doesn’t indicate that you’ll do a good job with selling or creating. Plenty of people wear bras and read comics and use thousands of other products. That doesn’t make them an expert on them, and if it’s a popular enough company, I’m not sure it will win brownie points either.

          1. Elizabeth H.*

            I think it’s a colloquial word that makes sense in context – I think if you go on to explain what about the brand’s philosophy and customer-serving objectives resonate with you, it conveys enthusiasm in a natural-sounding tone (which cover letters should do) rather than frivolity. I do think it isn’t strong without the follow-up explanation, though.

            1. Turquoisecow*

              Yeah, context is important. If you’re a fan of them because you see the value of their products or philosophy versus other companies, *and* you can apply that to a reason why you would be a better candidate (as opposed to why you’d love to work for them) then it’s valuable in an industry because it shows your overall industry knowledge. Without context it’s just “oh, I like you guys.”

      2. Allison*

        That’s a good point. I think they emphasize being a big fan because it implies they will be enthusiastic at work, they’ll be willing to do all sorts of tasks on the job because it’ll be a labor of love, and they’ll be able to sell the hell out of those products! So it’s better to say that you would be able to genuinely sell the products, you’d be able to connect with the customer base, and you would bring passion to the job BUT ALSO make sure you convince the hiring manager that you understand what the job is, and you have the skills and experience that would enable to you do the job. Simply loving the company will only get you so far.

    3. Facepalm*

      Instead of fan, what about admirer? That connotes a respectful appreciation, rather than possible rabidity or creepy dudes in their moms’ basements or triviality. (You often hear fanboy, obsessed fan, etc.)

    4. Onyx*

      I see your point, but I think that the (necessary) additional context will make it a bit of a moot point. Neither being a “customer” nor a “fan” is going to be helpful as an isolated statement–the OP will have to be more specific about what she likes about the company and their philosophy/approach if it’s going to have much impact. And the specifics that will be noticed by someone who values the wearability of the bra (either because she is a large-chested customer herself or because she has loved ones who use their products) are probably going to be *very* different than those important to a breast-obsessed ogler, so the context would tend to make it clear what type of “fan” she is.

      Based on the complaints I’ve seen from people looking for large-cup bras, I would expect someone writing the letter from a customer perspective to compliment aspects like a good design for support, fit, and comfort (i.e., actually designing for the shape and needs of their larger-breasted customers rather than blindly scaling up a smaller bra), carrying a broad range of sizes/styles/shapes, good fitting practices in their stores (e.g., providing accurate sizes and helping to fine-tune a really good fit rather than trying to sell something “close” but ill-fitting), and/or cultivating an atmosphere that is welcoming to customers of all sizes, etc. None of which I would expect the hypothetical Breast-Obsessed Ogler (BOO) to care much about or be able to comment on intelligently.

      A customer may *also* be happy about the fact that, e.g., the company makes an effort to make attractive, pretty and/or sexy bras in their large-cup sizes rather than just plain and frumpy ones, which the BOO might also care about. But unless making sexy bras is *the* core tenet of the company’s philosophy, then I highly doubt the OP would make that the central point in her comments, if she mentioned it at all. (And if making sexy bras were indeed the company’s core tenet, then complimenting it in the cover letter seems unlikely to horrify the hiring manager.)

  10. Chai*

    I was always taught never to give a bad reference, under any circumstance, so personally I’d be telling the candidate. I find it to be such a massive breach of ethics to give a bad reference (unless she had been fired under extreme circumstances, like stealing or threatening workplace violence), that I would want to know as a candidate so I could remove that person from my references. Yes, some people don’t even bother to ask before you get listed as a reference (which I also think is rude), but I was taught (and I believe) that the diplomatic answer is “I cannot in good faith give a reference for this person. Good bye.”

    1. Myrin*

      Where do ethics come into play here, though? Obviously a reference shouldn’t brutally and obscenely slander a candidate but as per the OP, this was about an “ability to follow directions or work independently”, which seems like a reasonable thing to tell a prospective employer about.
      (And FWIW, I think “I cannot in good faith give a reference” makes the whole thing very ominous in a way that could be just as damaging as an actual bad reference. Nevermind that what is negative for one company doesn’t have to be negative for another – if someone is bad at working independently, that might not matter at all if their next employer has very strict guidelines and schedules that don’t allow for much independence anyway, for example.)

      1. Eliza*

        The second paragraph is an excellent point. Negative details about specific aspects of a candidate’s performance may or may not be relevant to a potential future job, but vague implications of unspeakable badness are always going to make a hiring manager worry.

        1. Kyrielle*

          Yes! Goodness, negative aspects at one job may be a positive at another. (A company with strict processes and guidelines probably doesn’t want an independent go-getter who figures things out on their own, at least in most roles….)

      2. Chai*

        I will agree that my language was overblown, but I genuinely believe it to be unethical to agree to give a bad reference to someone. If you can’t give someone a good reference, you shouldn’t give one, full stop. End of story. Again, people end up being unsolicited references, but the ethical thing to do in that situation is to not give a reference in a neutral manner, and *maybe* contact your former employee and make it clear that you aren’t interested in being one of their references.

        1. SunshineOH*

          I don’t understand your comments. Even the best candidates will have flaws. It’s not slander to be honest about that. If everyone operates under your philosophy, there’s no value for any manager in ever checking references. And refusing to provide any information would harm the candidate more than a factual report (at least for me, as the hiring manager).

          1. Chai*

            I can understand that, but, again, I would only refuse to provide information IF the person had not asked me to be one of their references in advance, and that’s their mistake: you have to ask your references before you list them. Anyone who asked me and got a yes would get a good reference.

            1. Colette*

              That’s actually not a good thing to do for the candidate, though. An honest reference (where you praise their strengths but also are honest about the things they struggle with) may cost them a job, but only if it’s a job they won’t do well in. Giving a falsely positive reference increases the chance of a bad fit that they will end up struggling in, and possibly getting fired from.

              1. Lance*

                And not pointing out known negatives could (could, mind you) reflect badly on the reference themselves if it’s thought that such information was withheld.

            2. Mike C.*

              But why is it unethical? If some dude was fired for sexual harassment, shouldn’t you pass that information on?

              Also, there are plenty of times a hiring manager can call people who aren’t listed to ask about a particular candidate. In fact, that’s considered a best practice.

        2. TootsNYC*

          I agree with this: “If you can’t give someone a good reference, you shouldn’t give one”–if they ASK you to be a reference.

          But if someone calls me out of the blue to ask me about someone, I have no value as a reference-giver if I don’t tell the truth.

          I get asked for information about job candidates a lot–there’s a lot of movement in my field, and I have hired so very many people on a freelance basis. So people will see my organization on my resume, and will reach out to ask me. I always give a nuanced reference (though sometimes the only nuance I can come up with is “she’s great!”). And -because- my reputation is of someone who will be honest and complete, people trust me.
          So they hire someone that I’ve said is flummoxed by procedures but good at the actual tasks, and they will put clear procedures in place. Or they will plan on them doing only the tasks, and they’ll shift the procedures to someone better.

    2. Lisa S*

      That’s not really a reasonable position to take, in the USA anyway (I cannot speak for other countires or cultures). There is certainly no breach of ethics in giving an HONEST bad reference. On the contrary, it is part of the expectation in a professional situation that one will do so. I’m not sure where you were taught this, but it is a bad practice and you should seriously reconsider following this advice.

      Your response would lead me to believe that the applicant had done something utterly atrocious, by the way. Good managers are generally willing to discuss these matters (absent a company policy of only confirming dates etc), so refusing to do so looks somewhat shady and unprofessional.

      1. Florida*

        There is a misguided notion that you can be sued or have some liability if you give a bad reference. Some people even say it’s illegal to give a bad reference (it’s not). I think that is why people are sometimes taught not to give bad references. Also, some HR people use their ghost story voice to tell managers that they are not allowed to give references because it could open the company up to liability, and the company will have to pay billions and go bankrupt, and we will all lose our jobs — all because you said that Sally had a documented absentee problem. So then people start confusing company policy with what is legal, reasonable, ethical, etc.

        1. HR Expat*

          Exactly! I’ve been fighting against this misconception in the US for ages. I mean, technically I think a candidate could sue for libel, but it’s a big stretch. There’s nothing wrong with given an honest reference, good or bad.

      2. TootsNYC*

        And there are so many ways to give a soft no (“I interacted with her only a little, so my opinion wouldn’t be that valuable,” or “she was fine, but she didn’t stand out”) that refusing completely is an A-bomb.

    3. hbc*

      “Diplomatic” in the sense that you technically didn’t say they were bad, but that everyone knows that you meant it as a negative reference. Plausible deniability.

    4. Danger: Gumption Ahead*

      I feel the same, but I would say that I couldn’t be a reference to the candidate, if they had the good sense to contact me first. If it was out of the blue, I would give an honest but kind reference and then tell the candidate after to either not use me as a reference or to only use me as a reference for jobs that require A, B, and C

      1. Zathras*

        I think this is the best approach. I’d make one exception – if the former employee was extremely irrational to the point that you’re worried about the fallout from reaching out to them, you’re excused.

        But for the reasonable people who just didn’t work out, it’s courteous to reach out once and let them know that you can’t provide a 100% positive reference, so they shouldn’t use you. Plus, if you do get called, it’s important to consider whether the job in question might play to their strengths more than whatever they did for you.

      2. Elizabeth H.*

        Same. I agree more with Chai that I would rather not engage at all (to the best of my ability) and just let the person live or die by his own sword. I would like to think that there would be a way to get out of giving a reference politely. At worst you could just say you’re sorry but you have absolutely no time to talk to [the reference-seeker], or that you don’t think you can speak to his or her work there. If it would be someone in your industry or that you know professionally calling you for the reference, that could be more tricky or difficult, but if it’s more of a cold call situation I think I would try to demur.

    5. Detective Amy Santiago*

      If no one ever gives a ‘bad’ reference, then what is the point of even checking references?

      1. Sas*

        That’s a one sided approach to take don’t you think? It’s not about references that aren’t perfect. The issue in this letter was that someone might have given a long detailed unnecessary reference. When Chai said, say you can’t give the reference. The point isn’t that your trying to ruin the persons life, right??? Or maybe you are. If you don’t give the reference, they probably wouldn’t get the job, but details are spared. Especially when someone was beginning in the world of jobs, and all of the less than favorable aspects of those situations, people aren’t always at their top yet. Compare that to someone that top of some huge company for 20 years. Big difference. However, that’s when you’ll see references not carrying the same weight. Go figure.

        1. neverjaunty*

          No, the letter was not about an “unnecessary” reference.

          It’s deeply weird to me that people are acting as if the candidate is owed the job and a negative reference – if honest – is unfair because maybe she just had ground pains.

          1. fedelini*

            It is so deeply weird. As a reference in my industry I owe more to the industry than the employee. My goal is to give a fair assessment of the employee in response to the questions I am asked in consideration of the prospective role of that employee.

    6. broadcastlady*

      We aren’t allowed to give a reference, period. I can tell you the dates the person worked for us. And that is all.

      1. Mike C.*

        Yeah, that’s a great way to prevent people from trying to leave your company. It’s nothing more than self serving under the guise of “protecting the company from lawsuits”.

        Not your fault obviously, but it really screws with the idea that people should be able to freely work for whomever they want.

        1. neverjaunty*

          No, it is actually about protecting the company from lawsuits. Not defamation, but discrimination. If Fergus leaves and later files a claim for, say, racial discrimination, the company wants to argue that the real reason Fergus never got promoted is that he was mediocre. And it’s harder to argue Fergus was mediocre if your company told his new employer how awesome Fergus is and how sorry you are to lose him.

          Companies aren’t going to come out and say this, of course, but vaguely referring to “lawsuits” is good cover.

          1. broadcastlady*

            I’ve worked here 15 years and LOVE it. We are a super small family owned radio station cluster (six small stations). The boss is a statewide politician and really, really big in our industry. I suspect we can’t give references because of the possibility of people holding it against him politically.

            1. neverjaunty*

              That could very well be. But most people think ‘they’re afraid of getting sued’ means they’re afraid of a defamation lawsuit if they say something negative in a reference, when it’s kind of the other way around.

    7. Soon to be former fed*

      Some “references” are not provided by the candidate. AAM has talking about an employer’s right to ask the references you supplied to refer them to people you did not.
      Given the bad hiring decisions made each day, the reference process is hardly sacrosanct.

      This job applicant should not have her job search tanked because she does not know how to play the reference game. Do her a solid and advise her to check her references, and leave it at that.

      A hiring manager once told me of a bad reference from someone who I thought would never do that. It was a former coworker, not manager, but they were employed where I was trying to land a position, which I did not get only because of this bad reference.

      I think personal references are fairly useless. If I had nothing good to say, I would just say that it’s my policy not to make oral representations about former employers or coworkers. Bad employees can come with glowing references, and vice-versa.

    8. neverjaunty*

      Setting aside the ethics issue, does this mean you are hanging up on people halfway through a call? Because even when you’re giving a positive reference, a smart manager might ask you an unexpected question about the person that would require you to give a less-than-glowing answer. Do you lie or suddenly insist you can’t answer that?

      Also, “I can’t give you a reference, goodbye” IS going to come across as a negative reference. Extremely negative.

      1. Elizabeth H.*

        I think there are ways to do this politely. If you are really diplomatic, you can make it sound as if it’s about you and your total lack of availability to talk to them, you could try to imply that it’s a company policy or a personal policy (which it would be) or something else. Not everyone feels like making efforts to be that diplomatic which is fine, but I probably would.

        1. neverjaunty*

          Well, that’s not so much diplomacy as it is telling a white lie. Which you’re certainly entitled to do if you just don’t want to give a reference at all – but that isn’t likely to help the candidate.

          1. Elizabeth H.*

            Right, but the idea really is exactly that, you don’t want to help the candidate, you just don’t want to hurt him or her either. You want to have no effect at all! I also either don’t feel like it’s a bad white lie to tell, or that it’s not really a white lie. It’s so normal to say that you don’t have time to do something when you simply don’t want to do it for whatever reason.

            1. Koko*

              Personally, it would depend on exactly what the problems were with the employee, but I am not necessarily invested in having no effect, either. It really, really sucks to make a bad hire and be stuck with that employee for months while you work through a PIP, a firing, and opening up a new hiring process. One bad decision based on very limited information saddles you with months of reduced productivity and is honestly emotionally taxing as well.

              If I genuinely have concerns about someone’s work/skills, I feel way more obligation to other managers to save them from that quagmire than I do obligation to the candidate. I’ll speak factually and not trash the candidate (unless they did something beyond the pale like embezzling or harassment), but I don’t have any particular investment in helping someone beat out a better-qualified candidate for a job they aren’t likely to succeed in. That doesn’t really help anyone.

  11. MicroManagered*

    OP1 I can understand wanting to build a “teachable moment” in when working with people who are newer to the job market. In this case, I agree that it would be bad form to go back to the candidate, for all the reasons Alison said. But in the future, when you ask for references, always say “It’s a good idea to make sure your references know you’re listing them. Even if a reference has previously given you permission, it’s a good idea to reach out and let them know I’ll be contacting them.” This sounds like the candidate listed a reference without asking them (as, presumably, the ask would be when she might have found out that it wasn’t a good idea.)

    OP3 I love when an OP writes to AAM using perfect wording for what they want to say!

    I have long been a customer at this store, as I love its clothes and its philosophy.

    is all you need to say, OP!

  12. Victoria*

    I’ve been in the position where a current supervisor gave a bad reference so I wouldn’t leave. That’s why I always say NO when asked if my current supervisor can be contacted.

    I think if you got two good references and one bad one, you should ask the job seeker for a couple more references. Maybe current co-workers, or a different manager?

  13. AlligatorTrainer*

    In academia I think it’s appropriate to note that a written recommendation isn’t doing a candidate favors, but calls to references would remain confidential.

    1. KaraLynn*

      We can’t control everything that others see in us that can help us or hurt us in this situation. I’m a mercenary when it comes to this stuff. Whatever works.

      1. Naomi*

        I think you’re missing a point that Alison frequently makes here: job interviews are a two-way street. OP is evaluating the company as much as they’re evaluating her, and hiring someone because of her breasts would raise serious red flags about the company culture!

        1. KaraLynn*

          I’m not missing any point. Whether or not she mentions her boob size in the cover letter, they’ll still see what she looks like when she interviews (if she does get that chance). And at that point, you’ll never know what was a contributing factor. It’s never someone hiring someone for one specific reason anyway. Why not let nature have its full effect?

          1. Danger: Gumption Ahead*

            Unless she uses her “assets” to code, they are irrelevant to an IT position. If they helped with coding, programmers would be mostly people with breasts.

          2. fposte*

            Even from the pragmatic standpoint, there are the problems that 1) big boobs can make you less professionally desirable in some contexts, whether they should or not and 2) being a person who mentions big boobs in a cover letter can definitely make you less professionally desirable.

    2. KaraLynn*

      I’m just encouraging her to use whatever she needs to to secure the position. After that, she can prove herself.

      1. Myrin*

        I’d say that you can’t really prove yourself “after” to someone who literally hired you because of your big boobs; someone who places any value on that, even if just as an additional “perk”, is always going to be thinking of you in terms of your breasts in one way or another. But we clearly have very different opinions on that matter, so I’d say it’s better to agree to disagree.

      1. Stardust*

        There is quite a difference between hiding yourself and “mention[ing] your ample bosom in your cover letter”, though!

      2. strawberries and raspberries*

        Uh, no. They’ll see what she looks like at the interview. Mentioning that she likes the products and the philosophy has no bearing on what she looks like. Nice straw man, though.

      3. Apollo Warbucks*

        I don’t understand your question. I am not saying the OP should hide herself or be ashamed. I was saying that it is dumb of you to suggest that having a large bosom in some way can help the OP get an IT job, or should some how be taken into account in making a hiring decision.

      4. blackcat*

        Uh, I am totally not ashamed of how I look, but also dress to minimize the appearance my massive boobs. Emphasizing the boobs 100% makes people (men and women alike) take me less seriously.

        I NEVER want to work in an environment where my boobs are considered an asset, because I never want to draw attention to them in the workplace. I NEVER want my coworkers thinking sexual thoughts about me (I get that I can’t avoid it completely, but I can try to discourage it).

        I don’t think I am unusual among large chested women… The options aren’t “flaunt it if you’ve got it” and “shamefully hide the boobs.” Most of us aim for “Dress professionally in a way that means the boobs are not distracting.”

        1. KaraLynn*

          To each her own. I just never want to miss out on a good opportunity because of something silly like this.

          1. AvonLady Barksdale*

            Whaaaat? Oh, ok, I get it. I work in a male-dominated segment of my industry. I should show more cleavage, it’ll get me ahead faster.

            That line of thinking boggles.

              1. AvonLady Barksdale*

                May I ask… is this how you’ve “done” it? Are you a high-level executive in your field? Do you think your competence is above average, that you’ve learned and worked and built yourself a great reputation?

                My chest has never held me back, nor has it moved me forward. I’m not doing as well as I had hoped a few years ago, but I can point to a ton of reasons why that is, and not one of them has anything to do with my “assets”.

                Besides, this misses the entire point of the OP’s letter. She isn’t interested in standing out for her physical attributes, and she wants a gut check on whether an allusion to them is inappropriate. In most cases, I promise you, it IS. This is a unique one, and the OP is just fine.

              2. KaraLynn*

                @AvonLady Barksdale

                I’ve done things others might not be proud of, but I have no shame of them. I’m not an executive but I’m well-liked and respected in my field, with plenty of close connections who support me as I support them.

                Can you really tell if your chest has ever helped or hurt you? I bet it’s done one or the other at some point.

                The OP just needs a little push, is all. That’s why she wrote in asking for advice in the first place.

              3. neverjaunty*

                That’s all very interesting but doesn’t really answer the question. Has “check out my rack” really worked for you as a strategy to get hired and then succeed well in your career?

              4. Lance*

                The OP wrote in for advice asking how to handle a cover letter to a shop she frequents and appreciates, specific reason notwithstanding… and for an IT job, no less, meaning if she can’t get by on actual skills, not her bust size, it’s not going to be a good position.

                To Alison, I’d respectfully ask that this particular thread be shut down, because it’s venturing quite a ways into encouraging sexist tropes.

          2. blackcat*

            See, I don’t think an opportunity where my boob-size is treated as a plus as a good opportunity. Maybe I get a job in the short term, but a place that is inclined to hire me based on my boobs is highly unlikely to be a place that supports my long term success.

            Your attitude that showing boobs helps is… just not true in 90% of industries. It may get a foot in the door, but it won’t foster long-term success. You’ll be “Jane with the boobs” rather than “Jane the rockstar.”

            1. KaraLynn*

              This is a lie we tell ourselves. Yet if you only knew how many advantages you were already receiving in your life because of things like the way you look, you’d probably be shocked. So what’s the difference if you help it along a little?

              1. Elizabeth H.*

                Just to play devil’s advocate here, we all know that unfortunately, attractive people are viewed more favorably in professional contexts. This is partly because of impostor syndrome, but sometimes I’ve felt like how I look is part of why people would pay attention to what I say, or helped people be interested in my work, when I was a grad student. (Now that I’m older I feel a lot more confident about my merits on their own) I do think this can be useful and I certainly try to look attractive, not just professional, in situations where I’m trying to make a professionally favorable impression.

              2. fposte*

                Of course, your view may also be a lie you tell yourself–you may be limiting yourself with your rack focus and not just reaping advantage from it. Objective truth isn’t something any of us are in possession of.

          3. Wannabe Disney Princess*

            But…if someone hires me BECAUSE of my boobs that’s not (to me) a good opportunity.

            Yes, you’re right that it may not be *the* factor but if I dress in a way that accentuates that I’ll never be fully sure that it wasn’t. What may be “silly” to you, is my body and my career to me.

      5. AvonLady Barksdale*

        There’s a whole lot of room between hiding one’s attributes and calling extra attention to them in the hopes of getting a job.

      6. That Would Be a Good Band Name*

        I’d have her not play into sexist tropes that’s held women back for centuries?

          1. That Would Be a Good Band Name*

            I’m completely sure that I’d have her not do that. I’m not sure that you see that is what you’re advocating.

    3. strawberries and raspberries*

      Respectfully, this sounds a lot less like “this worked for me” advice and a lot more like an opportunity to backhand the OP for her bust size.

      Agreed, but not respectfully, because the original sentiment is pretty goddamn disrespectful.

      1. Danger: Gumption Ahead*

        Honestly, it may not have been intended, but you kind of did come off making it sound like well endowed women have gotten where they are because of their endowments, rather than their achievements, whether they wanted to recognize it or not. This is both belittling to people’s accomplishments and wrong in the majority of industries

        1. KaraLynn*

          That couldn’t be my intention because I’m one of those well-endowed women. Trust me – I’ve never lacked for attention in that department.

          1. (Different) Rebecca*

            …I’m going to agree with the previous commenters: this is no way addresses the OP’s issues, and is completely inappropriate both professionally and for this forum. Just, wow.

              1. (Different) Rebecca*

                She, above, multiple times, has asked you to stop. So stop.

                And speaking for myself, and other commenters here who have said the same thing, such ideas even/especially coming from women are sexist, demeaning, and unwanted. I neither dress to accentuate or minimize my boobs when in a professional setting for one simple reason: they do not matter.

              2. Wannabe Disney Princess*

                But she didn’t ask what to wear to the interview. She simply asked if she should mention that she’s a customer in her cover letter (which, LW – yes, you should).

                To act like this is the only way to get a “boost”, as you put it, is unhelpful. Not to mention insulting to those of us who are big chested.

  14. KC*

    #2: I honestly don’t think the email was that bad. I certainly wouldn’t blacklist a candidate for sending me something like that (and I’ve received multiple, multiple similar communications). Maybe I’m just too nice. People are excited about jobs. I’ve always interpreted them to be “Hey, you liked me a lot, let’s continue the process to see if I’ll be a top contender, so if the job is going to be filled again in the future, you’ll come to me first”. In fact, sometimes I’ve even asked local candidates if they’ll come in for a final interview even though the position is on hold or cancelled (I let them know this fact) in case we will eventually want to fill it.

    I don’t know the job or the industry, so this would be a lot more acceptable if the candidate was very junior, than someone more senior.

    1. C*

      I am in my late 20s but after reading Alison’s and other commenters’ responses, I think the better approach is to try to move on like a previous commenter suggested and not put myself in a bad situation. It is nice to hear less negative feedback on this and know not everyone thinks this was a bad move but I will stay away from this approach in the future as it doesn’t seem like the upside is worth it.

      1. Myrin*

        You sound very mature and like you learned a lot from this, OP – good for you! I wish you all the best in your job search!

  15. What the French, Toast*

    OP#4, I’m thrilled your husband wants to be the next Leslie Knope! Good luck to him in that endeavor.

    1. OP4*

      Thanks! I’ll pass that along.
      (When he read this, he said he’d settle for being the next Ben Wyatt if he had to.)

    2. Koko*

      Seriously, I ask myself, “What would Leslie Knope do?” from time to time. It’s so unusual to have a TV character who has such a strong moral compass but isn’t portrayed as a total stick-in-the-mud/conservative/nun.

  16. Moonpie*

    I have a different take on #1; I actually had an interviewer contact me once regarding a reference I’d provided. I was honestly incredibly grateful.

    The reference had been my supervisor at a previous workplace 2 years prior, and when she knew I was looking to move on, she warmly welcomed me to use her. I did and secured the next job with no issue (I had limited relevant prior job history except for working under her for 4 years, so I’m positive she was contacted). When this new opportunity came up, I submitted her name again along with 2 additional references in what I thought was total confidence.

    When the hiring manager called me to let me know I’d done well but ultimately they’d gone with an internal candidate, he paused and then asked me if I knew of any issues with that reference. I was truly stumped, and he went on to tell me she had been extremely negative about my work and attitude (things that were honestly untrue). My other 2 references had given very positive, specific assessments. He said he wanted to be clear that the negative reference wasn’t the reason I didn’t get the job and that I was encouraged to apply for any additional openings with them, but he wanted to let me know because the contrast in references was so startling he felt I may want to be aware of that before I used her for future jobs.

    I of course took her off my reference list, but I would never have known to if he didn’t tell me. I didn’t see this woman socially and I’d moved into a different area of our industry so I didn’t intersect with her professionally anymore. She was so positive and supportive of my goals in leaving originally, and I genuinely have no idea what would have changed her thoughts on me in the time since I’d left her company, but I’ve always appreciated the hiring manager letting me know.

    1. Mike C.*

      This is exactly what happened to a friend of mine. He followed the same basic rules about asking first and was told “oh yeah, I’d love to be a reference for you” then was getting no where in his job search. Lots of 2nd/3rd interviews but no offers. He didn’t find work until someone told him what was going on.

    2. mskyle*

      Yeah, this happened to me too – my first boss from my first post-college job (an academic biology lab) agreed to be a reference for me, and although I knew we had had some rocky times, I felt like not having her as a reference was about as bad as having her as a lukewarm reference.

      Well, I was completely wrong! She wasn’t lukewarm, she was actually kind of vicious, from what I came to understand. The first person who told me about problems with the reference was a recruiter, and they said something along the lines of “you weren’t hired for this position because of a problem with your references.” I had phone screen right around that time, and I froze up when the hiring manager asked me if he could contact my previous manager; I explained the situation frankly, that I only had the one previous manager and that I had reason to believe that she wasn’t giving me a good reference.

      The guy did contact my previous boss, and I got an interview anyway (although I did not get the job), and he let me know some of what she was saying and said that I absolutely should not let anyone else talk to her if I could avoid it. Basically from what he said it sounded like she was so mean and brought up such weird things he didn’t know whether to take it seriously. One thing I remember is that he said she said that I read novels during work (which was kind of true… sometimes I would work from 9AM to 10PM, and YES I would read a novel while I ate my Hot Pocket in the hallway outside the lab while something was incubating). The guy said although it sounded like there were problems, he was disturbed by how she didn’t take any responsibility for any of them.

      So while in the case of a standard, professional negative reference I wouldn’t go further than saying something like, “after speaking with your references, we’ve decided not to go forward,” if someone’s giving a mean-spirited, unprofessional reference, I think they waive some of their right to the professional courtesy of expecting their reference to be kept private.

    3. Mabel*

      I wonder what happened that led her to give you such a bad (and untrue) reference. Did you ever find out?

      1. Moonpie*

        I never did. It was 15 years ago (but evidently sharp in the memory), and I’ve moved to another town and industry so I don’t think I’ll ever know. I do know she would also have liked to move on but felt she had extenuating circumstances that made it too difficult for her to do so. The job-that-wasn’t was at a very prominent institution in our town, so the only thing I could think of was jealousy that I was possibly progressing yet again and she wasnt?

    4. paul*

      I think this is great evidence for behavior being situational.

      In general, no, I don’t think you should share waht references said. But if you get the vibe that a reference is being untruthful, spiteful, etc? Yeah, please do.

      1. fposte*

        I also think that you might sometimes split the difference with a neutral statement about recommending that applicants check their own references.

        I haven’t encountered a surprising bad reference for a candidate; with prospective student employees, my response might depend on who the reference was and what else I knew about them, but I’d feel slightly more interventionist due to the inherent mentoring involved. I did tell one that one of her references was, more or less, an uncontactable flake; that wasn’t releasing anything shared confidentially, and I was annoyed at the reference for wasting my time in repeatedly stating when she’d be able to take a call and then not answering.

    5. Super Anon for This*

      Yeah, I am kind of alarmed by how highly people seem to be regarding references. I have seen way too many stories of vicious, vindictive bosses ruin a person with a bad reference than I have seen them be useful I guess.

      Especially considering all the stories of bad managers here on the website!

      And the tone in the letter, Allison’s tone, and that of the commenters seems to be that they wouldn’t hire the person who got two good references and one bad one!

  17. Allison*

    #2 I agree with AAM, your email seemed to be written under the impression that you can change their minds – like if they gave you the chance, you’d show them how awesome you are, and you could convince them to move heaven and earth to bring you on board. It sounds naive, it sounds presumptuous, it sounds like you either don’t know how things work or you feel that you’re special enough that reality doesn’t apply to you.

    What would have been better is telling them you’re disappointed it couldn’t work out this time, but you hope that if they ever are looking to fill that position or a similar one in the area, you hope to be considered. If you were a final candidate, there’s a good chance they’ll remember you.

    1. MicroManagered*

      I agree that the email was probably off-putting. I’m curious though… It sounded like (the way I read it, at least) that the position was moved to another location. Would it have been as presumptuous to say “I’m really disappointed it didn’t work out. I completely understand if this doesn’t change anything, but I’d be willing to consider relocation for this position.”?

      If the company is canceling the interview under the assumption that OP would not move from say, Kalamazoo to Albuquerque for the position — but she actually WOULD — is it ok to clarify that?

      1. C*

        You are correct. The position was moved to another location and I believe they did cancel it under the assumption that relocation would not be an option. I did not consider asking that question because it was not an option for me at the time. I am curious to hear if others think it would be ok to clarify that.

        1. JulieBulie*

          If you had a time machine and could do it over again, taking into account the other feedback you’ve received, then yeah maybe? But if you mean would it be okay to email them again now… no.

        2. MicroManagered*

          In that hypothetical situation (which I get wasn’t the case), I personally feel like it’d be ok to clarify that relocation wouldn’t be a deal-breaker for you. But that’s about as far as it could go.

          With that said, I really related to the sentiment behind your email. I get so nervous about job interviews and devote so much energy to preparing when I’m really going after a job that I want… I would feel pretty bamboozled if an interview I had already scheduled got canceled. I understand the impulse to send what you did.

  18. Applesauced*

    In #1, could you contact the reference and suggest they talk with the applicant about not being listed as a reference again?
    …but I can’t figure out how to phrase it without saying “Fergus didn’t get the job becasue of you/what you said, maybe you should tell him to stop having people call you”

  19. Hiring Mgr*

    I’ve given lots of references over the years, and I’ve only been asked by people who know I will give them a strong recommendation. It doesn’t make sense to me why someone who isn’t certain what the reference will say would list them, or at least not talk to them about it first. Even with the ones who I give great references for, when they ask me I’ll usually ask if there’s anything specific they want me to mention, emphasize, etc..

    As to the confidentiality part, I’m not sure about that…Several years ago when I was going through the ref check process myself, the HR person called to let me know that one of my refs was kind of grumpy and a bit rude on the phone with her (he gave me a good reference,I got the job but she wanted to let me know maybe not to list him in the future as it could have given a bad impression).. I was definitely glad to know this!

    1. Mike C.*

      It doesn’t make sense to me why someone who isn’t certain what the reference will say would list them, or at least not talk to them about it first

      Vindictiveness or spite come to mind. References are human beings too, and sometimes there’s a bad actor at play.

      1. neverjaunty*

        Conversely, some people are oblivious to how their actions affect others, or worse, assume they can guilt other people into doing them favors. This is why there are a lot of comments about “I got a call and Bob never asked if I would be a reference” – Bob either didn’t care about that time he stole credit for your project (because why would he) or he assumed you’d just say nice things about him if you got an unexpected call.

        1. Mike C.*

          But I’m not speaking to that situation, I’ve only been speaking to the situation when a reference was happy to become one, then trashed the candidate when called.

          1. neverjaunty*

            Hiring Mgr asked why someone would ask for a reference when they didn’t know what the reference would say. You offered one explanation, which is that some people are vindictive. Another explanation is that some people are clueless that a reference might be negative.

      2. Sunshine on a cloudy day*

        Or the manager is conflict avoidant and couldn’t bring themself to say “no, I will not be able to provide a positive reference for you” so they just said “sure, no problem” when asked to act as a reference.

    2. mskyle*

      It doesn’t make sense to me why someone who isn’t certain what the reference will say would list them, or at least not talk to them about it first

      But if you have a short work history and a limited number of people to choose from for references, you don’t necessarily have the luxury of picking and choosing – if you only have one or two former bosses (either total or in your current career path, or whatever), you might be worried about the quality of a reference, but not have a lot of other options.

      I mentioned a former boss who gave me an actively unkind reference (I think basically it came from her inability to accept responsibility for anything bad that happened in her lab – I was her only full-time employee, so I must have been responsible for everything that went wrong, because it sure wasn’t her). But she was my only prior boss, so it was really hard to *not* use her.

      I had another boss who I was afraid to use as a reference just because she was a relentlessly negative person – I knew she thought I did a good job, but she was so negative about EVERYTHING I worried she’d feel like she had to say something negative about me in the interview anyway.

      1. Hiring Mgr*

        Makes sense, I hadn’t thought about it like that… It seems like there’s something wrong with the general way references are done–like in the case you mention you should just be able to list a colleague who can speak to your work without it being an issue… Personally I don’t really do much reference checking–occasionally I’ll “backdoor” if I know someone who may have worked with the candidate…

        1. Kyrielle*

          But as Alison notes, a coworker doesn’t provide the same sort of reference a boss might. Sometimes coworkers are really not aware of the full picture of someone’s work or issues that may be present. (If the issues are obvious enough, they will be – but otherwise, maybe only the manager realizes that someone’s productivity numbers aren’t just a little low, but REALLY low, or the like.)

          A coworker reference isn’t useless! But in some cases it’s not going to be good.

          And “I don’t have a lot of references” can be a problem if someone is early-career, or if they’ve stayed at the same company a long time and most or all of their previous bosses are still in the company somewhere.

          (Or deceased. As I was trying to figure out references for my job search that landed current-position, and listing off everyone I’d worked for in my head to decide who to list as references, there were a couple former bosses in that category, sadly.)

          1. Hiring Mgr*

            I get that…Everyone sees things from their own lens. The colleague may have a limited view, but so may the boss in certain instances. I think for me it’s more around how much weight you give to references in the entire equation. They typically come in at the end of the process when presumably the candidate is close to an offer, or at least a finalist…So that far down the road, how much does one data point alter the perception?

            1. Kyrielle*

              I think that depends on the data point. I mean, there are obviously extreme ones where it would mean a lot. (“She was fired for time card fraud.”)

              But I have also met a lot of people, both at work and in the world, who talk themselves up well, and can make a good impression on a skills test, but who have other issues (like focus, or follow-through, or not dealing well with rigid process, or not dealing well *without* rigid process, or trying to impose rigid process on everyone whether it’s needed or not) that may not have come out in an interview situation, especially where they’re trying to make their best impression.

              A reference (and more strongly, 2-3 references) that speak to a problem that’s concerning for your company or team is worth a revisit. Sometimes that’s a switch to ‘no’ – especially if you were already not completely confident this was the right person (only the “best” – sometimes you’re better off waiting and not filling the position). Other times it’s just worth a further discussion with the candidate.

              And sometimes, it’s not going to affect you at all, or it might make you happier with the hire. (“I think Fergus really struggled with the frequent changes that happen here, in priority and in assigned projects.” – to a company that doesn’t have a firefighting approach and mostly commits to things and then sticks to them, that’s not a negative statement. To the last place I worked, it would have been a sign that Fergus would run screaming for the hills as soon as he could, if he placed any value on his sanity.)

              The candidate that you aren’t completely confident is right might go up a notch if, for example, the reference was positive or highly positive in areas your company cares about. (We should all be so lucky as to have references like that!)

        2. neverjaunty*

          AAM has posted before about why it’s crucial to check references – it’s a lot more than a colleague saying nice things about the applicant.

        3. Koko*

          I used coworker references early in my career when I didn’t have enough manager references, and got jobs with them! It’s just that they don’t strengthen your candidacy as much as manager references, so if it comes down to you and someone else, the person who has 3 glowing manager references is likely to beat out the person with 1 manager and 2 colleagues. It’s less that hiring managers look down on coworker references and more that they just don’t carry as much weight.

          I find it really useful to think about the concept of “candidacy” being something you present rather than who you are. You’re trying to figure out how to put forward the presentation that gives you the best chance at the job, given your own unique situation.

          A comparable analogy for someone who has never done hiring is thinking about the way you shop on Amazon. Most of us are more likely to buy a product if it has a high star rating from other customers. We also consider how many people have rated the product – a 4.5 based on 3,000 reviews is better than a 5.0 based on 4 reviews. When we decide what product to buy, it’s not because we’re really certain of the true nature of the product. We made the best decision we could with limited available information. The 5.0 product might genuinely be better, but it’s a bigger risk to take the word of 4 people over 3,000, and a safer bet to choose the 4.5 star product.

          1. Danger: Gumption Ahead*

            I do something a little odd, but it seems to work: I tailor my reference list by topic. For example, if I am applying to a job at Llamas! Llamas! Llamas! as a llama whisperer who is supposed to work on whispering, policy, and llama outreach, I’ll list 3 names under whispering (1-2 bosses+someone else), 3 names under policy (1 boss+2 others), and outreach (1 boss, 1 external stakeholder, 1 internal stakeholder). The hiring manager can choose which areas they want more information about and whose voice they are most interested in hearing.

    3. Science!*

      I did once. I was young and naive and I had never been told much about job seeking. I was in college and looking for my first post-college job. I had a resume, and I had asked certain professors to be my references. One professor I did not ask because I had had to end a research project with him due to a bad mentor/mentee relationship. But it was one of my only real experiences in the lab, and I thought I was required to put it on my resume anyway, so I listed it. I applied for a lab tech position and during the interview the PI (boss) discussed my resume with me (super awkward!) and later asked my for my list of references. I hadn’t realized I was supposed to bring them with me so I told him I’d email him the references. He casually commented “Oh and I’ll expect your summer internship mentor to be on there.”

      I completely panicked and that day I went home, and added my adversarial mentor to the list because I assumed I wouldn’t get the job otherwise and emailed the list. Surprise, surprise I did not get that job (I’m actually glad, I know that PI better now and I would never want to work for him!)

      A couple weeks later I had another interview and this time I knew to bring my list with me, and so I could make sure that mentor was not on it. I got that job and was able to prove myself very well so when I applied to graduate school, my PI gave me a glowing recommendation.

  20. Former Ops Manager*

    Op#1. I know it’s unlikely, but there is a possibility that her supervisor was not a good supervisor. My former inexperienced/unqualified boss (nepotism hire) and I got on horribly, but my grand boss, and industry veteran with 50 years experience, would give me a wonderful reference for the same work. (Yes, 50 years- he came out of retirement to help this very disfunctional org.) Did the other references say anything that might have indicated she had those issues/troubles before?

  21. Sunshine on a cloudy day*

    Have to say I disagree a bit with Alison on #1. I firmly believe that anything said within a reference should have been said or addressed with the employee during their tenure with the reference (at least for any reference involving a direct manager). Sort of like a firing. If the reference found the employee to lack the ability to work independently, that feedback should have been provided to the employee at somepoint, and therefore should not be a surprise if it comes up within a reference check.

    I think the advice given is also predicated on the idea that every manager is honest, ethical, upstanding and NOT conflict-avoidant (IE: would actually honestly say “I can’t give you a good reference” if asked to act a reference). Unfortunately, based on my personal experience, and the wide variety of letters that come in here, we all know that is not the case. I think it really evens the playing field between employer and employee to at least give the person some sort of indication that their reference choices are problematic. It gives them the opportunity to address the issue.

    1. serenity*

      I think the advice given is also predicated on the idea that every manager is honest, ethical, upstanding and NOT conflict-avoidant

      So how about the flip side of that, and thinking about employees (or co-workers) who are inept, or incompetent, or simply deadwood? If that person is told that a previous supervisor is giving them a “bad” (read: true) reference, and they then curate their references carefully so there’s only positive stuff being said about them going forward, how does that impact other companies or their future managers and co-workers? Is that something we’re all completely ok with? We’ll just never have the ability to accurately gauge the performance or capabilities of candidates because those evil ol’ bad references will be eradicated? If honest, critical feedback is not going to be shared in the reference-collecting process, why even bother?

      I’m going to agree with the points neverjaunty has made above and say I don’t really understand why folks think people need to be “protected” from references that are inherently thought of as coming from managers/supervisors with evil intentions. That’s just not the way references should work.

      1. Hiring Mgr*

        Not sure what you mean, most people are already doing exactly this–listing references who will speak positively about them.

        If I had a previous manager who I felt wasn’t going to say good things about my work, the potential new employer can find them on their own, but I’m not serving them up


        1. serenity*

          Not sure what you mean, most people are already doing exactly this–listing references who will speak positively about them.

          Right, but if we go forward and become comfortable with severing the confidentiality and having (prospective) employers share with candidates that “Hey, xyz person gave a poor reference for you and here is exactly what they said”…..then that makes it much more challenging for people to 1) feel comfortable giving candid references, and it also 2) allows underperforming employees to game the system more easily to avoid those candid references

          1. Hiring Mgr*

            I get what you’re saying, but if the candidness of the reference is such a crucial component, why is the common custom for the employee to provide the list? That seems to bake the “gaming” into the process…That’s why when I do check references, it’s usually via the backdoor–but that has its limitations as well.

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              Good reference checkers don’t just accept any old list. If you get a list with no managers from the last few jobs, a good reference checker is going to say, “can you put me in touch with a more recent manager” or “can you put me in touch with your last two managers”? If there’s a reason the candidate thinks they’ll get an unfair reference from that person, at that point they can explain it — but just taking any list the candidate presents with no regard for who’s on it is a pretty bad practice.

              1. Hiring Mgr*

                Yes of course, but if these discussions were predicated on people doing the right and intelligent things, your column wouldn’t be needed :)

                1. JamieS*

                  I have to disagree here. Even then AAM would still be needed. Sure occasionally the advice given is on things that are fairly obvious to people with a modicum of intelligence but I think more often than not people ask advice about things that are more nuanced than “when checking references for a position should I look no further than the sub-par reference list a job candidate provides?” Even when the topic at hand is something that’s normally fairly obvious it often has some wrinkle in it that makes it harder to have a definitive and obvious answer.

      2. Sunshine on a cloudy day*

        I’m confused. I’m not in anyway saying that references shouldn’t be checked because of the possiblity of an “evil ol’ bad reference”. I was saying that I disagree that references should be kept confidential at all costs.

        Also candidates are already encouraged to curate their references by asking their potential references if they would be willing to act as a reference and presumably NOT including if the potential reference doesn’t seem willing to do so…

        My point was – anything negative a reference has to share about a former report should not be a surprise, therefore why is there a need for confidentiality?

    2. Colette*

      It’s possible it was discussed with the employee. Some people don’t connect the dots between “glad to be away from that boss, she was always harping about X” and “boss gave me a bad reference”.

      1. serenity*

        Exactly. I find it odd that someone who’s presumably been a hiring manager hasn’t encountered situations where people didn’t want to accept that they had had performance issues in prior jobs (and were either clueless or feigned surprise at subpar references).

          1. neverjaunty*

            But you’re not always going to know that without checking references. Some people are very good at presenting themselves, and figure that you won’t check references or find out about bad ones.

  22. nosy nelly*

    I wonder if it might be a good idea for people generally to try to have a conversation with any potential references when they’re looking for a job–like heading off the situation before it happens. If someone I asked for a reference said “I’m not sure I’d be able to do that” it would be really cool to then be able to have a good conversation about their concerns, whether I might have had any experience in the intervening time that might have made up for deficiencies they were aware of, etc. Because nobody’s perfect, right? And in truth, a person whose first job ends with a manager thinking “eh, I wish they were better at communicating with stakeholders and not so abrupt on the phone” could get a bad reference from that manager. But if the same person’s second job provided that person with the opportunity to improve their communication/phone skills, the bad reference might not be so relevant anymore. And it’s not like the first and second supervisors would know to talk to each other and compare notes, or know what arenas provided the employee most growth over multiple positions….But this kind of conversation doesn’t seem to be the norm. Maybe I’m wrong?

    Basically I wish there was a more common and straightforward way for candidates to understand how their full candidacy looked to hiring managers, without breaching the many ethical boundaries that exist in the hiring process.

    1. nosy nelly*

      And yes, I know it’s really common for people to *ask* their references, but does it usually go beyond that into a more detailed conversation? If so, are former managers generally okay with using their time for such a conversation? And managers, do you ever provide more details to someone whose reference you give in a lukewarm or qualified manner? I’m very early career still so truly wondering.

    2. fposte*

      I think a conversation is a good idea, but I’d never change a reference based on what somebody did after they worked for me–I’m testifying to who they were when I managed them. When I’m calling references, if they’re going in order I might probe more deeply at any shortcomings that were suggested by previous references, but I’m usually already covering the kind of things I need to know about, and I’d certainly allow for growth of skills.

      1. nosy nelly*

        Glad to hear “if they’re going in order I might probe more deeply at any shortcomings that were suggested by previous references“! What determines if they go in order?

        1. fposte*

          Sheer chance. References are a logistical challenge to get a hold of and there’s really no possibility to schedule them in any particular order.

  23. Alton*

    With regard to references and warning people, I think my feelings depend a lot on how out of sync the bad reference is. If two references are glowing but the third says that the candidate didn’t always complete tasks on time and didn’t take feedback well, I’d be inclined to trust that that was the reference’s honest experience with the candidate, even if it was subjective.

    If the reference says that the candidate was the worst employee they ever had and that they did all sorts of horrible stuff, then that’s…stranger. First of all, any major problems hopefully should have come up in feedback or been documented, so it’s strange if the candidate doesn’t know about it. Some people are really oblivious enough that they don’t realize how bad of employees they are and what their managers think of them, but in my experience those people usually aren’t able to pull it together enough to get a glowing reference from anyone. They think they’re already great, so they don’t make an effort to fake it.

    So when there’s a big disparity in references, I’m inclined to think that either 1) the negative reference is questionable or 2) the candidate’s positive references aren’t trustworthy. I think it’s less a matter of the candidate deserving to know what a reference said and more a matter of giving a promising candidate a fair chance to address stuff that comes up. I see it as being similar to giving someone a chance to explain a firing before automatically rejecting them, for example.

    1. neverjaunty*

      Right. And the way to dig into that is to ask specific questions. Not just “did you think Warren was a good employee?”

    2. Rocky*

      I was the candidate with 2 good reference and one who, it turned out, was raising unexpected things. I found out because after I landed the job, a kind HR person told me in confidence. The HR persons’ words were “this guy seemed to have nothing good to say about you – and it was in such contrast with your other two referees that the hiring manager was certain the problem was with him!” Apparently my earlier manager raised the fact that one time he wanted me, I wasn’t at my desk because I had a personal appointment (which was within my leave entitlement and was marked in my diary). This struck the hiring manager as a puzzlingly petty thing to say, so she discounted him as a referee.

  24. Anon anon anon*

    #1 – I agree with Allison about respecting the references’ privacy. However, I think there could be a way to mention it. Not during the hiring process. But if you end up hiring this person or keeping in touch with them, you could give them some general advice about how to select references. They might or might not connect the dots. Just advise them to do whatever they could have done to avoid the current situation. For example, “I always recommend that people list references who will say the kindest things about them, even if that means choosing a mentor from your previous workplace instead of someone who you reported to.”

    #3 – I would not mention it in a cover letter for an IT job. Don’t say anything that could be interpreted as an implication about your own body. Instead, say something very general. The kind of thing you would say if you were writing an essay for a social sciences class. “In an industry that overwhelmingly caters to one body type, it is admirable when companies choose a different business model. I would be proud to support this and to be a part of this mission.” Badly worded. Don’t say exactly that. Just something kind of like that or nothing at all.

  25. Hiring Mgr*

    Not sure what you mean, most people are already doing exactly this–listing references who will speak positiviely about them.

    If I had a previous manager who I felt wasn’t going to say good things about my work, the potential new employer can find them on their own, but I’m not serving them up

  26. Miss Elaine e*

    I was wondering if people in general would please stop referring to breasts as “boobs,” “ta-tas,” etc. What’s wrong with “breasts,” or “chest” etc. ?

    The other terms sound so Junior-high-boys’-locker-room and frankly silly when used among adults.

    1. Delphine*

      Some people would find “breasts” too clinical, and “chest” doesn’t exactly get the message across. Let women use whatever language pleases them to describe their bodies.

    2. Isobel*

      If the company in question is the one I think it is, they use “boobs” in their catalogue copy, so I can see why the OP would use the same term writing to AAM. I think the aim is to sound chatty and not too clinical, but I take your point, it can verge on the twee.
      Good luck with the job, OP – I really like the company too – their range of products is great and the customer service is excellent.

  27. Allison*

    #3 I’d be so tempted to say, in my cover letter, that my experience as a customer in that store would make me the breast person for the job . . . but I won’t advise it . . .

  28. Hiring Mgr*

    “Ability to follow directions or work independently” … Other than that, she was a great employee!

  29. Sizzle*

    #1 happened to me early in my career. I listed one of my previous supervisors who complained about my tardiness and attitude to the reference checker. I was floored because I was always on time and thought I got along well with the staff (I was a student worker in our campus bookstore). My boss asked me why I listed that reference on my application, I told her that she was my most recent supervisor and that I thought she would give me a good reference. My boss then suggested that I find another reference and shared what had been said about me. I didn’t have enough job searching experience to know that I had some flexibility regarding who I listed as a reference and I learned a very valuable lesson.

  30. Kiwi*

    OP1, you could get the candidate back in for another interview and probe about how she handled following directions and working independently at her last job. And ask for more info about why she left. That would give you more info for the hiring decision, in case the previous manager was a flake at giving directions, and she might read between the lines and realise that the manager had said stuff to prompt your line of questioning.

    I’m a little iffy about suggesting this, because I agree that references must, must, must stay confidential, but it’d be a valid way for you to explore the concerns.

  31. A White Manager Dragging A Black Employee in Reference*

    References: oh boy do I wish I could have warned one young woman in her 20s NOT to use her supervisor. (FWIW, I’m white.) I was hiring for a junior position, came down to a white applicant and a black applicant. The white applicant was like top-of-her-class glowing references. (A year later she pushed me out and got my job). The black applicant has worked in a mostly-white state for a year in the field, but in a new position. Unfortunately, her manager at that position, whom she had to get some kind of signed permission to give a reference for, tanked her. Said that she didn’t ask for help, struggled in the position. It was mostly “She’s really dedicated but she struggled in the job and refused to ask for help.” Due to the fact it was an entirely new position, this was this woman’s first job, and tbh, I’ve seen this level of interaction between white managers/black women, I understood the dynamic. A 2osomething who moves to a new state for an entirely new position does not always feel comfortable admitting to her superior she’s struggling, thinking admitting that will get her fired. Which is what happened. The problem was the other 2 references this applicant gave were not in a supervisory position. They were colleagues, coworkers or professional friends.

    However when it came to the writing test for the job, the black applicant’s writing sample was better. I also knew this candidate had more experience in the topic area of the job. The white applicant’s experience duplicated my own, so I wanted someone who would have a different perspective and experience than my own.

    I wanted to hire the black applicant, even with the less than glowing supervisor’s reference, but MY manager basically refused to let me. We had a meeting that pretty much wasn’t going to end until I agreed to hire the white applicant (who did have everything down on paper as a great candidate). Did I mention this office was trying to show it could attract more black applicants? In hindsight, I now have some other tricks I could have done to convince MY manager to allow me to pick the assistant I wanted, but at the time this was my first hiring of a staff position. I don’t know if I sensed anything about the white applicant, I actually thought we’d work together fine but that turned out not to be the case. She subtly undercut me for a year and then managed to get me pushed out and took my job with the help of my MY manager.

    But MY GOD do I wished I could have told that black applicant not to use her former supervisor as a reference and if possible to find another person who had a supervisory position over her. I think she was talented and dedicated but young. That job had been her first career position. I felt like I understood why she struggled in that position and was willing to take her on because I felt I could manage her properly. And yes, this “fits in better with the office culture” is how offices end up mostly white even when everyone assures themselves they are trying to hire non-white applicants.

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