we offered someone a job — and then he got a bad reference

A reader writes:

We recently offered a new employee a job, with a job offer email that included the following line: “The position is permanent and will be subject to a three-month probationary period and reference check.”

We made the offer contingent on references because one of his references was his current employer and he didn’t want us to approach them until he’d handed in his notice.

We have now had references back and the one from his current employer was really worrying, which has made us think that he is definitely not the person for the job. Can we retract the offer? Help!

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

{ 218 comments… read them below }

  1. Not All*

    Ugh. I had a previous manager who sabotaged not one, not two, but *four* job offers for me before I found out that’s why offers were being pulled. It was awful. Please, please talk to the applicant and give him a chance to provide alternate references from the current position!

    1. t*

      Agree! Lots of old bosses give bad references out of spite that the employee left. I would definitely give the candidate a chance to rebut the reference.

      1. Annony*

        It sounds like he expected his boss to react poorly since he specifically said he wanted to resign before they were contacted. If the other references were good I would take this one with a grain of salt.

        1. Threeve*

          I’m confused by “one of his references was his current employer and he didn’t want us to approach them until he’d handed in his notice.” Did he choose to list them as a reference, or did the hiring company require it?

          1. Mari*

            I do that on my applications as well – until I got laid off, now I just list the last employer, lol.

            My last American job was 5 years ago and I’m not sure how much a future employer would care about that reference, but my last actual job was in Germany so it’s more complicated to get in touch. So I included my job with that caveat, so that they would definitely have enough viable references.

            I also don’t want to imply that my current employer would give me a BAD reference, I just wouldn’t have wanted them to know I was leaving until I was actually out the door and I couldn’t trust any co-workers not to blab.

          2. Close Bracket*

            I can only guess that he choose to list them, bc choosing not to list them would look funny and raise red flags.

            1. Valprehension*

              Choosing not to use a current boss as a reference is extremely common, and definitely not a red flag. It’s understood that people don’t want their employers knowing that they’re looking for another job.

              1. Close Bracket*

                Choosing not to use a current boss as a reference is extremely common,


                and definitely not a red flag.

                It *shouldn’t* be a red flag, but there are those who are immediately suspicious if the current boss doesn’t appear.

                1. Stormy Weather*

                  You’re right, it shouldn’t be a red flag. A job can not work out for various reasons–one might be that someone is looking to leave a job because of the manager.

              2. (insert name here)*

                But there are still situations where a candidate may feel they have to use their current manager.

                For instance, if they are young and don’t have many references. If one of their references is a toxic a-hole. If they have stayed in the same position for a very long time.

                I’ve been working since 2003, which isn’t a short time, but my first two jobs out of college were for companies that no longer exist. I don’t remember my manager’s name for the first one. The second was a toxic a-hole. The third I stayed for 10 years and now I’m at my 4th, where I have been for nearly 5 years. At my last job and my current job, despite promotions, I didn’t switch managers.

                I have one former manager for a reference and my current manager. My former manager will retire in the next 1-2 years. I only have his work contact info. Unless I speak to him before he retires, I will have my current manager, my annual reviews and peer references. Even my manager’s manager has been the same. It’s just a stable industry, I guess.

                1. Miss Pantalones En Fuego*

                  I’ve been rejected from more than one job mid-application process because my current boss was either guaranteed to act like a jerk or fire me so I didn’t want to list them. Some places were really rigid about the requirement that they speak to my current manager, though, so I lost out.

          3. Glitsy Gus*

            I’m actually really surprised how many companies require a reference from the current manager before giving the final OK to the offer. I don’t really understand, I know it’s the person who most recently managed the applicant, but a lot of people can be really negative in these situations, especially if they come as a surprise, even if the person was an overall good employee. I have had at least two managers who openly said that while they may not give a bad review to a person they wouldn’t give a great one to someone who is trying to leave.

        2. Robyn*

          I had a boss once who I am so glad I didn’t have to use as a reference because he would have been the worst person ever for giving a reference. He was never particularly positive about anything or anyone (it was just his personality) and I would have absolutely worried about a potential employer taking his personality and lack of ability to elaborate as hiding something etc. Some people are really terrible at giving references.

          1. Filosofickle*

            For this reason I am reluctant to be a reference. My standards are overly high. My brain is critical, nuanced, and analytical, which means there is always a “but”. Always. I’m just not a glowing YES person (though I do have high, bright energy, which helps lift my overall message). It is something I’m working on, personally and professionally, because sometimes the “but” doesn’t need to be said and I care about making people feel valued. Recently I gave a reference for a close colleague and probably went a bit overboard compensating so I wouldn’t harm her chances.

            1. All monkeys are French*

              I feel you so hard on this. I’m not currently managing but when I was, holding back the “but” was one of my biggest challenges.
              I write a lot of four-star product reviews.

              1. Lily Rowan*

                I wouldn’t hold back the “but” in either references OR managing! I might recommend separating the sentences, but it’s really useful to know if a person overall does great work and could use some additional attention to detail when they are doing one kind of task.

              2. Giant Squid*

                Just please don’t do it for Uber drivers, etc. They can get severely penalized for not getting 5 stars.

                4 stars to you is different than 4 stars to most people–but I definitely get where you’re coming from.

            2. Snuck*

              I can be a bit like this… I”m a highly analytical (not to be confused with critical!) person…

              I’ve found that framing my thinking along the lines of “Would I hire this person again?” And “Would I hire this person in this role again?” Has really helped. Yes I would, but… Yes I would if they…. Can be edited down to “Yes, I would hire this person again”. And if I am not asked that in a reference check I make a point of finding a way to say it “Yes, this person was very strong at X and Y, their PQR were ok, and I would hire them again in a similar / different role”

              But when I get to the point of “No, I would not hire them again” it’s the kiss of death for a reference check from me. Then it’s “I am sorry, I would not hire this person again, in a similar role. I can see they have these strengths, and these weaknesses. I need a team that is very focussed XYZ areas and this wasn’t Jane’s strength areas” and wrap the call up politely.

      2. HailRobonia*

        I’ve also heard of managers that give glowing recommendations to terrible employees just to get them to leave. I suspect that happened with one of my ex-coworkers who had a huge attendance issues as well as sup-par performance.

        1. Snuck*

          Yup. And a person doing reference checks really needs to be able to compare what they hear in a reference call to what they saw in the interview. This is why it always amuses me (in a cynical way) to hear “Oh, our HR person does the reference check” … nope. Someone on the interview panel will be making those calls thankyou very much!

      3. Angry with numbers*

        I had this happen as well she said I had attendance issues. I luckily had an excellent performance review I got a few weeks before I started I got my offer as well as 7 others from previous years. I also had my FMLA paperwork , but didn’t need it once I told my new company, “Yes I was out a lot I was using FMLA because my dad was very ill” they were cool with it. I think she was offended I wanted to leave she is still there and is on what must be close to her 30th year there. When I had to use her again because of the number of references a company “needed” I let them know up front she was going to say that and that I was on FLMA at the time.

        1. OrigCassandra*

          Oof. That skirts close enough to FMLA retaliation in my non-lawyerly mind that I might consult a lawyer about drafting a Stern Letter to that workplace.

          Only if you think you’ll need that boss as a reference again, of course.

    2. River Song*

      I had a boss that wouldn’t give bad references for employees that were leaving, but would put the reference ask-er on hold and leave them there until they hung up. It was super spiteful.

      1. Triumphant Fox*

        Woah. I feel like this would say more about why the candidate is leaving than the reference itself. What a cowardly way to handle it.

      2. Quill*

        This, or a gruff “why are you bothering me?” are one of the things I’ve feared from my ex-boss in the two and a half years and three jobs since I worked for him. (I don’t use him as a reference but if a company called about me to confirm employment he’s the only one they’d get ahold of…)

        He’s probably still steamed that I was the only one who knew anything about our technology setup but that’s a hole he dug for himself when he fired me.

        1. Snuck*

          To be fair… if I was getting a call every six months or something to confirm an ex employees employment (and even worse, answer 30mins of questions about them that actually requires considered thought and on the spot answers, usually without any time to prepare, regardless of whatever else might be in my day’s calendar)… I’d start getting a bit gruff too after the third one or so.

          First one would be fine. Second one would be “Hrm, Ok… But I do believe he’s been working at another company since he left here”. Third one would be “I’m not really up for this, he’s worked at two previous companies in the last twelve months and they’d have a more nuanced feel for how he is working now, sorry, please contact them. I can confirm he worked here for X months as a contractor, and we were happy with his work at the time. Goodbye.”

          1. Quill*

            I’d understand being sick of answering but the truth is he fired me on a slim excuse because he didn’t want anyone with an anxiety disorder working for him. (Previously he did a lot of shady things to get a coworker with OCD to leave.)

            That’s been my only non-contract job ever, so certain reference askers want to prioritize that over the other two places where I was a 6 month contractor… Hopefully that job gets less relevant every minute.

    3. Scarlet*

      Wouldn’t be the worst idea (if you are in a one-party consent state) to pretend to be a future employer and call for a reference while recording the line.

      I mean heck, I’d travel to the nearest one-party consent state to catch an employer doing that. So messed up.

      1. Kelsi*

        Not that I think you’re actually doing that, but just in case anyone is: BOTH parties need to be in one-party consent states to record a conversation without consent from the employer.

        1. Tina*

          If you’re already calling like ‘hello we’re interested in the employment of such-and-so a person and your name has been provided as a reference’ (none of which is strictly untrue) is it really much of a stretch to say ‘would you mind if we recorded this call for our records, as some of the people who will be involved in making a decision about such-and-so’s employment are unable to be on this call’?

          1. Ego Chamber*

            Does it change anything if you are lying? Because if you’re calling an ex-employer to do a reference check on yourself while pretending to be a potential new employer, that part is a lie.

        1. CL Cox*

          Employers can be sued if they (or one of their representatives) lies in a reference. That’s why a lot of employers will now only verify the dates an employee worked there.

      2. KHB*

        If it’s the reference from your current manager that you’re worried about, though, you wouldn’t want to blow your cover that you’re job searching until you had to.

    4. Adlib*

      Ooooh yes, this happens. I had a previous manager who had done this to people (not me – I transferred internally and never needed her as a reference).

    5. Anonymous Contribution*

      I was concerned about this when I was offered my current role. They wanted references from every job I’d held for the last three years. At the time this just about included my first full time job, which was at a highly-dysfunctional workplace, and which I left on vague and unfortunate terms (the phrase “it just didn’t work out” is ideal and being extremely kind).

      Whilst my manager and I had a kind of understanding, he had been “demoted” and shuffled out of my department. My concern was that either the reference request would be ignored (as had happened before), or it would be left in the hands of the managing director, who was the “problem child” as it were. That or handed to the new manager, who wouldn’t have even known who I was.

      Fortunately it wasn’t an issue but I was worried for a while.

    6. Tina Belcher's Less Cool Sister*

      Yep. I had a previous manager who told me she’d be delighted to give me a reference, then I found out she gave my now-boss a terrible reference. If he hadn’t called me to ask about her claims I wouldn’t have gotten this job. I think it helped that a) I was able to explain what she had claimed I did wrong, and b) her reference didn’t match my other three references.

    7. Kiki*

      Yes! If just the one reference was worrying, I would talk to him about it. It could be that his reason for leaving is that management is bad and spiteful. And a lot of bad bosses give good employees bad reviews because they don’t realize their management is actually the reason the employee didn’t accomplish what they had set out to do.

    8. Mama Bear*

      Good advice to get more perspectives. My child’s former school had a principal that would punish teachers by refusing to provide references if they wanted to leave voluntarily. This essentially blacklisted them in the district. Several PTA members provided references so they could get out/get a new job. Had the new schools only gone by what this administrator said, none of them would have been able to leave on their own terms or been able to accept decent jobs. This is also why some companies only give employment dates and no other data.

    9. Artemesia*

      I have a relative who got sabotaged by a current manager who had volunteered to be a reference. He went on to do great work in a job similar to the one that got disrupted. I would assume that a current manager might well be a dog in the manger and only let that rec guide me if there was corroborating evidence that was pretty convincing. This is how jerk managers punish employees who ‘dare to leave’.

    10. Red5*

      I received a promotion about a year ago (same overall organization, just different location and sub-organization) and was actually expecting my supervisor at the time to give me a poor reference (because that’s the kind of person he is), but then figured he didn’t when they hired me. Turns out he did, and they just had enough good references (and I have a solid reputation i the organization) that they hired me anyway. Now they’re happy they gave me the opportunity, and I’m happy to no longer work for my previous supervisor.

      Alison’s suggestion to ask for other people at the organization to get a reference from is a good one. I’d also suggest you weigh the current supervisor’s reference against other ones you’ve received for this candidate. Are they all poor, or is it just the reference from the current supervisor? Do they identify similar strengths and weaknesses, or does the current supervisor’s assessment not align with other references?

      Also, the fact that you have a stated probationary period when the candidate can be let go mitigates your risk a bit. If you were otherwise impressed with the candidate and their other references were good ones, you can potentially take the risk and use the probationary period to determine whether they’re really a good fit for the position and organization.

    11. Keymaster of Gozer*

      This is partly why my last employer is never going to be on my references list. There is no chance he’ll say anything but pure bilious lies about me.

      (Also, he’s in jail and I helped put him there)

      1. Snuck*

        Bwahahahah. I’d be tempted to put on my reference list “Employer date x – y, available limited hours on 12234556” and put the jails phone number. In brackets to remain professional you could put (Currently serving a jail sentence for corporate fraud)

    12. Boldly Go*

      Yup. Happened to me too. I wasn’t using her as a reference but I was applying for a position in the same segment of non profit orgs in NY. Let’s say I was working for the international union of teapot makers, and I was applying for a job at a local teapot store. People know each other, they went to school or camp together, they went to international conferences etc. I preemptively said something (I don’t remember the exact words now) but I couldn’t actually say “that person is a lazy backstabbing bword”.

      (All’s well, I managed to get a better position and moved on to an exciting career change )

  2. AnotherAlison*

    I’m familiar with a similar situation from my circle. The reference situation may have been worse than the OP’s (sorry, can’t elaborate), and because of it, the role the person was hired for actually had to be changed. But, they proceeded with hiring the person, and it’s been 2 years now.

    I think the damage is done on both sides in the OP’s case. Might as well have the new hire start and work the probation period.

    1. Nonprofit Nancy*

      True, the whole point of a probation period is to make it easy to end the agreement if it’s not working out, so there is already an automatic failsafe in place.

    2. CL Cox*

      It would depend on the nature of the information. If it dealt with harassment of any sort, and he goes on to harass someone at the new job, the employer can be sued for knowingly hiring him. If the new position requires bonding or some sort of clearance, the employer is not allowed to hire someone they know will fail, they could lose the entire company’s rating/certification.

      1. AnotherAlison*

        Fair point. I was thinking more, “Joaquin blew the budget leading the Smith project,” than “Joaquin repeatedly pressured the client to go on dates while working on the Smith project.”

  3. Spek*

    It is just a bad practice to talk to current employers. It’s been said time and time again that people don’t leave jobs; they leave managers. It stands to reason that oftentimes a person’s supervisor won’t give a glowing reference, especially once they find out the employee is leaving. Especially if the employee is leaving due to a personality clash. Of, course, it’s on the employee to read the offer letter and ask questions about the reference caveat. If the supervisor in question is a bad boss, I wouldn’t let my new employer contact them at all, not to mention base my new job on hoping a bad manager wont torpedo me.

    1. GrooveBat*

      I agree, because the other thing we always hear is that you should never badmouth a current employer during the interview process, even if it’s a truly nightmarish work environment. So you have the added disadvantage of not being able to be fully honest about the employer who is now torpedoing your chances at the new position.

      1. Emily S*

        The rule “don’t badmouth” a current or former employer doesn’t mean you should never say anything critical or negative about an employer. It’s more about maintaining an objective viewpoint, sticking to the facts that directly affect you, and not airing dirty laundry unnecessarily.

        The interviewer doesn’t know you or your situation, so if you come in with some highly subjective-sounding rant full of salacious details that aren’t necessary to the story, they don’t know if you really just went through something that insane, or if you’re the one making drama in your head and you’ll be difficult to work with or you’ll gossip about coworkers once hired.

        “My boss is a jerk who screamed at me any time I asked for anything,” is subjective and makes the listener immediately ask themselves, “What makes the boss a jerk? Is that judgment valid? Did she really scream or is that just hyperbole?” If instead you say, “I had hoped for a manager who would be able to mentor me in the field, but my current manager hasn’t been interested or willing to provide professional development support whenever I’ve approached her about it.”

        “It’s an old boys club where I’m never going to get anywhere because I’m not a WASP with a low golf handicap,” again sounds subjective and extreme enough that most listeners will reflexively start trying to poke holes in it – surely it can’t be *that* bad?! But if you say, “I’m ready for the next step in my career, and my current employer promotes to that level exclusively from their Ivy League Junior Executive Track program, so I’m looking to move on,” that’s not going to trigger the same instinctive push-back.

        A calm, dispassionate stating of the facts isn’t going to come off unprofessional – you just want to describe things in the most boring, dry way possible instead of a fiery, adjective-rich description.

        1. Fikly*

          I disagree. Jerk is subjective, but screamed at me any time I asked for anything is either true or not.

          It’s on the interviewer to evaluate whether that is truth, and no matter how dispassionately you recount abuse at your current or former job, it’s going to cause most interviewers to wonder what you did to deserve it, so that’s why you should never badmouth an employer during an interview.

          A calm dispassionate stating of facts doesn’t matter if there is no way to verify them.

          1. Emily S*

            “Any time I asked for anything” is what makes it an extreme claim to make – it’s likely hyperbole, but using hyperbolic statements makes you come across like you might be exaggerating for effect. I chose the examples I did specifically because it doesn’t even have to be verifiable. It just needs to sound plausible and not like a conspiracy theory or embellished story concocted by someone with an ax to grind.

            You could say, “My boss often loses her temper and has even thrown things across the room at me, so I’ve obviously been searching for the right opportunity to get out of her employ, and your open roles seems like the great fit I’ve been waiting for.” It’s not that they need to be able to verify that story, it’s that you’re able to recount the facts of the situation so that you remain credible and don’t give them any reason to doubt what you’re saying.

          2. Miss Pantalones En Fuego*

            “Scream” or “yell” is often very subjective as well. I’ve been accused of yelling when all I did was raise an objection, and not even in a cranky way let alone with a raised volume. Some people seem to describe any kind of verbal conflict as “yelling”, even if it’s the mildest of reprimands.

            1. Ego Chamber*

              Samesies. Gave a quick heads up to someone that what they were telling a client wasn’t something we could discuss and the client needed to be referred to the separate company that handled it. (We’d literally had a training meeting on this an hour ago.) Obviously it turned into “And then Ego SCREAMED at me! While I was in the middle of a phone call! The client could hear SCREAMING!”

              Rolled my eyes so hard it hurt.

        2. Peter Piper Picked a Peck of Pickled Peppers*

          Both of these (improved) examples still sound a bit blamey to me. I’d go with something like this, and then elaborate if the interviewer asks you to.

          “I’m looking for a position where my manager or someone else in a senior role would be able to mentor me, because that’s something I don’t have access to at the moment.”

          “I’m ready for the next step in my career and the opportunities for advancement are limited at my current company.”

      2. Keymaster of Gozer*

        I’m still uncertain if my (currently unemployed and looking for work) comments about why I left my former employer of my own free will would constitute bad mouthing. There’s not really any other way to say ‘they were crooks who put me in actual physical danger twice because they engaged in highly illegal behaviour’.

        Maybe ‘left due to fundamental differences in the nature of my role?’

        1. I’ve been there*

          “Unfortunately legal requirements XYZ weren’t followed consistently, which meant I was in physical danger while on the job. On the plus side, I learned a lot about ABC. I’ve been very impressed with Your Company’s reputation for safety and ethics in this field, and would love to contribute my ABC experience in that kind of environment.”

          1. Keymaster of Gozer*

            Will reword it a bit (having organised crime gangs show up and threaten the lives of staff is not something I ever hope to use as expertise again!) but that’s pretty much perfect. Hope you don’t mind if I use this as my next interviews?

        2. Emily S*

          In your case, you could leave out “crooks” (too emotionally charged), and say, “I left because X Company was operating in violation of the law, and had jeopardized my physical safety by doing so. I no longer felt safe working for them, and want my next employer to have a strong commitment to employee safety and legal compliance.”

          But whether I’d say they were operating in violation of the law depends on a few things – whether you had ever brought the issue to management while working there would be a big one. If you didn’t alert upper management or a watchdog/ombudsman/whatever at the time it just wouldn’t be a good look if it got back to them through the industry grapevine that you’re perfectly comfortable telling outsiders what you weren’t willing to escalate through the proper channels.

          And if you had raised the issue while working there, you’d have to be mindful of any contracts you might have signed with NDA-like provisions, or if there is an ongoing investigation you shouldn’t comment on, etc. IANAL but one should definitely be involved if one of these situations is at play.

          If either of those were true, you could leave that part out and say, “I left because X Company was following non-standard operating procedures that jeopardized my physical safety on more than one occasion. I no longer felt safe working under those conditions, and want my next employer to have a strong commitment to employee safety.”

          1. Keymaster of Gozer*

            It was a very very tiny company, not registered with any regulatory authority and they never had me sign a contract.

            Former employer is in jail. I was a witness for the prosecution. Worst year of my life.

            1. 'Tis Me*

              “My previous job was at a very small company. Unfortunately it was not compliant with [named safety acts], leading me to feel unsafe on the job[, especially when incidences occurred]. Additionally, the owner-manager engaged in [illegal practice] on work premises, for which he is now in jail, which I couldn’t turn a blind eye to. I really enjoyed [specific aspect of the job], and learnt a lot about [specific business area], and am eager to contribute towards [specific activity] at a larger, legally compliant company such as yours, where I can do so safely.”

              1. Keymaster of Gozer*

                Just basically boils down to ‘he ran a Ponzi scheme and had criminals turn up and threaten staff’. But your wording is much more professional :)

        3. Peter Piper Picked a Peck of Pickled Peppers*

          “I realised that the company had unethical business practices and was contravening certain safety standards.”

    2. Mama Bear*

      Absolutely. My last job I definitely left due to a clash with the manager and would not have wanted him anywhere near a reference check.

    3. Peter Piper Picked a Peck of Pickled Peppers*

      “It’s been said time and time again that people don’t leave jobs; they leave managers.”
      This really isn’t a universal truth. I’ve left some shocking managers but I’ve also left some good ones, because of better opportunities elsewhere.

      1. SimplyTheBest*

        I think the difference is running away vs running towards. I rage quit my last job because of my boss. I will always think of that transition as leaving that job. Leaving that job was the reason I was job searching. On the other hand, transitions between good jobs I always think of as I got a new job. To me, that feels like a difference.

        1. Keymaster of Gozer*

          I’ve left due to horrible HR departments once or twice. Those definitely felt like I was legging it out the door.

    4. Temperance*

      Eh. I really like my boss, and if I was looking for a different position, I’d speak with her about it first, and she would happily serve as my reference.

      Jobs in our field are limited.

    5. Locket*

      “If the supervisor in question is a bad boss, I wouldn’t let my new employer contact them at all”

      How would that work for someone who worked at a small business? If you have to have a reference there, you won’t have a large pool of people for them to call.

  4. KMK*

    There can be any number of reasons for a bad reference, including the former boss just plain not liking you. I don’t hold with demanding a reference from the current employer. People sometimes are leaving bosses, not jobs.

    1. Peter Piper Picked a Peck of Pickled Peppers*

      Agreed. And sometimes it’s simply a matter of you and that job were not a good fit. You were Barbara Streisand and they were looking for Dolly Parton. Or vice versa.

  5. Roscoe*

    Honestly, I don’t think you should have even contacted his most recent employer, especially if he quit there to work for you. Apparently you had other references you reached out to prior to the offer, and they were fine. But this is akin to asking someone’s recent ex, who they broke up with possibly out of the blue (in their minds), what they were like. Its not hard to imagine them being less than objective. As Alison mentioned, its very likely that the exact reason he was looking to leave was because he didn’t get along with his boss or others there. This is one of those crappy situations where the employee is expected to not speak badly about former employers, but in a reference, they can say whatever they want about you. When they give you their “honest” feedback its professional courtesy. But if a job seeker gives “honest” feedback about a current or past employer, its considered bad taste

  6. KHB*

    Now I’m wondering what the boss said that was so bad to make OP want to do a complete 180 on this candidate.

    1. LawLady*

      Yeah, I feel like there’s a material difference between “there were errors in his work” and “he stole the money the office raised to donate to a homeless shelter”. The former could be explained by unreasonable expectations, differences of opinion, poor management, etc.

      1. KHB*

        Exactly – if it’s just “he’s a lackluster employee,” well, that’s one person’s opinion, and once you combine it with everything else you know about him (including all his other references), that seems like it shouldn’t be enough to tip the scales all the way from “definitely the right person for this job” to “definitely not.”

        A case of egregious misconduct would be another matter – although in that case, one wonders why the employer is still his “current” employer.

      2. Falling Diphthong*

        And if it’s the latter, why the heck did you not fire this person? “This person is sooooo terrible they shouldn’t work anywhere…. except here, with me, forever” should always be a suspect evaluation.

          1. Peter Piper Picked a Peck of Pickled Peppers*


            Now I’m imagining prospective SOs calling your ex for a reference.

            “And what about the toothpaste? Did they squeeze it from the bottom?”

          2. Gazebo Slayer*

            I had a former employer who told me when I quit that he was doing me a favor by employing me, because I wasn’t smart enough or hardworking enough to get a job anywhere else.

            1. Former Admin turned Project Manager*

              I had a boss tell me that I’d misunderstood what was being offered at my new position and that I should have my husband or my dad review it before I finished out my notice period, just in case I needed to rescind my resignation.

        1. Coyote Tango*

          My husband had a job tank because one of his (short term) jobs gave him a terrible reference. This is the same office that contested his unemployment and then told the unemployment office that they could not provide paperwork because my husband had stolen all of the (nonexistant) HR paperwork.

          1. Kathlynn (Canada)*

            I actually know someone who did this at multiple stores, to make it harder to fire him, so it does happen. He (in my opinion) is a horrible person for the things I’ve seen him do, and others have told me he’s done since getting transferred to a different store. Of course he ended up being one of the butt kissers of my manager’s boss.

    2. Pepsi Grenadine*

      You’d be surprised.

      “Pepsi needs to improve her time management. I would have liked to see Pepsi say yes more. Pepsi could do better at getting along with her peers.”

      Makes me sound pretty terrible right?

      Well the context is: I was given a 4 out of 5 on that performance eval. Only 10% of staff earned that.

      The manager who wrote that failed to mention I was fulfilling 2 full time roles during that time. He was basically mad that I couldn’t take on even more of his stuff (two bosses) and found me being honest about “I can do x but not y which is the priority?” to be too controversial.

      And the peer issues? The guy who applied to my role was very antagonistic to all my work in the beginning. I didn’t have any of that context either, and his behavior was always seen as my fault. After all he got along with everyone else so it must be Pepsi right? Once i learned he had applied to my role, I realized it was an ego thing. I started making a bid deal about the little things he helped me with and suddenly we were golden.

      1. KHB*

        Makes me sound pretty terrible right?

        Not really – even before I read your context, I thought “These sound like the words of a boss who’s frustrated that his employee isn’t more of a pushover.” If I (playing the part of an employer) had already met you, and you’d already impressed me on whatever metrics I was using to evaluate candidates, I wouldn’t see a reference like that changing my mind.

    3. hbc*

      I can imagine scenarios where a minor negative or even neutral observation in one workplace/job would be a deal-killer in another. You might be giving a positive reference and mention that they always work extra when they have to come late (because “late” is no big deal at your workplace) but the new job has major on-time requirement. Or you might mention that they can cut through the red tape to get the job done when the new place is very bureaucratic and rule-following. Assertive when they want someone with a gentle touch, compassionate when they need someone to bring the hammer down, etc..

      1. KHB*

        But none of that is to say that the employee couldn’t adapt to the needs of the new workplace if required. My current job is lax about arrival times, so I’m lax about what time I arrive in the morning, but I’m perfectly capable of showing up at a particular time if I know I have to. I’d hate for a prospective employer to hear “KHB is 15 minutes late every day” and take it as a deal-breaker.

    4. KHB*

      Now that I think about it, one possibility would be if the candidate misrepresented what he does in his current role – if, say, he passed himself off as a master teapot architect in charge of the 2020 model year teapot rollout, when he’s really a grade III teapot painting specialist in charge of handle decoration. He could be a perfectly good teapot handle painter, but if OP is looking for a master teapot architect (and someone who’s not going to lie to her), that’s not going to work.

      I’d still offer the candidate a chance to explain himself before retracting the offer, though.

      1. CL Cox*

        I was thinking that too. If they were wanting someone with x years of experience and he lied about how long he’d been doing it or about what he was actually doing. Neithre of those are things a current employer would care about, but could be deal-breakers for the new employer.

      2. 'Tis Me*

        “Due to other staff members leaving and a hiring freeze, although my official job description was limited to handle decoration, in practice, I was doing full teapot design and architecture for the past 9 months. This involved 80 hour+ working weeks with no change to my salary or official job title, and my previous employer and I disagreed over whether this was reasonable and sustainable, and whether or not it counted as short-term or not. As I mentioned in the interview, my reasons for leaving included regaining work-life balance and working for a company at which I would have the chance to gain formal qualifications in the skills I had learnt on the job.”

  7. Hey Karma, Over Here*

    I’ve read a lot of letters on this site about this issue. What is the mindset or game plan or goal with this process?
    We found a great candidate.
    Let’s make an offer.
    Offer accepted.
    Start date given.
    OK, you’ve resigned your position.
    Now we will confirm if you really get the job.
    Does that ever work out?

    1. irene adler.*

      I wonder that too.
      At an interview I asked about the hiring process. The HR lady explained that once they present an offer and I accept it, I would then give my current employer their two weeks’ notice. Then HR would perform the background and drug test.
      That seems risky to me. I’d want some sort of indemnity here. But I’m sure HR won’t consider such a thing.
      (no, I don’t do drugs. Have been with the same employer for many years. So I have little to fear with the background check. Nevertheless, things happen.)

    2. Scarlet*

      I do recruiting in my current role, and to be honest yes, most of the time it all works out.

      I have had a couple people wait to give notice until all the reference checks and everything were in though. To each their own.

      1. Hey Karma, Over Here*

        If that were the case, would you’re hiring team be OK with the candidate requiring another two weeks to wrap up the original job?

      2. Collywood*

        I wouldn’t quit until all that was done. Some of the background checks I’ve been through include credit checks in addition to the drugs and employment verification. I could imagine something surprising showing up on a credit check, esp after all those breaches, or just something looking weird and not getting a chance to explain it.

        1. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

          Last time I changed jobs, my plan (that I relayed to the new job) was to give notice after I have passed the drug test and the BG checks. My BG check ended up getting stuck when the background check company could not get hold of anyone at my college (not sure how hard they tried, there was a weird glitch in their process*) and after they’d spun their wheels for a couple of weeks, the HR director at the new place said “go ahead and start anyway, you’re good” then and only then did I give notice.

          I’d feel entrapped, to be honest, if the new place had pressured me to give notice first and *then* started calling references, doing checks, and deciding whether they want to hire me after all or nah. This sounds like a great way to find oneself out of work. I’d rather have a job I’m not happy with than no job at all.

          * They sent me a release to sign to allow them to call my school overseas and to talk to them about me. But (my guess) selected the wrong country out of the dropdown, and the documents they sent me were in a language I could not read or understand. Then when I called them asking for the correct docs, tried to get me to sign the one they’d sent. (“I cannot read it.” – “That’s fine, we’ll tell you where to sign.” Nope, not signing something when I don’t know what it says.)

        2. Seeking Second Childhood*

          I knew someone whose credit check would have turned up that he had *NO* credit, and probably didn’t exist. Imagine that on an employer’s background check. The credit agencies had conflated him with his mother. Same last name, same first part of first name — and in 10 years of credit cards, car loans, and student loans no one had noticed different ages, genders, and social security numbers.

        3. Alternative Person*

          Yeah. I’m holding off resigning my current job right now, as I’m waiting for the arduous background check done through a third party vendor with one star yelp reviews to come through, that had several issues in the process of completing it.

    3. Roscoe*

      My most recent job did something like this, but worse. They didn’t mention the background check at all until AFTER I gave my 2 weeks and had a start date. Then it was “great, please fill out this form to consent to a background check”. It was really shady IMO, because if I did have something questionable in my past, I was out of luck. But that should’ve really been a warning about what that place was like

    4. Jdc*

      Agree. Please stop doing this people. You need references not their current work reference. You are possibly ruining someone’s life! Do not expect someone to leave a job and accept your offer contingent on anything. Do your work before you give an offer.

      1. Elizabeth West*

        This, and please stop with the credit checks unless the person is working in your financial department, etc. Unemployed people can have trouble making ends meet and may be carrying a load on their cards. Don’t make it worse for them for a job where it’s not a consideration.

    5. Brett*

      There’s a legal aspect to this of what you can do before the offer is extended versus what you can do after the offer is extended. You can have the employee wait to start (and resign the other position) until after the background check is complete, it is just that in most cases the employee and employer want to move over before the background check is done.
      With the way the background checks work, the current employer almost certainly will become aware that the employee is leaving though.

      Last job worked this way, and people pretty much only failed the background check when they purposely lied on their application or in the background interview. I had never heard of a bad reference being enough to disqualify at that stage (unless the bad reference also revealed criminal behavior that rose to a felony level or a serious misdemeanor conviction that was somehow not discovered).

    6. Nita*

      It does seem crazy. But it gives the new employer some protection from liars. A family member who works for local government had a new hire like that a few years ago. Interviewed great, good references, good resume – only as soon as he was hired, it became clear the resume is a lie, the references may also be, and he’s not even trying to learn the ropes. He got fired because he was still on probation. If there was no probation, I think he’d still be there – this place is notorious for being unable to fire people for anything short of actual crimes (and even with crimes, sometimes they can’t fire them…)

      1. Rusty Shackelford*

        Which just shows it doesn’t provide any protection against liars at all, doesn’t it?

          1. BethRA*

            I read it as the person clearly didn’t have the skills they listed on their resume – since the references “may also be” made up, as opposed to “were made up.”

    7. Brett*

      I just checked and I was wrong.

      The conditional offer must be _accepted_ by the employee before the employer can legally proceed with the background check. But this does not mean that the employee is required to start or required to resign their current job.
      But…. collective bargaining agreements might block the employer from conducting a background check on an employee who has not started.

  8. De Minimis*

    Just last week I had the hiring manager tell me that he needed to speak to my current supervisor even though I had a ton of other references, so I had to let my supervisor know that I had interviewed elsewhere and was most likely leaving soon–a lot earlier than I originally would have told them since I haven’t even gotten a tentative job offer yet. Thankfully, it went well, but why make someone do that?

    1. Laszlo Whitaker*

      The same thing happened to me at my current job, because our director at the time refused to hire anyone without a current manager reference. Fortunately, our new director is more understanding and is fine with just previous manager references.

    2. Tina Belcher's Less Cool Sister*

      Ugh, I had to do the same thing for this job! My current manager was upfront that he would want to speak with my then-current manager before finalizing an offer so the process was: interviews, references, tentative offer, background check, reference from current manager, final offer. I’m lucky that my previous manager was reasonable and respectful and gave me a good reference, but I’m not sure I can count on that from this manager when I move on from this job :/

      1. Seeking Second Childhood*

        And yet current manager is the one who requires it of someone else!? What hypocrisy!

        1. Tina Belcher's Less Cool Sister*

          Last time I was a superstar who was moving to be closer to home/family…this time I’m worried he’ll paint me as a mediocre performer who’s jumping ship because I can’t hack the work (when in reality I’m seeking a career change, he’s a bad manager and has driven out every person in my role in the past decade, and I’ve been here an average tenure).

        2. hbc*

          I feel like there are two types of managers who would take the stance that you *must* have a current manager’s reference:
          – Pollyannas who would give an honest assessment (or think they would) and believe everyone else would do the same
          – Hypocrites who are only interested in what serves them best

          1. Tina Belcher's Less Cool Sister*

            I think in my case, someone on the hiring team (which is literally the entire 35 person department) raised a concern that I was leaving after just a year in the role, so if you were to ask the manager he would say he was looking for any major red flags…but then he also asked my then-current manager how much I was making, so who knows.

  9. Beatings Will Continue Until Morale Improves*

    I don’t think I would get a good reference from my last two employers. One was involved in some illegal and unethical activities, but never got caught, the other was a horrible micromanaging, gas lighting jerk that said giving notice was stabbing him in the back. In the same conversation boss #2 also said I should have told him I was looking and he could have helped me find a new job with his connections. Um, no.
    Fortunately my current employer didn’t ask for references since my only good/accurate ones are from 8 years ago. I still don’t think I would want my new job to be contingent on what my current employer thinks considering how vengeful managers can be.

    1. Just Another Manic Millie*

      “I don’t think I would get a good reference from my last two employers.”

      I didn’t think that I would get a good reference from anyone at what I call The Job From Hell. Even though, after I gave two weeks notice, and they all knew that I didn’t have a new job lined up, the office manager told me that she and several other employees were unhappy there, and she hoped that once I found a new job, I would try hard to get them jobs there, too. I wanted to scream, “Are you kidding? I’m leaving here because of all of you!” But I just said that in order for me to find a new job, it would help if I were given a good reference. She promised to give me a good reference.

      Shortly after starting a new job, I was filling in for the office manager, and I saw my file on her desk. I decided to take a look at it. I know that they say that you should never snoop, because you can’t take advantage of knowing what you found, because then you would have to admit that you were snooping. THAT IS NOT TRUE! I found details of the office manager’s telephone conversation with the office manager from The Job From Hell when she called for a reference about me, and I saw that the office manager from The Job From Hell gave me a horrible reference. When asked if she had any complaints about me, she said yes – that I wasn’t fluent in Spanish. I was furious! I had responded to an ad in the newspaper. The ad didn’t say a thing about being fluent in Spanish. When I called and made an appointment for an interview, nothing was said about being fluent in Spanish. My resume didn’t mention Spanish at all. During my interview, Spanish was never mentioned. So where did she come off complaining that I wasn’t fluent in Spanish? She gave the impression that I had been told that fluency in Spanish was required, and I had assured them that I was fluent in Spanish, and it wasn’t until I started working there that they found out that I don’t speak Spanish.

      But I was able to take advantage of this information, because it taught me two things – (1) if I ever ran into the office manager from The Job From Hell, I should not be overly nice to her and give her the benefit of the doubt, and (2) I should be grateful to my current office manager for taking a chance and hiring me (even though she had been told that I had lied to my previous company).

      There was another company where I didn’t think that I would get a good reference. That was because I gave two week notice on impulse when I couldn’t get the office manager to stop screaming at me even after she acknowledged that I hadn’t made the mistake that she thought that I had made. Fergus, my supervisor, told me that I should beg the office manager to give me my job back. He said that it was because he didn’t want to have to go to the trouble of hiring my replacement. When I refused, he said that if anyone asked him for a reference about me, he would give me such a horrible reference that no one would ever want to hire me, and it would serve me right for leaving the company. I don’t think that anyone ever asked him for a reference, but, of course, I cannot be 100% certain of that.

  10. Green Kangaroo*

    This might be a question for Allison, but if a previous employee asks if he can use me as a reference, am I obligated to tell them I won’t be untruthful and therefore would not be a positive reference? I’m anticipating this situation arising soon. Odds are I will be contacted regardless since I’m easy to find f he lists the position in his resume.

    1. Faith*

      Ethically, you should probably tell them. You could also tell them that you will just confirm that they worked for you, and you can’t (or don’t want) to give any further information.

    2. OrigCassandra*

      I don’t know about “obligated,” but it’s certainly my practice to tell the person. (I do the same with my graduating students — fortunately, I only have to say no once in a blue moon.)

      I also tell people if there’s something that would make a reference from me less strong. MFPOW hates the very ground I walk on, so someone applying there really shouldn’t rely on a reference from me. I let the person make the decision, but so far they’ve all said “oh, okay, thanks, I’ll find someone else — but you’re in for the rest of the jobs I apply for, right?” And I say yes.

    3. Burned Out Supervisor*

      I wouldn’t say you’re obligated, but it’s fair play if you’re going to give an honest reference. He’ll either not believe you and list you or he’ll not risk it you won’t have to give the reference.

    4. Emily S*

      I think you can take “I won’t be untruthful” as a given and don’t need to explicitly say that. Just, “I wouldn’t be able to provide a positive reference for you, so you should pick someone else. Best of luck in your job search!” Optionally you could add some brief details like, “As you know, we had a lot of trouble with X Project while you were here, and in light of that I can’t give you a good reference, so I have to decline your request.”

    5. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      If someone asks you to be a reference, you should give them a warning just out of kindness and respect. This puts you in a better light by doing so, then others who hear you’re truthful like that will feel better about your methods as well.

      I wouldn’t do it so much as a favor to a subpar employee, I’d frame it like that, “this is for the other outsiders who may find out about how I operate.”

      But I choose to want others to find me trustworthy and transparent. If that’s not of interest to you, you have no actual obligation to save anyone from themselves. I know damn well which people would try to screw me as a reference and would sing my praises.

      1. Green Kangaroo*

        Because he wasn’t a good employee, honestly. I wouldn’t purposefully torpedo his future employment opportunities but I would feel partially responsible if another firm hired him and he exhibited similar issues. That’s how I ended up with him; his deficits were character-related rather than skill or situation-based, but his references were good.

        1. Mike C.*

          By not telling him, that’s exactly what you’d be doing. Your sense of “responsibility” is coming off a really disingenuous right now.

          1. Green Kangaroo*

            He knows exactly why he was terminated, and it’s not at all subjective, so he shouldn’t be surprised if that’s what I tell future employers if I’m asked. I wouldn’t lie and tell him I would give him a good reference, but he may contact me to tell me that he’s required to list me. If I’m understanding correctly, the consensus is that I have to give him the courtesy of letting him know I won’t be able to be positive.

            Do I have any responsibility to future employers who may hire him?

            1. Mike C.*

              Now you’re just twisting everything around. You started by asking if you had a responsibility to inform him that any references from you would not be positive.

              It doesn’t matter if that should or shouldn’t be a surprise to him. You seem to just be looking for excuses to further punish this employee now that they’re gone.

            2. Penny Parker*

              You are coming across very sanctimonious and like you need to save every employer around. You do not. Just give dates and time of his employment and work your angst out elsewhere. Using the term “character related” is so nebulous that the issue could be you support a conservative politician and he is a socialist, or vice-versa.

    6. Sled dog mana*

      This is exactly what I always ask if the person can be a positive reference when asking. I really think it’s on the referencee (is that a word) to know/ask if the person can be a positive reference not on you to tell them that you wouldn’t be a good reference.
      That said, I learned a few years ago that one of my strongest references for grad school was a professor who initially told me he couldn’t be a positive reference. After he and I talked he realized that I was making a sharp change of direction to an area of the field that I was much better suited for and that was something he could speak to (that I excelled at this small part of the field that would now be a huge part of my career).

    7. Artemesia*

      I always told students who were weak, that ‘you might want to ask someone who could give you a stronger reference.’

    8. Mike C.*

      Yes, you are obligated to tell them that. Why in the heck would you think it was a good idea to secretly ensure that this person couldn’t work anymore? What the heck?

        1. Green Kangaroo*

          I’m not sure people understand the chaos and turmoil that a bad hire can have. It’s very difficult to get an honest reference.

            1. Burned Out Supervisor*

              I don’t think that’s what Green Kangaroo means. I think they mean that most people will usually only list references that will be positive or willing to be positive even for a less than stellar employee. So prospective employers could be receiving references that aren’t an honest representation of the prospective employee.

    9. CupcakeCounter*

      I had an old coworker that put our grand-boss down as a reference without mentioning it to him. He knew our immediate boss wouldn’t give him a great review but apparently decided that grand-boss was far enough removed from the day to day issues he had with boss that the reference would be better. Never contacted grand-boss asking if he would be a reference for him and according to grand-boss, there was inference in the wording that grand-boss was coworkers immediate boss (grand-boss had a much higher sounding title than boss). Kicker is grand-boss was NOT a fan of this coworker and was pretty happy when they voluntarily left (nothing PIP worthy but overall not a great person to have on the team) and if coworker has asked, grand-boss would have told him no. Since he didn’t, grand-boss was honest. Not vindictive or mean, just honest about what kind of worker he was. Along the lines of “yes he worked here for X year, no I probably wouldn’t hire him back mostly due to attendance, communication issues, and lack of attention to detail.”
      (And yes, all of these were regularly communicated to him by boss)

      1. Mike C.*

        Ok, but what does this have to do with a situation where an employee is coming to a manager about becoming a reference?

        1. Nonke John*

          I think CupcakeCounter’s point probably is that Green Kangaroo can’t figure that someone asking for a reference has factored in how positive it’s realistically likely to be.

    10. Policy Wonk*

      If they ask, you should be honest, but some people are presumptuous.

      I had a friend who was an all around good guy, so people would list him as a reference without asking, which put him on the spot more than once. He was careful to never say anything negative, but was completely honest. For one former employee his answer to every question (other than confirming dates of employment) was that the employee was on time every day and was neatly dressed. In response to every.single.question. I am sure the caller got the message.

      If you suggest the person not list you, expect they will do so anyway, and be prepared with something similar.

    11. Nonke John*

      Ugh, yeah, it would be great to be able to assume that people have thought through what you’re likely to say about them before asking you, because you wouldn’t have to make things awkward by bringing it up. But I don’t think you can. Someone who asks for a reference, without explicitly saying he needs one from you even though he knows it won’t be glowing, is pretty certain to be figuring that you’ll say things that will help him land the job. And that’s pretty much what you’re tacitly agreeing to do if you just say yes.

      When I can’t do that, I’m not quite as direct as some people here: I respond along the lines of “I want to impress on you that I’ll answer all inquiries as honestly as possible, including those about your weaknesses and difficulties you had on the job. You’ll need to decide whether that makes me a good fit for your search, and I won’t be offended if you think it doesn’t.” People generally get the message from that, without my having to remind them how eminently I think they suck.

    12. ArtNova*

      This past year I fired “Sheila” due to poor performance. Since I had no warning, I asked if they were doing a background check and tried to steer them towards HR. But no, she had in fact listed me as a reference. In the moment, I did my best to talk about how much everyone on the team loved Sheila, but that ultimately she was let go because the job was a poor fit for her skillset and we had an obligation to the client. The reference checker responded “she was let go?”. “Yes” I replied. “Thank you for your time,” and hung up. I haven’t been called to be her reference again since.

      I wish I had been prepared and had something more diplomatic to say in the moment. But ultimately, I think she may have learned her lesson after this.

      1. ArtNova*

        ^ This is what I get for editing my first sentence. I got a reference call for Sheila after I fired her…

  11. Random Thought*

    This is why I kept my performance levels handy at my last job. I’m sorry to say it, but I did not trust my boss at my last job, who definitely felt betrayed when I left. I could have come up with many other references but nothing as stark as the top performance rating and glowing review my boss gave me only 2 months earlier. Never hurts to keep that stuff around.

  12. OlympiasEpiriot*

    My firm doe not give us copies of our performance reviews. I have long wondered about that. I do take notes in my annual review session, but, it seems to maintain the power all on one side.

    1. Ariana Grande's Ponytail*

      In the same vein, I have two bosses, but only one of them fills out a performance review for me, for some reason (I think it might not be a good reason, such as HR doesn’t know I have two bosses, but I digress). So what I write up in my performance review super does not match up with what my boss writes, and last year my boss wrote two sentences in my formal performance review. I’m not sure how I could bring that to a potential employer and use it as evidence of the quality of my work. I mean, I’m sure it would reflect on my current employer poorly, but it would be nice to have real evidence.

    2. Just wondering*

      Our company doesn’t even do performance reviews. And this is a huge company. Supposedly it is the give managers the freedom to do them throughout the year and not at year-end but in practice it just means they never happen. The closest I’ve had is my boss dropping off a post it with my bonus and new salary on my my desk and spending 5 seconds saying good work. To my knowledge he does this to every team member as he goes down the corridor.

      1. irene adler.*

        That’s how it works at my company.
        I haven’t had a performance review since about 1990. That dumbfounds folks.

        1. Kyrielle*

          There’s also the question of whether performance reviews are structured on something that acts as a measure.

          My performance review last year was based on how many “teapots I painted” to use the teapot analogy.

          Single-color teapots and teapots with elaborate designs such as Celtic knotwork, interplaying across the pot, lid, and handle…they all impact my review the same way.

          And in the case where I evaluate the needed designs and paints, do the first three layers of work, and pass it over to our gold-leaf specialist to add shiny highlights…the specialist is the last one to paint any part of the teapot, so that one counts for their numbers but not mine.

        2. College Career Counselor*

          I have had maybe five performance reviews in over 30 years of working (that’s my experience with higher ed). The one place I worked that mandated them (where I had four out of my five performance reviews) turned out to be the most dysfunctional. I was told the Division Boss(DB) one year wanted everyone to have personal goals that they were responsible for pursuing (and which they would be evaluated on) during the coming year. People were putting things like “buying a house,” “getting in shape,” and “relationship happiness” on them.

          DB also reviewed all performance evaluations across the division and would send them back saying “these are too high–knock them down to the next level.” No reason given other than, “this is just too high.” Well, I had a high-performing department with experienced people, and this demoralized some of them terribly–especially because DB had no idea what we did all day. In my experience with higher ed, performance evaluation is decoupled from salary increases (this is another issue), so DB was taking away the only thing the staff could point to to show that they did good work.

          I did not last long there. Of course DB is still in place.

          1. Easily Amused*

            In my first year at a small off-shoot to a giant corporation, My personal goals (upon which next years performance reviews would be based) were things like: become proficient in X programming language, complete a project using Y technology, etc. I found out after my meeting that a well-regarded co-worker had listed things like: clean out my e-mail box…

      2. Miss Pantalones En Fuego*

        I’ve never had a performance review in my current career. Once the company I was working for did an evaluation exercise to decide which of us to lay off, but despite being told that we could get a copy of our results my requests were ignored. I recently did another contract with them and the annual review process they had promised three years ago still hasn’t materialised. It’s part of why I feel so insecure in my career — I never get any formal feedback.

    3. AnonANon*

      Can you ask for a copy?
      Ours are entered in a system of record plus we have to sign our review acknowledging it occurred and everything in it is truthful to our knowledge. We can also appeal it if it contains false information.

  13. Clawfoot*

    Oooh, this happened to me too! I shall try to be concise:
    – constant turnover and “reorganization” meant I had six different supervisors over a period of two years
    – said turnover meant I had one (1) performance review from three years ago
    – that performance review was done by someone who “didn’t believe in” perfect reviews, so found fault in one (1) typo I had made, wrote it into my review with “needs more attention to detail”
    – instability at the company inspired me to find another job
    – job offer from new company was mine contingent on a reference check — they INSISTED on talking to my current manager, even though I explained that she’d only been my manager for about four weeks and didn’t know me from a hole in the ground. They insisted anyway.
    – bad reference from my current manager, who had called up the only performance review on file for me and told potential employer that I “lacked attention to detail.”

    Thankfully, the new company talked to me about it, brought me in for a work trial, and offered me the job anyway. My other references were glowing and they thought it sounded odd. Got the new job. Still there.

  14. Princess Alpaca*

    I once got a terrible reference from a former supervisor for a candidate. I didn’t want to hire but my boss overruled. There were other (yellow) flags but this was the biggest. Fast forward 6 months, every single word the reference said came true, and not only did we terminate, we had to get a restraining order against the now ex-employee.

    On the flip side, I once gave a good reference for a mediocre-on-a-good-day employee. They had already given notice and I was delighted to get rid of them. They then proceeded to be extremely rude and didn’t do any work for the remainder of their notice period. They lasted just over 6 months in their new job. I regret agreeing to be a reference at all and my new motto is, “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say nuffin’ at all.”

  15. danr*

    Well, the OP has that 3 month probationary period to evaluate the work herself and see if the one reference is correct.

  16. kittymommy*

    Our place does not actually do references in the traditional sense. We confirm employment (and other factual information such as length, job title, salary, etc.) and will state whether or not they would be considered for re-hire. That’s it. And it all goes through HR.

    1. That Girl from Quinn's House*

      I worked somewhere where it was rare that anyone would do the paperwork to change your title when you got promoted. So even calling to confirm titles doesn’t work.

    2. Working with professionals*

      My last company decided it needed “Fresh perspectives” and quietly told HR no one who was laid off or resigned voluntarily was eligible for rehire, even if they were awesome. I discovered this after I left. Your system might keep you from getting some excellent people should you allow references from co-workers, etc.

  17. Don't Send Your Kids to Hudson University*

    I think it really matters what made the reference worrying. If it was general performance concerns — you have a probationary period. Pay attention to those things, give feedback and clear instruction, and make sure to do all of the steps for reviews during your probationary period. And talk to the candidate about those concerns!
    If the reference was worrying because of a conduct issue, like theft or harassment, definitely get the candidate’s response, do your homework, and consider pulling the plug.

  18. The Man, Becky Lynch*

    But what did the other references say? Were they lukewarm or something?

    Why would you weigh heavily on the manager who someone is leaving in the moment? I’d see if you had two lukewarm references and then the last one was just a nail in the coffin but I don’t see that here at all.

    Both of these people are strangers, what leads you to want to believe a manager over the employee? The idea that becoming a manager somehow makes a person above the rest? And less prone to lying or exaggerating or grinding an axe? We should know by now that people get into places of power lots of ways, many times they do not belong there. So I would only use this bad reference against someone if they were already throwing up flags, the other references were weak and you had weird feelings about the person [which in that case, I wouldn’t have offered them a job in the first place!]

    1. lost academic*

      People naturally tend to weight the most current information more heavily because it seems more relevant. If I’m talking to a current manager versus one from more than 5 years ago, I expect a great deal could have changed with the prospective employee in terms of responsibilities, abilities, interests, skills, you name it. And that’s the person I’m hiring, into what is likely at least a related role. The person they were in the job before that becomes pretty far removed (or can be) from the person I’m considering now. You do need to weigh that against the potential for bias from that reference, but that’s why you don’t want to talk to just one person. A lot of places I have interviewed with didn’t insist on a manager but did want to speak with someone who was a peer and someone who was in a position to oversee or review work.

      At the end of the day, the system here is about trust and getting different kinds of information.

      1. Roscoe*

        I think though the question becomes why is the former managers word considered more trustworthy than the applicant. Like, if its someone you have an existing relationship with, then sure. But if you don’t know either of those people, but you’ve at least met the applicant multiple times AND spoken to other previous managers, why does this managers word count for more?

      2. The Man, Becky Lynch*

        This could be coming from the fact that when I escaped an abusive power tripping psychopath of a boss, I know what he thought of me. It’s clear in a really messy long almost rant like “write up” what he would have to say about my entire work, when nobody else in the company agreed with a word of it.

        It makes sense to put extra weight on the current manager but it doesn’t make sense for it to be weighted so much so that it topples over the positive references given.

        Nobody I have ever given references insist on a manager even, they just want people who they can talk to who have knowledge of my work. But in this case they specifically required this person who was leaving, for probably a good reason, to let them talk to his manager after getting notice papers. I know enough people who are sensitive after losing an employee that immediately asking their opinion on the person is a bad idea, maybe in another few years, they’ll cool their heels but not right after a resignation. So the best references are always their former managers who are not in a state of mourning or stressed out for having a vacancy they weren’t expecting, etc.

        We forget that everyone is human and humans are by nature flawed self centered individuals. Which is why you get a big sample group instead of just the one dude who apparently knows this person the most [even though we hear stories about managers not knowing their reports at all].

      3. Flyleaf*

        Recency is important, but it is trumped by any conflicts-of-interest. And the current employer has lots of conflicts. If the employee is bad, then the employer might paint a rosy picture to get rid of them. If the employee is good, they might not want them to leave and could give a bad recommendation.

        My feeling is that I want to talk to the next-to-last manager, hopefully from not too long ago.

  19. aebhel*

    Yeah, this just seems like a generally bad practice. I’ve mercifully had generally reasonable bosses who didn’t sabotage my job search efforts (and in some cases went out of their way to help me out), but then you have my spouse, whose former boss had to be threatened with a lawsuit for tortious interference before he’d stop threatening his new employer. I’m quite sure that he’d take any opportunity to drag my spouse up one side and down the other, and not out of any legitimate performance issues, just out of spite.

  20. Hiring Mgr*

    Something seems off with this process. If you already had enough (including other references), to make the offer, why would you need the current employer as a reference as well? The reasons why this is a bad idea have been well documented.

    1. CupcakeCounter*

      I generally agree assuming that the references already provided were relatively current (such as a couple current coworkers who are peers or slightly senior). If all other references are several years old, I think I would want a more current reference as well, and depending on the structure of their current workplace their current supervisor might be the only option. I would absolutely take the reference with a grain of salt since the chances are they are providing it shortly after being informed that employee is leaving and might be feeling a little put out about it.

  21. Tasha*

    As an applicant, I would ask if you’re a hiring manager who requires this from potential hires, do you provide fair references and no retaliation for employees of yours who are applying elsewhere?

    1. SufferinSuccotash*

      Really? That seems like a really combative question to pose to someone who you’re interviewing with. And it’s super loaded. Like, what even is a graceful answer to that question?

  22. Goldenrod*

    Yep, I agree with most of these comments. The poor guy is probably trapped in a toxic workplace with a crappy manager. I think OP should take the one bad reference with a grain of salt.

  23. I never remember my username*

    Take anything from the current employer with a grain of salt. I had a manager who was so angry when I gave notice (with a ton of lead time) that he chewed me out, chewed out the new employer, and tried to sabotage the job offer. Like I could have continued working for that employer after that! It was proof that leaving was the right choice.

  24. Buttons*

    I would never give notice until all background checks and references were checked and approved. I once had a job offer fall through one day before I was going to give my notice because the head of the department had been fired and the CEO put a hiring freeze into place. I would have been screwed if I had given my notice.
    I also had a job offer retracted because the background check company they hired had my name and SSN wrong, no amount of talking to them to clear it up worked. That background company was in the middle of a class-action lawsuit for providing bad information, but the company wouldn’t listen.
    Because of both of those experiences, I am extremely careful and will not give notice unless I am 100% sure there is nothing going to prevent me from starting.

    1. irene adler.*

      Do you get any push back for insisting on their completing the background checks prior to your giving notice?

          1. Product Person*

            My husband stood firm saying he would start two weeks after the background check cleared. His employer is a big, known firm with a standard process that expected him to start 2 weeks from the conditional offer, but HR immediately accepted his terms.

  25. Johanna*

    Do consider that the current manager may not be honest. I once worked where the manager gave professionals ambiguous position titles so she could then make it seem like the job duties were administrative. She would straight up lie when people asked where any of the former employee worked now and would say they were working at a coffee shop or something like that. (Once at a conference where the former employee was presenting ) People rarely lasted more than a year there. I had a co- worker who listed me as a reference from that time. I I didn’t go into the long stories I would have loved everyone to know about this manager, but the employer definitely knew something was up when I told him there had been 6 people in that position over the last 5 years.

  26. Buttons*

    This might be a better discussion for Friday’s open thread. But I haven’t had anyone ask me for references in years, and I don’t ask for references. I verify employment history, but I don’t speak to people. Maybe it is the level I am at and the level I am hiring at? I feel like if interviews are done right then they aren’t necessary. I also feel like I have never checked a reference in 25 years that made me not want to hire someone, most people give the name of a person who will give them a good reference, and therefore they are useless.
    I have recently told a former employee that while I was happy to be a reference for her, she hasn’t worked for me 5 years and since then has moved to 2 new jobs and a higher level than when she worked for me as a coordinator. I don’t know how she performs now in her current role.

    1. irene adler.*

      Do you get a lot of unhappy “surprises” with your hires?
      Are you satisfied with your hires?
      If you have a lot of good hires, I suspect that you do a really good job of determining if the candidate fits the bill. And that is Good on you!
      Care to share your methods??

      1. Buttons*

        In the last 5 years I have only had one person that I wasn’t happy with once they started. I use a lot of behavioral type questions with a small project. Mostly who I hire are instructional designers and trainers. I ask a lot about how they handle situations I know will come up in our world. I posted this over the weekend.
        Here are some sample questions, assessment guidelines, and red flags.

        Could you tell me about a time your punctuality or attendance impacted your work?”
        How do you organize your work when you have to juggle multiple projects/clients at the same time?
        If you’re reporting to more than one manager, how do you prioritize your duties?
        Describe a typical day at work. What’s your morning routine?
        How much time do you spend per week on X task?
        You return to work after a two-week vacation and find fifty new emails in your inbox. How do you choose which emails to open and answer first?
        Have you ever missed a deadline? If so, what happened? If not, how do you make sure you’re not falling behind?
        What productivity tools (e.g. time-management or project-management software) have you found useful?
        Describe a time you successfully delegated tasks to your team.
        How would you reply if your manager suddenly asked you to complete a challenging task on a tight deadline? (e.g. make fifty cold calls to potential customers in one day)
        Have you ever felt overwhelmed at work? What did you do?

        Here are signs of candidates with good prioritization skills:

        They make to-do lists. People who are organized and break large projects into smaller, doable steps are more likely to complete their work on time.
        They separate important from urgent. Most job duties are important, but only some of them are time-sensitive. Look for people who understand the difference and follow deadlines.
        They estimate the time, effort and resources needed for each task. To properly prioritize tasks, employees need to prepare themselves. They should evaluate a project’s requirements before digging into work.
        They don’t hesitate to re-evaluate tasks. Employees should be able to identify inefficiencies in their workload and suggest ways to improve processes. And managers should frequently re-assess regular duties to determine what works and what doesn’t.
        Red flags
        They micromanage. Employees who want to control every part of a project find it hard to delegate tasks. They’re more likely to wind up with more tasks than they can handle.
        They lack communication skills. Managers who can’t clearly communicate requirements cause team-wide misunderstandings regarding priorities and deadlines.
        They lose the bigger picture. Employees who view projects as individual tasks aren’t likely to consider how they add value to the company. This makes them less likely to prioritize projects based on their importance.
        They procrastinate. Poor concentration and lack of a “can do” attitude are red flags. Also, people who are easily distracted by trivial issues struggle with focusing on their most important job responsibilities.

        1. irene adler*

          Man, is this insightful stuff!
          Thanks for taking the time to write this out. This helps me with being a better interviewee (and interviewer- should I ever have another chance).

  27. rayray*

    Doesn’t seem fair to offer someone a job, and then not want to give them an honest chance to prove themselves. It could have been sabotage on that employer’s behalf, or maybe the two of them didn’t jive and it was a bad fit all around. Give this person a change for heaven’s sake.

    1. Ayla K*

      Thank you!! The HR specialist in me is screaming internally. Putting that in writing is a legal nightmare waiting to happen.

  28. Wandering*

    Could someone who hires this way explain the logic of it? If you’re going to check references why offer before doing so? And why insist on references from a current manager?

    I once had an informative conversation with my Mgr as one of my staff had accepted a nice promotion in another Dept. Mgr let me know that if I ever tried to go work for someone else, he’d make sure I never worked in that city again. People are surprised that I don’t use that person as a reference.

  29. Leisel*

    I once had a job in sales, but I just didn’t want to do sales anymore. I was good at it, but it wasn’t making me happy, so I started casually job searching. It just so happens that a vendor I worked with was hiring for an traveling trainer/education outreach position. Perfect! So I applied, was contacted immediately by the local sales manager, John, who was my main connection there. I went through a couple of rounds of interviews and ended up as a finalist alongside another applicant. They asked if they could reach out to my current employer, so I said yes and went to give my boss a heads up so he wouldn’t be blindsided. I told him it was nothing personal, I just wanted to try something different while I was young and unattached and able to travel.

    They ended up going with the other finalist, which was a bummer, but I took it pretty well. A week after the rejection John, who had put in a good word for me with his company, called and asked if we could meet for coffee. He wanted to let me know that he felt like my boss had sabotaged me.

    Basically, when they called my boss he said that I was fine and could probably do the job and would be okay at it. He didn’t say anything negative, but acted indifferent. Then he immediately contacted John and told him that if they hired me away he would never buy their products again. We had a pretty big account with them, so it would have been a big hit to their local branch and especially to John’s commission. So John had talked to the hiring manager, found out that the reference put me a step behind the other finalist and they went with them. John didn’t feel like he was in the position to go to bat for me, so he accepted their decision. He wanted to apologize and tell me in person that my boss had been so manipulative.

    I never told my boss that I knew what he had done, but it changed my whole attitude towards the company and I doubled down on my search for a new job. It was very satisfying when I put in my notice!

  30. blink14*

    When at my last job, I never could’ve listed my boss as a reference (and she would’ve been the only valid reference). She was vindictive and paranoid, and any inkling that I was searching for another job would’ve sent her through the roof. I was genuinely concerned about my job safety – there’s no way I could’ve gotten by without that income – and stressed heavily to any job I was applying to that my current employer was not to be contacted.

    I was really fortunate in that I had been working part time remotely a long time for a different company and they were generous in keeping me on while I was going through my job search. My supervisor there was fantastic and was the perfect reference.

    When I got my current job, I would not give notice until I had the offer letter in hand. My job requires a basic background check on education, but that wasn’t a concern for me, so once I had the offer letter, I gave notice at my former job. However, my offer letter was delayed by a couple of weeks, and the person at my current job who was handling the HR duties at the time pressured me significantly to give notice without the letter. I simply refused, and eventually the letter came in.

  31. Employment Lawyer*

    It’s a mistake to ask “does this employee have characteristics of a good worker?” The question you should ask is “what information should always be DIFFERENT between a good and bad employee?” Keeping a laser-like focus on that differential information is the mark of a successful hire.

    In a perfect world, you would not rely on someone else. Even bad employees will often manage to hide it most of the time, which is where the whole “quick to fire, slow to hire” mantra comes from. In other words: while it’s true that “cannot produce a good reference” is a mark of a horrific employee, “produces good references” is a quality shared by BOTH good and bad employees. Also in that category are “seemed OK in the interview,” “seems nice enough,” etc.

    The ideal solution is to find the yearly evaluations in the employee file. If those are good, then you’re probably fine. If they are bad, you’re probably out of luck. For what it’s worth, the employee can occasionally get those by asking, or (if need be) saying “hey, BadBoss gave me a bad reference, which I think was slanderously bad and which failed to reflect my many years of excellent employee reviews. I’m about to lose my new job as a result, and sue BadBoss and perhaps you. If you get me copies of all my “outstanding” reviews, I’ll keep my job and this will wash over.”

    You can also use AAM’s advice but I would modify it: keep a focus on differential information. Only ask for things which would be DIFFERENT for a bad employee and good employee. This is one of those times where I would be tempted to decide–on my own!!–who I was going to call as a reference. A bad employee can find 5 friends in any company. A good employee will get good reviews no matter who you call.

    1. zeldafitz*

      “A bad employee can find 5 friends in any company. A good employee will get good reviews no matter who you call.”

      Well that’s not true at all. A bad boss will turn a good employee into a bad employee in the situation, and someone who might not be a good fit in one environment could be an excellent one in another. Is there anyone who can truly say throughout their entire career that there’s not one person who would unfairly give them a bad reference?

      And what to you marks “the characteristics of a good worker” and do you think that’s applicable to literally everyone in all jobs?

  32. RUKiddingMe*

    One hundred percent if the times I’ve run into this it was a disgruntled former employer.

    Early in my work life I hot a *glowing* reference…until they found out I was leaving, then…I was the Anti-Christ.

    Fortunately new employer had already heard the glowing reference and understood the second one for what it was.

    I have always remembered that whenever getting bad references from recent ex employers.

  33. ThisColumnMakesMeGratefulForMyBoss*

    I don’t see a problem here. If the candidate knows that the job is probationary and based on their performance as well as the references they provide, then you take the information from those references, see how they do in the role and make an informed decision. A lot people leave jobs because of management, not because of the job itself. And as we read here, there are A LOT of terrible managers out there.

  34. JanetM*

    I was doing reference checks on a candidate and the current supervisor (who knew the candidate was leaving — they were retiring and wanted to pick up a part-time job) said, “If I were to tell you she was terrible, would that keep you from hiring her? Because I don’t want her to leave.”

    He did proceed to provide a glowing reference — fully justified, based on the now-employee’s work for us.

    I still think that was out of line.

  35. Bunny*

    I was laid off from my last job and when I filed for unemployment my previous boss who was a terrible person but I had never known to be directly malicious at least towards me tried to tell the unemployment office that I was fired for cause and gave a truly horrifying account of my time there bordering unhinged and that was literally unbelievable, like the unemployment office told me that I could file a response but it was so ridiculous on its face that they had already decided to rule in my favor even without a formal response from me.

    I kept it together for a while but I broke down sobbing to my husband when he got home because I hadn’t even considered he would be that vicious and untruthful about my conduct at the office. Like I get that no company likes unemployment claims but this was just completely over the top needlessly vindictive. He had done some other very ugly stuff as I transitioned out of my role including tying to not pay me severance that I was offered if I would stay to ease the transition out of my role because I was not being replaced but I was still completely caught off guard by what he said about me.

    My current job asked about references and I could barely keep myself composed when I explained what had happened in my departure from my last one. Thankfully I was offered and took the position but there is not a doubt in my mind that my former boss would have tried to ruin my chances just out of spite.

    1. Stormy Weather*

      Wow. Just wow. I am so glad the unemployment office saw through his attempts to sabotage your life.

      I also hope karma bites your former boss on the ass.

  36. Pobody’s Nerfect*

    We had kind of the opposite problem. We offered the job to a person whose then-current position/boss gave them a glowing recommendation, only to find out later (through some other side channels) that mgr just wanted to get rid of this person so badly (because they were such a bad employee), and the old mgr was so thrilled we wanted to hire the person, that they lied and gave a good review so we’d hire the person away from them & they didn’t have to go through the trouble of a termination. Now we’re stuck with a poor performer who games the system every chance they get, and the termination process where we are is super difficult too. References are a double-edged sword and more often than not, in our experience, cannot be believed. It’s tricky.

  37. Moop*

    Is it ethical or fair to mention a bad reference unless the referee specifically said it was ok to disclose to the applicant? As a manager I wouldn’t give an honestly negative reference unless I knew it was confidential.

  38. Enginear*

    If the candidate interviewed well and his work experience checks out, that’s what I would focus on.

  39. Ashley*

    I wonder if sharing a recent performance appraisal would be helpful in this situation. I know things can change, but if the applicant has a pretty positive performance appraisal that contradicts the manager’s bad reference that could help show that the manage is not being honest.

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