should I give a bad reference for a nightmare employee?

A reader writes:

I used to serve on the board of a small nonprofit, which I left a year ago. During my time on the board, we had to hire a new executive director. The new hire’s references were stellar and he had a great resume, but there were problems even before he had fully onboarded. In my opinion, he managed “up” very well, but every other relationship was terrible. During his short tenure, nearly all the staff quit, there was a hostile work environment investigation, and relationships with partners ranging from foundations to long-term consultants were ruined. He raised zero money during his time there and we nearly had to fold. The worst part was that, as soon as we hired him, people came out of the woodwork to tell us what a nightmare he was.

He and I had a friendly relationship, but did not keep in touch. He recently emailed and asked me to be a reference. I said yes, but that I could only speak to his performance with respect to the board, which he accepted. But the more I think about it, I want to do what no one had the guts to do for our organization, before it’s too late. What do you think? Should I give a negative reference?

I answer this question — and four others — 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.

Other questions I’m answering there today include:

  • My manager wants me do more talking to people in-person rather than sending emails
  • My team isn’t using the gift cards I gave them
  • Why aren’t my applicants including cover letters?
  • How do I follow up on my manager’s offer of professional development?

{ 367 comments… read them below }

  1. The Tin Man*

    #3: oooof yeah I would feel super weirded out if a boss gave me a gift card then reached out nine months later to say “I see you haven’t used that gift card yet, remember to!”. I don’t understand why it was even a follow-up item to check the balances.

    Even more uncomfortable if it was paired with “if you don’t use it in the next three months I’ll be reclaiming it”. At that point I would probably just abandon it and think “You clearly need it more than I do”

    1. Kassie*

      I’m trying to think of what gift card would allow someone not in possession of the gift card to check the balance? It really comes off as creepy.

      1. Uranus Wars*

        A lot of e-card services do this if you order in bulk for a company. I know OP said they paid out of their own pocket, but if they used an online service that could be a possibility. We can get a monthly report if we want to, but don’t normally, at least not at that detail.

        1. TiffIf*

          I have also seen that if I send an Amazon e-card if it is not claimed within a certain amount of time (it might have been 90 days?) then it notifies me as the purchaser that the recipient never claimed it. So the wording is just vague enough that maybe it isn’t balance related but could be they still see it as “unclaimed.”

      2. Stevie*

        Assuming these are gift cards to certain major retailers or something like a Visa gift card, if you wrote down the gift card number (sometimes the gift card number also shows up on the receipt at time of purchase), all you’d have to do is go to the specified website and enter the gift card number.

        1. HigherEdAdminista*

          Yup! At one of my retail jobs we once got a phone call from someone who was very upset that she had given a gift to someone who hadn’t yet redeemed it, and she offered that she had written the gift card number down and was checking the balance DAILY. She wanted to know if she could cancel the card and get her money back.

        2. Green tea*

          What’s really invasive is that for many of the cards you can see the amounts spent at different retailers. When I was just a year or so out of college I received a summer bonus of $500 and bought a few bras at Victoria’s Secret with part of it. When I realized later, upon checking my balance, that the vendor shows on the card’s history, I was so embarrassed. To this day I don’t know if my old boss ever checked the number to see if it was used.

          1. KayDeeAye*

            Probably not. My apologies to the OP, but this is truly not normal behavior, at least in my opinion. You give the card, the recipient says “Thanks,” and that ought to be that.

          2. I'm just here for the cats*

            I could be wrong, but I think checking your balance is different than what the purchaser can see. For the visa-type gift cards I’ve gotten you have to create an account with the number to see the transaction history. I think you are safe.

      3. Ask a Manager* Post author

        If you send an iTunes gift card, you can see if it’s been used or not. I admittedly just followed up with my brother in law to tell him he had 50 bucks unused from me from a few years back because I figured he’d forgotten about it and would want to use it (he did). I didn’t go looking for it though — the info was right in front of me when I was looking for something else in my account.

        1. Metadata minion*

          And that’s so much less weird/intrusive from a family member. I tend to have a bad case of “if it’s not in front of me, it doesn’t exist”, and if a friend gently poked me and asked if I still wanted to use that gift card or they should get me something else next time or what, I would totally appreciate it. Same thing from my boss? WEIRD.

      4. une autre Cassandra*

        I’ve bought gift cards for friends from an online photo printing shop, and if I log into my account I can see all the codes and whether or not they’ve been redeemed. (And none of them have, which stresses me out and makes me wonder if I should remind the recipients they exist?! I almost certainly won’t, but it haunts me.)

        1. Mimi*

          Photo printing is hard because you have to sit down and figure out which of your zillionty photos you want prints of. Maybe the recipients forgot — or maybe they periodically go, “Oh right, I should really look through my 15,000 photos of Woofer and figure out which ones I want to make prints of with that card Cassandra got me.”

          1. une autre Cassandra*

            That‘a what I figure, especially since a couple of them were given as baby shower gifts, so things got real chaotic soon after the gift-giving in those cases.

    2. Heidi*

      If they didn’t spend the card after 9 months, they probably have forgotten about them by now. The OP probably could just spend the balance and if someone tried to use their gift card later on, they’ll just assume they got a defective card.

      The part that strikes me is the OP feels they spent a bunch of effort and got nothing in return. But wasn’t the work the team did for the mini-incentive what OP got in return? The OP wasn’t giving them a no-strings-attached gift, it was an investment made to create greater productivity.

      1. Dutchie*

        I often spend giftcards years later, when I really need them. For all you know these people use them on vacation or to do Christmas shopping and that time of year has not been around yet.

        Would you go into someone’s house to see whether they used the shampoo you gave them months ago? If not, don’t use the giftcard yourself.

        1. Zephy*

          Right? I’ve got probably $200 in gift cards to a clothing retailer that I’ve just been carrying around for years. It’s because I don’t usually shop there, mostly, but also I forget I have them when I do think to buy clothes.

          1. Liz*

            Same but mine are Am Ex gift cards I’ve gotten from various bosses. I do the majority of my shopping online, which is kind of a PITA for using gift cards, and for the last year or so, haven’t really shopped in stores, aside from food and necessities. I also have this “thing” where I prefer to spend gift cards on something fun or something I wouldn’t normally buy for myself, vs. groceries, gas, etc. So I just forget I have them and they sit.

        2. BubbleTea*

          I log gift cards in my budget software, with the card number, expiry date and balance. It isn’t uncommon for me to use a gift card two years after receiving it, long after I’ve lost any physical card, because I’ve got all the details. I’d be confused if it didn’t work and probably contact the card provider to find out why. If they told me that it had been used to send something to Mr. Boss Man, I’d be really cross.

          1. Kristina*

            As a teacher, I get a lot of $5-15 thank you Starbucks gift cards. Since I don’t drink coffee, I put them in my suitcase and promptly forget all about them. Then wherever I take my next trip, I spend them on a ridiculously overpriced lunch for my family and coffee for my husband at the airport. Sometimes ppl really do use them much later!

            1. Liz*

              I am a coffee drinker, and like Starbucks coffee, but its inconvenient for me to actually GO to one. So I have almost $40 in unused funds there. I generally make my own coffee at home too. I also prefer just plain coffee, and the times I’ve wanted to use them, the line has been out the door, and I KNOW everyone is ordering fancy fru fru drinks, and I don’t have the patience to wait just to get my basic cup of coffee!

        3. Heidi*

          I got the impression that the OP didn’t see it as taking the gift out of their hands. More like she found her gift had been thrown out in the dumpster and wanted to put it to use instead of going into the landfill. But I see that there are lots of people who still use gift cards after a long time, so you’re right that OP should just leave it be.

        4. Koalafied*

          Same – I used to get a fair amount of $5 Starbucks gift cards in relation to things i traveled for with my job (conference bag swag, “thank you for coming to give our company a presentation,” etc). When I’m actually on the business trip I expense any coffee I buy, and the coffee gift cards go into my wallet. Then some future day when I’m traveling for personal leisure, I love being able to stop at Starbucks to get some fuel for the road without being out of pocket! Normally I’m very disciplined about my budget and am the sort who will eat before I leave and bring snacks to avoid paying the premium for takeout/restaurant food, so stopping at a coffee shop is a real treat!

          But I don’t do a ton of personal travel, and sometimes the cards can stack up so I’ve got several in my wallet at a time and I don’t make any particular effort to sort them into an order that I received them and use the oldest ones first, just like I don’t sort my cash and try to use the bills I withdrew at the ATM longest ago – they’re fungible. They do all get used eventually! But it wouldn’t be unusual for several months or even a year to pass before I found it convenient to use them the way I like to use them. I’m not going to make a trip to Starbucks on a random day because Icould get a free coffee there today – I want to save the free coffee for a situation where I could really go for a coffee and I don’t have the option of brewing my own/drinking complimentary office coffee/expensing it/etc.

        5. JessaB*

          I once got my sister a Panera card, because if I’d given her cash she’d have paid a bill (that the amount wouldn’t really do much to reduce) but this way when she was on her way to or from her 3d shift hospitalist job she could get something that she loved. Panera is like her favourite food. I know darned well some of that balance was still left after two job changes and a move back to Ohio because she was doling it out a little at a time for treats.

          I would often hold a gift card til I needed it. I wouldn’t just spend right away.

      2. Sleepytime Tea*

        It’s a terrible idea to spend the gift card on themselves. Just because it hasn’t been used yet doesn’t mean you take back the *gift.* It IS no strings attached – that’s what a gift is. I stick gift cards in my wallet and use them when I happen to be at that business, which may not be right away. I get that OP felt like if they haven’t been used yet then their effort wasn’t appreciated, but that’s a really sweeping generalization to make and no one should take it personally if a gift wasn’t used in some sort of pre-determined timeframe. You don’t just take it back because you think it should have been used already.

        1. Heidi*

          I agree that the OP should just let it go and not upset themselves further over a perceived lack of gratitude. The cards weren’t a birthday present; they were a carrot on a stick to get employees to meet some sort of work target. If the carrot got them to meet the target, then the success of that endeavor should be the expected return, not the gratitude of the coworkers who may or may not have use for the gift card.

      3. Colette*

        I’ve got a gift card in my wallet that has been there for over a year. It’s a restaurant card, and a pain to use for anything other than in-person dining. When I get gift cards to book stores, I tend to use them to buy gifts, so they sit a while. Even if I’ve forgotten I have the card, I don’t need a reminder/guilt trip about it. It’s mine; I can use it – or not – as I wish.

        1. Nanani*

          I have a similar story with movie theatre gift cards. The most convenient cinema for me isn’t part of the chain these cards are for, but I usually get the cards from people I go to that chain cinema with so the cards just sit until the next time we see a movie together (and then everything closed for over a year but that’s besides the point).

      4. Ace in the Hole*

        Not necessarily… I often save gift cards for a special occasion, like a holiday gift or travel. Or I might want to buy something expensive and I’d like to put the gift card toward it, but I need time to save up for the rest of the cost. I would be very upset if someone gave me something and then decided to take it back because I hadn’t used it quick enough to satisfy their ego.

        Spending a gift card after you gave it to someone is a horrible thing to do, and it’s every bit as much theft as taking back cash you gave them.

      5. Atalanta0jess*

        Nooooo! I still have a gift card that I was given by my workplace nearly four years ago. I’ve used some of it, and honestly I WILL use the rest of it, I am just…thrifty and wait to buy things until I really want them.

    3. L.H. Puttgrass*

      “I checked the balance of the gift cards, because I had a calendar reminder set to follow up. “

      Seriously—don’t do this. That’s kind of creepy and privacy invasive, IMO.

      1. nonbinary writer*

        I don’t think it’s necessarily creepy, but it sure seems like a way to create unnecessary anxiety for yourself!

    4. Meep*

      So much this. LW#3’s mistake was not getting it reimbursed and that is on them. Having conditions attached – especially ones after months – is a crappy thing to do.

    5. Blaise*

      I don’t think it would be a bad idea to add it to the end of an email announcing their departure from the company… “P.S. If you won a gift card back in January, don’t forget to put it to good use if you haven’t already!”

      Just don’t mention that you checked up on the balances lol, that part is what comes across as weird.

    6. Chris*

      I just found a gift card I received from a boss. It was 3 bosses and 6 years ago. I found it while cleaning out my desk for a job change. I used it and thought fondly of what a good boss she was all those years ago. Even if it was forgotten, it doesn’t mean the gesture wasn’t appreciated. Yeah, it would just be weird to have someone follow up on this.

    7. Alexis Rosay*

      Many times, my boss has given employees gift cards that are more intended as a way to make himself feel good politically, especially gift cards to small businesses with BIPOC owners. I am 100% in favor of supporting these businesses, but in many cases their location is extremely inconvenient to our employees. (Who wants to drive 45 minutes to spend a $25 gift card?!)

      I have tried to push back on this, but not always successfully.

    8. quill*

      It’s very weird, though previously I suppose it could come across as a (patronizing) reminder that they expire. (If I recall correctly you can’t have gift cards expire anymore?)

      The “I’ll take it back” is cartoonish!

    9. Irish girl*

      i jsut use a Pottery Barn gift card from my wedding shower 9 years later…. Not a PB shopper and it wasnt a large amount so i never had a use for it until i did. Thank goodness they dont expire in my state. On the other hand i found a gift card to Toys R Us in my desk from when i had my first kid that was in a card no one ever told me about. It would have been a great to get a follow up on that one before they went out of business.

    10. pleaset cheap rolls*

      Adding I’ve probably only used half the gift cards I’ve received in my life. Or less. I’ve gotten them to places I go so rarely it’s not worth the mental energy of even thinking about using them. Popular places, but just not for me. So that’s fine – it’s the thought that counts.

      OP should not check this sort of thing. Just let it go.

    11. TootsNYC*

      I had a gift card from a boss get reclaimed.
      I may have posted about that gift card here at one point; it was for $100 to Bergdorf Goodman. There was damned little in that store that even cost that little–nail polish, 6 pieces of stationery, panty hose, or a little 4″ ceramic dish with a letter on it.

      I put it in a drawer because i was so insulted and angry. $100 seems like a lot, but it felt insulting to be unable to use it at all. I’d have been happier with $10 to Starbucks.

      Later I realized that I could spend it at Nieman-Marcus, but we don’t have a store, and I didn’t want to order a dress and have it not fit. I didn’t get around to dealing with it until it had expired. So I called to see if I could reactivate it, and they told me that it had been redeemed by the person who had given it to me.

      She got it from some “corporate cooperation” thing, so I’m sure she had info that it wasn’t being used, and what its number was.

      Definitely, that was the most successful employee appreciation gift I’ve ever been given. /s

      1. Mrs. Smith*

        Yeah, this. If it was a $20 gift card to a restaurant where dinner costs $100, that gift card goes unspent because it costs $80 to use it.

        1. Liz*

          Haha. my former retail job, where I was PT, used to give $100 Tiffany gift cards for 5 year anniversaries. As anyone knows, there is very little there you can buy for $100! I think i ended up spending a little more than double that of my own money, to get something.

      2. Deanna Troi*

        TootsNYC, I would totally go back to my boss and say “just as a FYI, I tried to use the gift card you gave me, and it didn’t have a balance on it.” Not to be a jerk, but so she would be aware that sometimes people wait awhile to use them.

    12. MistOrMister*

      This was so strange to me. If it was a check I could certainly see telling the people, either cash it by X date or I will have to void it. You shouldn’t be potentially wreaking havoc with someone’s bank account by cashing checks months or years later (we all remember when Jerry Seinfeld did that to his poor Nana!). But gift cards are like cash. Once they’re in the hands of the recipient, they’re gone. I don’t always use my gift cards right away. If they wont expire, I very well might sit on one for years if the card is for a place I don’t go often. Or maybe it’s a card for a place I don’t like and it takes me ages to figure out something I can stand to buy.

      Not sure why OP is taking it as a personal affront that the cards havent been used. One thing to think of, if OP uses the cards themselves and then someone goes to use one and it has no money, they are going to look like a huge cheapskate. I tried to use a gift card at a restaurat once and they brought it back saying it has blank and I still wonder if the person who gave it to me deliberately gave me a bad card. Don’t be that person OP!

      1. Kal*

        Gift cards are like cash, except with weird extra strings attached that can make it harder to use it. If anyone is ever so concerned over a gift recipient using the gift that you give them to the point that you may contemplate taking back the gift – then just give them cash. You can be pretty sure that that gift will find its use and usually relatively soon.

      2. JessaB*

        At a restaurant is worse, because what if you were counting on the card to pay the bill and didn’t have enough with you?

    13. Not So NewReader*

      Around here some gift cards get charged a percentage rate for every month there is a balance on the card. (my how the money rolls in) It is possible to months later find that most of the card is used up just in “service fees”.

    14. DrunkAtAWedding*

      Tbh, I would probably forget I even have a gift card and might appreciate a reminder. I wouldn’t want to know they could see the balance – that IS creepy and I don’t really get why they can – but I might appreciate a “hey, if any of you haven’t spent your gift cards, remember they expire on XXXXX”.

  2. Mike*

    This is tricky – my gut was to, yes, give a bad reference. Then I saw he asked you for a reference, and you accepted. Perhaps you should have refused.

    Then I reconsidered — reference checks aren’t supposed to be rubber stamp approvals. They should mean something. I say go ahead and do it. Or, let him know you can’t provide a positive one… but then he’ll likely just find someone who can.

    1. John Smith*

      It’s not whether a reference is good or bad, it’s whether it’s honest.

      My last manager was absolutely abysmal. We wondered how he manages to get the job he was so bad. When he left, we found out all sorts about him. Previous employers had given start and end dates and that’s it. Mine probably did the same, as I have come to know his current employer is trying to find ways to get rid of him.

      Please please, do not allow other people to be burdened with a terrible manager by not giving a reference that reflects honestly.

      1. Stina*

        This is probably what is happening as many employers have policies limiting references to dates of employment and if they’re eligible for rehire or not limiting their liability. If your organization allows broader discussion from you, be honest but strategically discreet (revenue declined and turnover increased…)

      2. Run mad; don't faint*

        Yes, please write an honest reference. I still remember my father hiring and later firing an employee for some particular reasons. He and the employee had a long discussion about how employee could and should handle things better in his next job. My dad felt like the young man had taken everything to heart and was pleased about that at least. Then my dad got a call from an old friend who had worked with the employee previously and discovered that the employee made a habit of this behavior…and in getting people to give him positive to neutral references despite it. So he got a clean slate every time, and a new company had to deal with him and his behavior.

    2. Alexis Rosay*

      Yes, give a bad reference. My nonprofit avoided a bad ED in part through a reference from a former board member, and I am eternally grateful.

      I agree with Alison, speaking to this person’s work with the board can easily be a proxy for speaking to their entire work, since the board governs the organization. Even just the fundraising issue you mentioned *strongly* concerns the board and would be a red flag for any ED applicant.

      1. BubbleTea*

        It wouldn’t be a bad reference, it would be an accurate one. I’d argue a bad reference is one that doesn’t give a true picture of the person’s performance. The reference isn’t bad, the performance was.

      2. Anonymous for This*

        My kids’ private (religious) school had a principal suddenly resign in the middle of the year. When the board was asked about it, they said, “it had nothing to do with any educational or student matter. We wish him well.”

        I found out through scuttlebutt that it had been financial, and that he’d had similar problems at the school he was at previously. But that school–like my school–had reached an agreement to not tell anyone about it. It was part of the agreement to get him to leave: “if you will resign and make this easy and quick, we won’t tell anyone or press criminal charges.” It ends things swiftly and doesn’t cost lawyer money, but the person who told me was lamenting that the board was unable to warn future employers.
        Which was especially frustrating because they could have been warned, except for that agreement. And apparently he took them for a substantial sum.

        1. Mints*

          I wonder how official that agreement is. Once he’s gone, is there reason to keep to it? Could they say something like “Due to a difficult period at the end, we mutually decided to not provide references” or “Our legal counsel has advised us not to provide references” – it’s kind of weird and vague, but it’s not positive or even neutral

      3. TardyTardis*

        My husband’s school ended up with a whizzer of a principal (who ended up resigning abruptly over a problem with a female employee off hours, but he was special in other ways, too). His previous school gave him a sterling reference, possibly to get rid of him. The school board really should have asked the school prior to his last one to find out more, perhaps.

  3. Recruited Recruiter*

    I have a question for the other readers on the line of LW 4’s question. I do a lot of recruiting for entry level blue collar jobs. The required certifications are pretty basic, and the owners don’t want to require cover letters because it will scare off people similar to some of our best employees. The main requirement is a certain license that countless people have. Is there a good way to tell the difference between a resume bomber and a serious applicant before they no-show for the interview and I have wasted my hiring manager’s calendar space?

    1. MassMatt*

      Yes, do a phone screen where you go over qualifications and requirements, and ask some basic questions. It’s far easier to do 100 phone screens than 100 in-person interviews.

      Also, toss resumes with work histories that are wildly different or only very tangentially related to the job you are hiring for unless the applicant explains why they are seeking to make this career change.

    2. gsa*

      My opinion, do a skills test. Just because everybody has the CERT does it mean that everybody will be good at what needs to be done.

      1. I should really pick a name*

        A skills test before getting an interview is going to put off some good candidates.

        1. DrunkAtAWedding*

          I LOVE skills tests. I’d far rather just show someone what I can do than have to describe my skills to them. But I appreciate that I’m probably weird.

      2. Anon for this*

        As someone who really is only holding off on getting a cert because of test anxiety, a skills test before even getting an interview would definitely make me not want to apply. I have the skills. I know this. But tests are TESTS.

    3. Kaden Lee*

      Phone screening? You could set up a call prior to the interview with the hiring manager to ask about that license or even ask about it when scheduling the interview.

    4. whistle*

      Could you request that they specify their certification on the top of the resume?

      In my experience, though, resume bombers are generally not in any way qualified and it takes about 5 seconds to see they aren’t qualified and move on to the next candidate. If you are lining up qualified candidates who agree to an interview slot and then they aren’t showing up for the interview, I doubt it’s due to resume bombing. I’d look at other parts of your process

    5. AndersonDarling*

      I’ve had to give my professional license number in the application. The idea is that the company can make sure the license is still active and in good standing, but in this case, it will stop people who aren’t reading the job description form continuing.

    6. Alexis Rosay*

      I find some basic, short questions on the application itself help greatly. I used to get resume-bombed by international candidates looking for visa sponsorship until I added a yes/no checkbox that said “I certify that I have the ability to work legally in the United States.”

      Maybe you can identify some common elements between your no-shows and try to screen for that.

    7. Pikachu*

      I hire truck drivers. Right now, the driver earning the most revenue doesn’t even have a computer. They are not the only one on our payroll that doesn’t, so asking for a cover letter to apply is unreasonable for us as it really will exclude people who are excellent candidates.

      Our main requirements are minimum years of experience, clean drug test/background check/safety record, and a positive reference from a previous employer. That pretty much tells me what I need to know about their talents and commitment to the job.

      Then again, they’re all on the road individually. Little to no collaboration required. Personality/culture fit are far less important.

    8. Ask more questions*

      A read a comment once where someone said, “I needed to hire someone for a filing job. I had Indeed do one additional question. Do you like to file? Yes, no? If they marked No, I took them out of consideration.”
      I would build on that, “Do you have this license?” If the license has a number, then ask for the number. “what is your license number?” Or before you interview anyone, have them email you a copy of the license, if that is plausible.

  4. Uranus Wars*

    Not the same exactly but we had a homebuilder ask us if we would be a reference.

    I answered “We can, but I’m not sure it’s the type of reference you are looking for.”

    We did not get any calls.

    1. WantonSeedStitch*

      I was very tempted to give a similar response when the GC who we hired for home renovations asked us to leave a review on Yelp. “So…you WANT me to warn people that you’re really bad at communicating–both the conveying information and the receiving it parts–and that you did a shitty job of coordinating the work between the various subcontractors? And that the carpenter who worked directly for you did a pretty half-assed job? OK then.”

      1. Blackcat girl*

        We must have used the same GC! No communication skills with us. No communication with his crew for what specifics we asked for. Will NEVER use them again even if this is rural area with limited options.

    2. PT*

      Same here! We bought from real estate investors, flippers who renovate houses. They wanted a review of their work. Except they cut a ton of corners with our property. The house had no gutters, the crawlspace was flooding, the crawlspace doesn’t meet code in several different ways, there’s something wrong with the roof, they just left a bunch of dangerous dead trees, and the house is settling weird and we expect we’re going to find something wrong with the foundation in the future. Also, they just left a lot of the construction debris where it landed in the yard, so you have to wear heavy leather gloves to do even basic weeding because there’s so many rusty nails and hunks of broken glass.

      Do they really want our review?

    3. Dust Bunny*

      We hired a son-in-law/father-in-law team to do some painting (the SIL) and repair a ceiling (FIL) that collapsed when the air-conditioner drain backed up. The son-in-law “didn’t need” dropcloths. Dripped paint everywhere. Got it all over the baseboards and ceiling. Legitimately not worth the time and energy I saved paying someone else to do it.

      The father-in-law borderline chewed him out when he saw it.

      FIL gets a good reference. SIL really shouldn’t ask for one.

    4. pleaset cheap rolls*

      I had a terrible intern ask me to be a reference and I told them I would not. They got annoyed and argued, but I explained it as I had during the internship – they need to actually try to get something done at work.

  5. Opaque Chatterbug*

    #4 – If you’re using an online service for collecting the resumes, have it tested to be sure it can fit two documents and/or is actually passing those documents to you!
    I’ve had a few jobs I’ve written cover letters for only to find that there was no upload space for the cover letter and a very tight restriction on the file size for the resume (so I couldn’t get them in one document easy). Rare thing to run into, but that might be why you have such a high rate of no-cover-letter.

    1. Beany*

      Good point. Though given that some of them *do* have a letter (~5% per OP4’s estimate), the system can’t just be dumping them wholesale. You suspect that those 5% managed to cram the cover letter and the resume itself into a single PDF? Surely on encountering only a single upload link, more than 5% of applicants would try to make a single document to match?

      I’m surprised to hear about the systems you’ve encountered that would balk at a combined document size of only a MB or two. How much space can a resume + cover letter take?

      1. Nanani*

        I was thinking 5% are applying via another site that doesn’t do that, or emailed the company directly instead of using BigJobSite’s APPLY NOW button or something.

        1. Beany*

          Also possible, though I’d like to think OP would have noticed that correlation, and noted it in their letter here. Unless they’re collected by someone else before OP sees them?

      2. Opaque Chatterbug*

        Like I said, I rarely came across it on my own searches. Just a few that limited it down to like a 200KB upload limit, or worse, wanted it all dumped into a single text field and would have a character limit that didn’t cover it well.
        Speaking of text fields, also ran across several that the job posting stated they wanted a cover letter, but the application was a text field by text field breakdown of the resume…and lacked a place for the cover letter.

        I think Nanani is on point that most are probably coming in from other sites that don’t have a slot for it.

    2. Guacamole Bob*

      Yes – this may not be OP’s issue but it definitely comes up. It’s frustrating as someone on the hiring side that our application system only accepts one file. A handful of applicants realize the system restrictions and upload a cover letter in the same pdf, but it’s a small minority, so we basically have to screen applicants on resumes alone.

    3. penny dreadful analyzer*

      I was going to say something similar – if the application only has space for uploading one document, is it clear that the cover letter and resume are supposed to be combined into the one document? I’ve definitely applied to jobs where I wrote a cover letter, uploaded my resume where I was instructed to upload my resume, and then did not have anywhere to upload my cover letter because, in my understanding, a cover letter is not a resume.

      1. Analytical Tree Hugger*

        I have run into this a lot. If it’s helpful, what I started doing:

        1) Upload my resume.
        2) Complete the rest of the online application form (sometimes the cover letter is asked for at another step).
        3) In the final review before sending, if it didn’t ask for a cover letter, I go back to the page where I uploaded my resume and replace it with a combined PDF of both my cover letter and resume.

    4. Bertha*

      I’ve applied to jobs thinking I’d have an opportunity to upload the cover letter, but I did not — so, I only submitted my resume. After that happened a few times, I knew to combine the PDFs into one document and upload as the resume. But it wasn’t a given. I also think a lot of people would assume a cover letter isn’t actually necessary if there’s no way to upload it easily!

    5. Q*

      This! It says “attach resume here” so I do but then then there is no option later to attach anything else.

    6. Glitsy Gus*

      This was my thought too. I know I had that issue recently both with LinkedIn type services and job application portals on company sites.

      Several places I applied didn’t really have an option to upload a cover letter or secondary document. I merged the letter together with my resume so it was one document, but I’m sure not everyone would think to do that if it isn’t something they’ve encountered before.

    7. Perhaps there is one*

      I was going to suggest the same thing. The website may not be asking for a cover letter or have a place to put it. Majority of jobs I applied to had a separate upload for the cover letter vs the resume. Perhaps 1% had you combine them. You may not be turned on to receive the second file.

  6. Dr. Rebecca*

    Sometimes I save gift cards for when they’re desperately needed, so it may not be that they didn’t like/appreciate/plan to use them, they just haven’t used them *yet.*

    1. SheLooksFamiliar*

      I hold onto AmEx and other debit-type gift cards for fun things like a year’s supply of furnace filters or a new vacuum cleaner. Very exotic.

      I also hold onto gift cards for stores I wouldn’t shop at for myself, but I’ve used them to buy gifts for others. It usually took a few years before the opportunity came up, so if someone was monitoring the card balance they were surely disappointed.

  7. Ali G*

    #1 is a good reason why every Board should have a staff ombudsman: a person on the Board that staff can speak to confidentially about issues they see in the org. If this guy was really good at presenting a facade that everything was fine, while the org is in chaos, how would the Board know? If they had an ombudsman, staff could have presented a much more accurate depiction of what was going on.
    Definitely do not give him a good reference, OP!

  8. MassMatt*

    #1 For the sake of all of working humanity, can people please be honest about their terrible employees when giving references! I don’t know whether the main motive is “not wanting to be mean” or a fear of being sued, but staying silent (or worse, giving good references) for bad former employees perpetuates their terrible behavior and “failing upward” so that they do more and more damage as their careers continue.

    Maybe realizing that the damage they suffered will only continue, or that qualified, non-jerk applicants will lose out on jobs to a-holes that inexplicably get “glowing” references, will prompt people to grow spines and stop this awful practice.

    This is also a good reason why hiring managers should contact other people that have worked for the applicant, not just the references the applicant provides, who are sure to be carefully curated people they haven’t screamed and thrown phones at. This is especially important for higher-level positions.

    I hope OP re-examined hiring practices to see how such a dumpster fire got hired.

    1. Sara without an H*

      Good points. The OP should probably have just refused to provide a reference (as in: “You have a hellava nerve to ask me for a reference!”). If contacted by some potential employer as an “off list” reference, be honest, but do it over the phone, rather than putting anything in writing.

    2. AndersonDarling*

      I’ve worked with a few people who have “fallen up.” They take the title and job description form the last job and apply for a job the next step up the ladder at another organization. Smooze 3 people to give good references, and then they manage to be a VP after 5 years of complete failure.
      The new trick is to be placed by a fancy staffing firm. The firm checks references for you *wink-wink* so you don’t have to. So when a jerky-turkey has completely run out of positive references, they can use a consulting company or placement company as a buffer.

    3. Lana Kane*

      In my experience it’s a mixture of the reasons you listed, plus, if the employee is still employed, they want to get rid of them so they lie and give a good reference.

    4. LTL*

      I think people are hesitant to ruin someone’s chances of making a livelihood. Of course, it’s on them if they behaved horribly, but most don’t want to doom someone to a life of destitution no matter how bad they were.

      1. The New Wanderer*

        Perhaps reframe it as “this person is absolutely horrible at X line of work; perhaps an inability to get more jobs in X will encourage them to consider Y line of work.” Lots of people change careers for many reasons. This isn’t the end of the road for them, it’s the end of one particular branch that they really shouldn’t be in.

      2. Littorally*

        It’s hardly condemning someone to a life of destitution to give them a bad reference. It isn’t like the reference-giver is proactively calling up every outfit in the country to say “Don’t hire Jerkface McGee!”

      3. Dust Bunny*

        The jerky-turkey has control over that, though. It’s not like you’re spoiling their chances based on something they can’t help–they could work on not being [glassbowls] and improve their references.

      4. Eliza*

        The problem being that bad managers ruin the chances for others to make a livelihood. I speak from recent experience. I didn’t get shortlisted for a paid job that I had done before with an organisation that I was volunteering with at the time doing similar for no pay. Because I asked to work part time due to disability in a role that could very easily have been a job share and nearly was the last time it was vacant (before toxic manager’s tenure) but he just thought it was “easier” to hire someone with no technical knowledge into a highly technical role that he doesn’t appreciate the complexity of. The new person is now doing all the easy work with the other team member burdened with all the hard technical work. Toxic manager then accidentally hit reply all to send me an abusive email because I said (as politely as it is possible to raise these matters) that he had discriminated. He has also been known to hire young women without the required level of English just to leer at, leaving others stuck with the task of training the untrainable. He is now applying for Chief Executive jobs.

        When I speak to my former colleague they are deeply disillusioned in that role. I did manage to get part time elsewhere so they no longer have my taken for granted technical skills for free either. But there are a lot of limitations on where I can go due to my disability so that wasn’t necessarily going to be the case.

      5. Hiring Mgr*

        I personally feel that way – If I can’t give a good reference I won’t give one at all. Fortunately nobody who that would apply to has ever asked me for one!

      6. MassMatt*

        Well, balance this with the worthy person who doesn’t the job because it went to the jerk because of the inaccurate reference? The people the jerk fires on a whim, or drives into quitting with his spittle-flecked screaming rants? The people sexually harassed, or otherwise demeaned? Why is caring for some awful douchebag’s livelihood the sole concern?

        And for that matter, whose reference is so powerful that it blackballs someone from all employment, everywhere? Vladimir Putin?

    5. Richard Hershberger*

      Fear of being sued is frequently mentioned, but overblown apart from the “you can be sued for anything” banality. (See also: medical malpractice. We often see complaints from doctors about how they do unnecessary tests for fear of getting sued. This makes little sense even on its face. If that test would have shown something import, it wasn’t unnecessary. But even beyond that, the entire claim requires conveniently overlooking that “usual standard of care” is a winning defense.) “Fergus worked for us for nine months. He is not eligible for rehire” is completely factual and utterly damning.

    6. Alexis Rosay*

      I do agree…but I think worth distinguishing between someone who was actively terrible and someone who was just not very good at their job.

      I often supervise interns and recent grads. Some of them just aren’t very skilled, but they are not bad either. In those cases I try to stick to what they did (“Completed assigned tasks, asked questions when needed”) without praising them either and let people draw their own conclusions.

    7. T J Juckson*

      Agreed, please stop allowing people who behave terribly fail upwards!

      A former colleague excelled at this– she was given the option of resigning, rather than being fired, after making life awful for the rest of the office for 9 months– and yet got a string of very good jobs after in a a small, insular field known for having a surplus of very qualified applicants. And at one of the later jobs, she had similar issues and also “resigned.” I’ve not come across her name in many years, but I’m afraid to google her for fear that she’s probably director of something by now.

      Otherwise, there have been a couple of well-publicized implosions in the art world, none of which came as a surprise to a lot of people. (Well known creep continues to creep! Surprise!) Will stories in Art News and on the front pages of local papers prevent some of them from getting yet another gig?

    8. Khatul Madame*

      Just tell them what he did well.
      “Fergus really, REALLY excels at managing up…” (loooooooong pause) “No, I can’t think of anything else”

    9. Huh*

      I hate to disappoint everyone, but more terrible people misuse the reference checking process to tell horrible lies about fantastic people they have some sort of beef with, than good people misuse the reference checking process to make someone hopeless look good.

      If we had so many people worried about “being mean” in the workplace, this website literally wouldn’t exist. The managers who torture people who work under them just because they can do not suddenly have a personality transplant and become helpful and supportive once those people they used to torture are looking for other jobs.

  9. Nanani*

    Gift cards – There are a lot of reasons for cards to go unused! I realize this is an archive letter but like, during the past 18 months a lot of people have just not gone to coffee shops at all, or found it too much of a hassle to figure out how to spend a physical card via a delivery app, or just forgot they had a physical card at all since they’ve been working from home and the gift card is at their desk in the office.

    Even outside of a pandemic, people forget small-amount gift cards all the time. Or decide to save it for when X friend who loves this coffee shop is in town. Or a lot of things. None of which are a gift giver’s business. You wouldn’t snoop at your employees bank statements to see how much of their pay check the spend on what, right? Same deal.

    Cover letters – Do make sure the places where the job ad is posted aren’t mangling either the posting or the reception.
    If the “please include a cover letter” instruction is being clipped out of a posting on some job sites, then people on those sites won’t see it. Likewise if the posting is on a board or site with a “Click here to apply” mechanism that doesn’t include a cover letter option, then people aren’t able to include it.
    Make it as easy as possible for people to follow your instructions, which means to the extent possible, make sure that 3rd party job board “help” isn’t muddling the instructions.
    Some people will ignore instructions anyway, because that’s how people do.

    1. Seeking Second Childhood*

      My teen recently received an Amazon gift card and I had to place the purchase through my account. Amazon is common not universal.

      1. Clisby*

        Agreed – although, at least Amazon sells enough stuff that a lot of people could use it. A coffeeshop card? I’d never use it, especially if it was Crapbucks.

        1. Dramatic Romantic*

          I have at least $200 in Crapbucks cards in my desk. Because I do not drink coffee. Yet every salesperson that I spoke with during our search for a new payroll company sent me Crapbucks cards for MONTHS. This reminds me to hand them off to other people who actually do drink the ‘Bucks.

          1. Autumnheart*

            Before I developed a coffee habit, I would use them to buy hot chocolate and desserts. Now I have a coffee habit because it turns out mocha lattes are a gateway drug.

          2. Seven hobbits are highly effective, people*

            In my field, it is very common to get $5-$10 gift cards as thank yous, and they are never for places I go regularly (I mostly frequent local places within walking distance of my house for coffee/pastries/other treats). I sort them into two categories: places that have customer restrooms and places that don’t (such as one of the chains of drive thru only coffee stands). I keep a stash of the customer restroom cards in my wallet and glove box and use them on road trips and other times that I need to buy a coffee to justify using a restroom while away from home. Starbucks also has some acceptable tasting but overpriced sandwiches, which I am fine with buying with other people’s money to justify using their restroom if I’m hungry at the time.

            (This was all before the pandemic, as I am currently sticking close enough to home to not need an elaborate restroom justification strategy.)

    2. Teapot Repair Technician*

      I have $200+ worth of gift cards sitting on my desk. They’re for movies, pizza, ice cream and coffee–all things I like, but all things I usually consume at home.

      If it’s an Amazon card, I can scan it into my phone and it will get spent eventually. Just about any other card is of little value to me. Rather than give me a $20 card that I will never use, you might as well inform me that you threw a $20 bill in the garbage on my behalf.

      1. Clisby*

        At least when my former workplace gave out gift cards (usually a small bonus in thanks for work on some project) they’d give you a list of choices to pick from. They were all pretty common, so Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Applebees, and others like that. It was always a safe bet that I could use an Amazon or B&N card.

      2. Rainy*

        I’m imagining a service like how you can tell someone you donated to a charity on their behalf, except it’s “I shredded a $20 on your behalf”, and it is a very amusing mental image.

      3. I'm just here for the cats*

        I think there is a site where you can trade in gift cards from places you don’t go to for ones that you do. I think one is called cardcash.

    3. Deborah*

      I find gift cards in my wallet all the timbre that I forgot about (it’s got a lot of pockets and slots). Gift cards don’t lose value anymore since…I think it was done regulation that was passed about 10 years ago – and so I use them eventually unless they are for something really specific like a restaurant I just don’t go to.

  10. Chairman of the Bored*

    Yes, give him a reference; but one that accurately reflects his behavior and its impact on the organization.

    LW does not owe this person a good reference; and should not enable his pattern of skating into a new job just to tear things down once he’s there.

    1. DANGER: Gumption Ahead*

      He also seems pretty clueless using the OP as a reference. Some people are oblivious to their flaws, but being part of a hostile workplace investigation and all the other issues and his short tenure should be a clue that no good references are to be had from this org.

  11. Richard Hershberger*

    LW1: It is just common sense for a job applicant to use the best references possible. He came into your organization and nearly destroyed it during his brief time there. The question is whether he is so lacking in self awareness as not to realize this, or if you genuinely are the best possible reference he has. Either way, I don’t see how you have any obligation to him.

    1. Sara without an H*

      I’d be sorely tempted to say sweetly, “Sure, I’ll give you a reference” .

    2. Lana Kane*

      If they truly had a friendly relationship, he might be relying on that goodwill at this point.

      1. alphabetically ascendant aardvark*

        Yeah, we had a guy like that. He was an absolute disaster at our company, like ‘legal authorities need to get involved’ level of disaster. But he’d come in with glowing references…

        Turned out, he would spend the first month or so at a job charming everyone within hailing distance as hard as he could. He could be VERY charming when he wanted to be. Then the problems would start. But only the people who worked directly with him would experience the full scope of the problems. And when he moved on, he would ask people who hadn’t worked directly with him, but were part of his initial charm initiative at that company, to serve as references.

        After a while he did manage to burn bridges with the majority of big employers in our sector in this region, but he kept getting good jobs for much, much longer than he should have with the above approach.

        1. Rainy*

          A common tactic of the kind of person who’s great at getting a job but terrible at keeping one. We had someone like that in our office who was a serious issue and there was a lot of pushback from everyone who didn’t work directly with them at the idea that they were lazy and a bully. But they’d gone around being all Southern and charming at people in the early days of their time with us, so a lot of people outside our office thought they were great.

        2. Smithy*

          I think that before you truly get to the CEO/Executive Director level, if you work at large enough places – there are usually staff who are siloed enough that it can be easy enough to network/bond/work well with enough people on either a superficial level or a narrow project where the major issues aren’t noticed.

          For three years I worked on the same team with a peer where we interacted a lot, but on reflection didn’t work on many/any shared projects. I knew I didn’t have the same philosophy towards the work that she did, but had she asked me to be a reference…..I would have felt like I couldn’t say no. We worked on the same team for years, she hit her major targets, we were friendly enough – and from the outside world, it would be reasonably assumed we knew each other’s work well.

          It wasn’t until I knew someone who both reported into her and felt comfortable sharing about how she worked…..and clearly I had no idea how she was a very poor manager, but also not great at the more technical aspects of the work. I think for a lot of people building collegial relationships that are probably more friendships than true working relationships is a very easy way to have a long list of reference options.

        3. A Feast of Fools*

          There are two managers in my department who are similar to this. Except, instead of being bullies they’re just… incompetent. Don’t follow through. Don’t know what they’re doing. Can’t coach or mentor or provide any assistance whatsoever to the people under them.

          But, by golly, they’re two of the nicest guys you’ve ever met. And they love inviting Directors and VPs to lunch just to shoot the breeze. They stop at every department admin’s desk and charmingly chat them up.

          They’ll never be fired even though they really should be.

          I talked to our Sr VP about one of the managers last week (asking permission to go over and around the manager so I could get work done) and the VP acknowledged that Incompetent Manager was a roadblock and a hindrance to our department’s goals, “…but, he’s the *nicest* guy you’ll ever meet!”


  12. generic_username*

    I’m someone who is terrible about using gift cards. The best ones to give are ones that can be loaded into personal accounts (like Amazon, Dunkin, or Starbucks).

    But also, I’m laughing so hard at the idea that someone would use a gift card they purchased for me after I didn’t use it for three months (presumably during a pandemic?). Like, what happens when they go to use it after they finally go to the store? It gets declined and is empty. Or will you send a passive-aggressive “I noticed you didn’t use my gift so I’m taking it back?”

    1. generic_username*

      Ooops, just noticed that 9 months have passed and LW was going to wait 3 more months. But still…. the point stands. When you give a gift, you are giving away your control of that item. It’s not their gift card to reclaim

    2. EchoGirl*

      It’s an archive letter, so the pandemic is probably not a factor at the time this is written. But I agree, some people just sit on these things for a while (or misplace them and find them again later, or…), taking it back would be an obnoxious thing to do if the person ever does decide they want to spend it.

  13. Jyn’Leeviyah the Red*

    When I had a godawful teaching intern, I had to be a reference as the cooperating teacher. My letter and the reference check phone call essentially boiled down to, “Hortense was a teaching intern in this class. She carried out lesson plans and learned to use Google Classroom.” Maybe this varies by region( or perhaps times have changed), but I had been told explicitly that giving negative references is a bad idea, so to just leave out the bad and let the hiring people fill in the blanks.

    1. Observer*

      And how, exactly, are people supposed to fill in the blanks?

      I don’t know what kind of repercussions a bad referral would have for you. But to be honest, I think that this is bad advice, if you are not going to be harmed by giving an HONEST negative referral. Because it makes it impossible for people to get anything close to an accurate picture of the job applicant. If you really cannot give a negative referral, at least just say “I cannot give a reference. I can only confirm that Hortense was a teaching intern from this date to this date.” At this way people know that they don’t know what happened at your school.

      1. Firecat*

        I do feel like it is a bit different with students, as your judgement isn’t always the winning judgment for students and the school can have different standards that you need to adopt.

        Example 7/10 is failing so even if I feel like they did good and deserve 7/10 I’m giving them a 9 or 10 out of 10 to align with the school grading system.

      2. Alexis Rosay*

        To me, if you only confirm dates, that could easily be chalked up to company policy. However, if you give a reference where you aren’t willing to say anything positive about the person, that says a lot–at least in the US, where references are expected to be glowing.

        I know there are a lot of cultural differences when it comes to references though and I have heard that in “She did adequate work” would be considered a positive reference in some cultures, whereas in the US it would be considered terrible.

        Part of this also comes down to reference checking practices. A reference check over the phone, with follow-up questions, can “fill in the blanks” a lot more easily than one of those forms where IMO the questions are often so generic that they do not even apply to the position.

      3. Jyn’Leeviyah the Red*

        I’m not arguing that it’s the right thing to do. But letters of reference, at least for hiring teachers, are as much about what is *not* said, which is what happened here.

      4. Be honest*

        So long as it is honest you can say what you need to in a reference. For instance, the cash drawer was short every time Fergus was responsible for it, do not say he’s a thief. Or Sally was late for 90% of the shifts she worked. I wish someone had given an honest reference for someone I hired recently. Newly created position, she was only here a month and managed to run off my right hand person. Stole internal documents, required extremely intense supervision, lied to my face, and although she had stated nothing that would interfere with her regular schedule on her application she was ANGRY that she could not leave whenever she wanted, nor bring sick children to work, nor work when other employees were not scheduled. The entire position was a team lead that needed to be present when the staff was here. Found out later she and her husband had major problems at their previous positions at the same company.

      5. Caaan Do!*

        One thing I was surprised to learn when I worked in recruitment is a LOT of people think a) it is a legal obligation to provide a reference and b) it is illegal to provide a bad reference. Neither of which is true, but it tends to lead, in my experience in the UK anyway, to managers and/or HR advising exactly what Jyn’Leeviyah was told. It’s hugely frustrating because it makes reference checking a garbage box-ticking exercise in beaurocracy rather than gathering actually relevent and helpful information. Plus, like you said, how are hiring managers supposed to fill in any blanks when not much information is provided in the first place?

        (That last bit is not directed at you Jyn’Leeviyah but this advice/practice in general)

        1. Mongrel*

          “b) it is illegal to provide a bad reference.”
          I’ve always preferred the “It’s illegal to give an inaccurate reference” phrasing for that. As you imply far too may people are equating ‘bad reference’ with ‘inaccurate reference’ and it seems far too many HR departments are cowed by this misunderstanding (and I’m sure some of that is propagated by the people who know they’d get poor references).

      6. Keymaster of Gozer (she/her)*

        I once said on a reference for a particularly workshy muppet that ‘we would not hire this person again’.

        100% true, and neatly sums up everything.

        1. Caaan Do!*

          ‘we would not hire this person again’.

          A very powerful phrase, or its tickbox alternative, a ‘no’ to the question ‘would you rehire?’ It does present problems from a recruitment admin point of view, where we had to scramble to try and find out the reason behind it and maybe withdraw offers, but that is of course very much not your problem! I do not miss working in recruitment.

          Also, I love the phrase ‘workshy muppet’ :)

        2. quill*

          “Workshy Muppet” made me wonder which muppets are the laziest, and also if you employed a fuzzy puppet with noodle arms in IT.

        3. Mints*

          I like this too. I think if organizations are worried about being sued, this seems like a very safe response

      7. Starbuck*

        If I got a flat, factual response like that from someone – I would absolutely take it as a negative (or just very average, not great) reference and not go forward with that person if I had other options. If they don’t say outright positive stuff like “candidate was good at x, y, z, and has strengths in w” then I take that as telling. I always do reference checks as a phone call (if the reference I’m trying to get a hold if is willing, most are because it’s faster than typing) so you can also hear if there’s any enthusiasm about the person.

        I also always ask stuff like “where do you think [candidate] would most benefit from extra support from their manager?” or “what could I do as a manager to help [candidate] succeed in this position” and you can get some telling stuff that way too, without just asking “did they suck” and the reference having to say “yeah” – it’s a way to allow them some grace in a negative response if they aren’t comfortable saying it outright.

    2. Mental Lentil*

      I was in the same position. Intern was a nice person, but was not remotely ready to run a classroom by themselves, and wouldn’t be for years. (I honestly wanted them to repeat the intern experience.) I had to be a reference and it sucked, because the phone call I got went like this:

      Principal: “Would Hortense be a good teacher in our district?”
      Me: “Yes, with supervision.”
      Principal: “What kind of supervision?”
      Me: “Constant.”
      Principal: “Okay, thank you for your time.”

      And that was the truth of it, because my Hortense didn’t even know her subject matter. I had to check over each and every detail of her lesson plans, assignments, tests, and quizzes to make sure everything she was saying was factual. I simply couldn’t let someone like that teach children.

      1. PT*

        It’s totally different when it involves kids, too. I generally decline to be a negative reference for someone who’s a pain in the ass coworker who makes everyone else’s life difficult, but if they are a hazard to any of the vulnerable persons in our programming (kids, seniors, etc.) I will not hesitate to sing it from the rooftops upon request.

        1. Mental Lentil*

          Most definitely. What really bugged me was that I was not allowed to say anything negative at all. I could only sing their praises, which were really few and far between. “Constant supervision” was the closest thing I could get to saying “don’t hire this person”.

          I’m pretty sure this principal had seen this kind of thing before, as well.

          1. Starbuck*

            With the way teachers are expected to work, that seems pretty clear fortunately. The jobs I hire for also require working with kids, and if I was told a candidate needed ‘constant supervision’ that would definitely be a disqualifier.

    3. Anon for This*

      My dad had a horrible employee who used him as a reference for years – I assume because my dad was a nice guy. His response to any question was: he was always on time and dressed appropriately. So would you say he would be able to do x? He was always on time and dressed appropriately. Does he have potential to do y? He was always on time and dressed appropriately. Should be easy for the questioner to fill in the blanks.

  14. Sunflower*

    #3 I understand the impulse to check but you don’t know their plans. Maybe they’re looking for an opportunity to regift, maybe they’re saving for something and will use the card to supplement, etc.

    But it’s out of your hands. After all, we don’t know what happens to other gifts we hand out. How do we know if that vase is not in the attic or if the fruit basket was thrown away?

    1. Just Saying*

      Or maybe they already gave the card away. That’s what I do whenever someone gives me a gift card. I immediately give it away to a family member, friend, or even a stranger in a store. I don’t ever use them myself.

  15. Richard Hershberger*

    LW3: So a manager attempts a motivational technique, it fails, and the manager complains about how demotivating this is for them? This suggests lack of clarity about who these things are supposed to motivate. Sadly, this is not at all uncommon. Those hideous corporate holiday parties or any sort of mandatory fun are largely about management playing the role of benevolent patron.

    1. Allypopx*

      It didn’t even necessarily fail! If the goal was to boost morale, it still may have – the gesture wasn’t automatically unappreciated simply because the cards weren’t used (I’m terrible at using gift cards). If the goal was “manager gets to feel good for spending their own money and gets a shiny ‘best manager ever’ award”…well…that’s a different problem.

  16. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

    So if you’re in favor of giving bad references and trusting references to nix an otherwise-acceptable candidate, what do you propose doing with that person? If every employer treats the references as golden, the mistake(s) that lead to the bad reference become Scarlet Letters. Is scraping by on public assistance a proper sentence for their crimes? Is a fallible manager the right party to be assigning that sentence? Does the employee even get a nominal defense?

    Do we really need a vendetta system baked into the labor market?

    1. NerdyLibraryClerk*

      But they’re not an otherwise-acceptable candidate, not if they’ve been honest. “What did you do at your last job?” “I raised no money, ruined relationships with the workplace’s partners, led to a hostile work environment investigation, and most of the staff quit.”

        1. Mental Lentil*

          Even if they gave a glowing reference, that’s still just an allegation. “He raised millions of dollars for us” is just an allegation unless the reference provides receipts.

          It works both ways.

        2. MissBliss*

          What does “just an allegation” mean? A reference is a reference. They would be speaking to their own experience with the candidate. The person on the receiving end of the references would need to weigh the credibility of all the references they received.

          1. cookbook*

            What does “just an allegation” mean? A reference is a reference. They would be speaking to their own experience with the candidate. The person on the receiving end of the references would need to weigh the credibility of all the references they received.

            And this is where the reference checking process tends to fall down completely.

            Many dodgy people who abuse the reference checking process and give a dishonest bad reference usually tend to be cunning enough to present themselves as credible to a recruiter.

            If a candidate has the misfortune to come across more than one toxic manager in their career, and I speak as someone who has unfortunately had several, how are they meant to explain that to a recruiter without sounding like a drama queen?

            Should the candidate come out and say, “I can’t give you Fergus as a reference. He’ll intentionally give me a bad reference which is completely untrue because he remains upset that I had a legal obligation to report him to the tax authorities”, or do they just say he’s unreachable?

          1. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

            Is your stance that references shouldn’t be a thing, then?


            If there are no bad references, declining to provide a reference is a de facto bad reference.

            The choice of employee should be made from information the company gains through direct observation and interaction with the prospective employee. If a poor employee is hired (as this one would appear to be), that person should be rehabilitated or cut loose according to written, established policy (coaching, PIPs, training, etc, and eventual firing) and ineligibility for rehire is where the company’s right to vengeance ends.

            1. Nanani*

              What planet do you come from because it doesn’t sound like earth?
              Job applications aren’t a court of law, for one, and this weird fixation on vengeance as a lens for viewing references is outright baffling.

              That’s not how any of this works, Sola.

              1. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

                It’s Earth.

                This may not be how you think any of this should work, but that’s not the same as it not working this way.

                1. DANGER: Gumption Ahead*

                  My org requires anyone applying to be in a managerial position to provide the names of at least 4 people they managed in the past, one of whom will be contacted for a reference (to avoid retaliation on current and former employees). The idea is that the experience of a subordinate is key to assess a manager’s ability. Should we not ask former employees about someone’s quality as a manager and just unleash them on their reports? After all, the best people to assess the people who manage and those that are managed by them. Even 3 months of bad management (about the fastest our PIP process could go short of crime) is unfair to staff if there is a way to avoid it.

                2. Observer*

                  This may not be how you think any of this should work, but that’s not the same as it not working this way.

                  Actually, YOU are the one who has it backwards. Your description is not the way any smart organization works. In the real world organizations DO NOT limit themselves to only direct observation and interaction with the job applicant. And, if they have any sense they also make if their business to skip some of the steps outlined where warranted.

                3. allathian*

                  @DANGER because I ran out of nesting:

                  Asking previous reports is a good idea, although it can be a problem if the person’s working their first managerial job and doesn’t have 4 former reports who’ve moved on to give as a reference.

                  That said, it seems to me that more organizations should ask for references from former reports and not just managers, when they’re hiring managers.

                  The “vengeance” problem is a real one, though. A bad manager can make unreasonable demands on employees and punish them for failing to meet those demands. That shouldn’t mean the end of anyone’s career. Antagonistic managers who’re willing to sabotage their former reports’ careers for petty reasons do exist, and that’s why I think that job candidates should have some control over who is contacted as a reference.

            2. Archaeopteryx*

              This is ridiculous. Consequences aren’t vengeance, and plenty of terrible, incompetent, or harassing people look fine during an interview process. It’s absurd to frame telling the truth about what people did during their tenure as “vengeance.” Bad employees aren’t entitled to help from the places they wreck up in getting a new, equivalent job in the same field. This is a wild opinion to take.

              1. allathian*

                Fair point, but only when the employee was genuinely bad at the job or behaved in an unacceptable job. Not when a relationship with a manager turns sour because of personal reasons, like a manager demanding sexual favors from a report and then firing them for failing to comply with the demands and being vengeful enough to give a bad reference to the employee. This is why an employee should have some control over who a potential employer contacts as a reference.

            3. Observer*

              The choice of employee should be made from information the company gains through direct observation and interaction with the prospective employee.

              Why is an organization required to limit themselves to this information? Why should they be required to take significant risks? The amount of damage a bad hire can do, even with – sometimes ESPECIALLY with – the kinds of procedures you describe, is significant. Sometimes to the point of destroying the organization.

              Again, what is your basis for claiming that any organization needs to take that risk?

            4. MadisonB*

              I would like this. I gave everything to a small company for 4 years and was a rainmaker for the cheap owner/boss who paid me $30K a year for 60+ hour work weeks and being screamed at by her for daring to go to lunch down the block for 30 minutes. I gave 4 weeks notice and worked my butt off to tie up loose ends and leave multi-million dollar cases in good condition, and my boss was so mad at me for leaving that she gave me a bad reference every time a prospective employer called to verify employment…and would then email me and ask me to come back to work for her. It was my first post-college job and so I ended up going back to my during-college job for 2 years, as they didn’t care what she had to say. It was absolutely terrible and essentially set me back 6 years in my career.

              References are a terrible system and can absolutely be retaliatory. But they can also be something that saves an org and its employees from terrible people (like the guy my current org just forced into resignation while agreeing to never speak of the embezzlement and workplace violence again). There has to be a better way of doing it.

            5. Walnut*

              The choice of employee should be made from information the company gains through direct observation and interaction with the prospective employee. If a poor employee is hired (as this one would appear to be), that person should be rehabilitated or cut loose according to written, established policy (coaching, PIPs, training, etc, and eventual firing) and ineligibility for rehire is where the company’s right to vengeance ends.

              I worked in recruitment for 20 years. Without fail, the least helpful part of the process was always the reference checks.

              In some cases, where the final decision was not in my hands, it actually saw the very best candidates NOT be offered the job.

              Sometimes, this was due to an ex-boss giving a bad reference that should have been positive but was all based on bad blood or vengeance or whatever. Many times, it was because candidates who clearly weren’t the best fit for the role got a glowing reference or two, despite not having the skills and not performing well in interviews or assessments.

              We also had several extremely strong candidates run into problems, purely because of the rigidity of the reference check policies that were in place. they had worked for the same company for several years, and were obviously not able to provide a current manager (or one from the past three years) as a reference without jeopardizing their current role, because their former managers were either retired/overseas and difficult to reach, because their former managers were in poor health or dead and obviously unable to give a reference, and people who were either self-employed or in senior management could not always actually provide an ex-manager from within the past three to five years as a reference because they hadn’t had a direct manager in several years at least.

              This is normally where references from colleagues, clients, direct reports, vendors, industry contacts etc would come in, but inflexible hiring practices – like stupid reference check policies – are often a problem.

              I very quickly got to the point where I would skip the reference check, especially if it was as obvious as it can ever be in a hiring process that there was a strong candidate. This was especially true with roles wherein previous work samples and short assessment tasks could be utilised to measure skills and competencies.

        3. Kella*

          How do you suggest people assess people’s prior performance if not through talking to multiple references?

          Alison frequently talks about the importance of taking information you’ve learned from references and talking to the candidate about it, especially if they got good references from most people and then one terrible one. That gives the candidate an opportunity to talk about the context of what happened and the hiring manager a chance to judge whether the candidate is telling the truth.

          If *all* of someone’s references are saying the same bad things about the person, then it’s not likely to be “just an allegation.” If you ask a candidate about the singular bad reference and they get angry and defensive and insult their previous manager, there’s a good chance the “allegation” is true.

          Personally, I believe everyone deserves to survive no matter what and that we should be using UBI to accomplish that. But people are absolutely responsible for their own actions, and if they have terrible performance at every one of their jobs, it’s pretty logical that no one would want to work with them, or only other terrible/incomperent people would want to.

          1. Walnut*

            How do you suggest people assess people’s prior performance if not through talking to multiple references?

            Knowing how to actually interview someone is a good start. Prior work samples. Short assessment tasks. Reference checks are often useless and can be detrimental. Like interviewing, you have to know the right questions to ask to get anything useful out of them, but they are also a deeply flawed process, from inaccurate recollections to subjectivity to vendettas.

            If *all* of someone’s references are saying the same bad things about the person, then it’s not likely to be “just an allegation.” If you ask a candidate about the singular bad reference and they get angry and defensive and insult their previous manager, there’s a good chance the “allegation” is true.

            With respect, research shows that 80% of people leaving a job, are leaving mainly due to their manager, or upper management. Managers hold all the power, and most managers are bad managers.

            If you are calling up people the candidate did not provide to you as references and those people are providing negative references, or the candidate becomes defensive about a former manager providing them with a negative reference, it means nothing other than the fact that there is some sort of negative relationship there.

            It does not meant that the candidate is a bad employee, nor does it mean that the manager’s version of the story should be believed over the candidate’s. What it means is that these two people do not get on, and in my experience, it usually points to an incompetent or otherwise bad manager.

            Here is an anecdote you may find illustrative of the problem. The strongest candidate for one specialist role I was recruiting for offered three referees, who all provided excellent references. Her work samples were exceptional, as were her results in the assessment task, and in the interviews.

            A senior manager inteferred and called another former boss of the candidate for reasons still unknown, and the ex-boss gave an absolutely awful reference. This ex-boss was not listed as a reference. The candidate burst into tears when said senior manager said the ex-boss had provided a negative reference. The reason for the candidate’s extreme, and out of character, reaction? Her ex-boss had become enraged and vindictive when she declined his sexual advances. He tried to destroy her out of sheer rage. Does her reaction make his accusations of incompetence, poor performance, unrelaibilty, and borderline criminal behaviour true? No.

            1. Salsa Verde*

              This is a great example of the point Kella was making – all her references were great except one, and when asked about the bad one, she explained. She didn’t get angry and defensive and insult her previous manager, she got upset, and explained the situation.

              Also, I thought the LW said that this bad employee asked her for a reference. I’m seeing lots of people here saying that references are a bad idea if they come from people the prospective employee did not provide as references, but that is not the case in this situation.

              1. Walnut*

                No, it’s a great example of the complete opposite of the point that Kella was making: the one bad reference cost the best candidate the job, because the ignorant senior manager who involved himself in the process pulled rank and didn’t believe the candidate’s story and thought he would be buying trouble because she was “dramatic”. His preferred candidate was hired and lasted less than three weeks, and also caused some serious damage because, as we all knew, he didn’t have the highly specialised skill set required for the job.

        4. Starbuck*

          Poor performance is a factual matter, not an allegation. “He raised no money” that’s a fact, and an unacceptable one for a person whose job includes fundraising as a major component.

    2. Richard Hershberger*

      The thing is, the candidate selects their references. When I left Terrible Boss, I certainly did not use him as a reference. I did, however, use one of the associates, whose relationship with Terrible Boss worked for him, but he also knew how bad Terrible Boss was. If a former manager is likely to be vindictive, simply don’t use them as a reference. There are circumstances were a good candidate might not have any good references, but these circumstances are pretty narrow.

      1. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

        If a former manager is likely to be vindictive, simply don’t use them as a reference.

        So how exactly does one screen for a vindictive boss when job hunting? How does one screen for a boss that will be succeeded by a vindictive person after a year due to their own promotion?

        1. Mental Lentil*

          You’re really asking for a crystal ball here, because these are things you simply can’t screen for.

          Is it possible that you’re letting your own previous bad experience color your discourse here?

          1. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

            You’re really asking for a crystal ball here, because these are things you simply can’t screen for.

            That’s exactly my point.

            Is it possible that you’re letting your own previous bad experience color your discourse here?

            Yes, I’ve seen references used in mala fide enough times that I’ve lost faith in the process.

            1. Mental Lentil*

              I’m sorry that’s your experience. It has not been like that for me, and I would bet it’s not like that for the vast majority of people here.

            2. Not So NewReader*

              References are not the sole source of inputs in considering a candidate. It’s the sum total of all inputs combined.

              I have seen very good workers fail at a job because of how they are treated at the new place- set up to fail, not properly trained, etc. It might pay to do a deeper dive on what happens after they get hired.

              I walked into one job on my first day and the three people there flat out refused to train me. I almost left in the moment. I should have. Almost a year later I finally mentioned it to the boss, I should have spoken sooner than that. The boss truly did not know this was going on. Things did not improve much until I started working with people who were not part of the original three.

            3. Juno*

              I’ve seen references used in mala fide enough times that I’ve lost faith in the process.

              I agree 100% with this statement. From the very first time I was ever involved in a recruitment process when I was 18, I have seen the concept of reference checking abused.

              I’m afraid that anyone who believes that ex-employers or ex-managers never give bad references out unfairly purely due to spite, a personality clash, or to prolong the abuse they subjected the person to previously, needs a very sharp wake-up call. It happens a lot and, in a capitalist society, it has extremely serious consequences.

    3. Allypopx*

      It’s not a vendetta system. For one thing, the employee gets to decide who to give as a reference – and in a situation where they don’t and a potential employer is hearing via networking or sleuthing, the point is entirely moot (which does happen). Second, no one is suggesting that one bad reference is a reason not to hire someone. Maybe the things that made an employee unsuccessful in role A don’t matter, or even are good things in role B (I have a fairly blunt conversational style and get impatient – these can be great things in a fast-paced, decision-oriented environment like the one I work in but I shouldn’t get a good reference to be a diplomat). The point is to give an accurate reference so that the employer is making an informed decision.

    4. Joielle*

      I mean, when you’re the hiring manager and you hear a bad reference, the appropriate thing to do in most cases is go back to the candidate and ask them to explain. Then you can decide whether to believe them or the reference.

      The bad candidate shouldn’t need to scrape by on public assistance, but they should probably look for a different line of work in which they wouldn’t be responsible for managing employees or raising money.

    5. MissBliss*

      This seems like an extreme take. The employee the OP described almost brought an entire organization down. It’s like he made a single, spectacularly bad mistake but was otherwise fabulous. Also, from his experience getting hired at the organization for which OP was a board, he also has excellent references he can fall back on. Not being able to get a job in his current sector, where he is apparently messing up quite a bit if folks are coming out of the wood works to rag on him, might lead him to a different career path where his, uh, leadership style works better. Or it might teach him that you can’t be an asshole to people you work with if you want to be successful. None of this seems like a “vendetta system.” It’s not personal at all.

    6. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Presumably this person should target jobs where he won’t be in a position to wreak the same kind of havoc. Or he’ll need to target jobs that are unlikely to do a thorough reference check (which in many cases, although not all, will mean working crappier jobs than he could have gotten otherwise, and rebuilding his reputation over time, which is doable). But employers — and this person’s future coworkers — don’t owe him a chance at redemption at their own expense. There are other people who also need jobs who have not caused this kind of destruction.

      1. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

        I’m far more comfortable with that stance after conviction of a crime with due process. With all due respect, you’re a manager, not a prosecutor, judge, or jury, there are no appeals of your judgment and you have no burden of proof

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Are you suggesting people’s work reputations and the experiences of those who with them should not influence later hiring decisions in any way? If so, we are coming at this from irreconcilably different viewpoints, unfortunately.

          1. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

            Yes, I am, and yes, I agree that we are.

            I believe once you cut ties with an employee, you should be done with them completely, and if you wish to continue to punish them, you should be required to continue to pay them.

            1. Kella*

              This is such a weird take. If someone treats me terribly and I stop speaking to them, and someone asks me why I don’t speak to them anymore, I don’t need a court of law to confirm my experience in order to share it. Peoples actions reasonably result in working and personal relationships ending sometimes. It’s up to other people to individually decide for themselves whether they believe the accusations and whether those accusations are enough for them to also cut ties with that person. No one is being “punished”. That’s just the natural consequences for being an asshole to other people.

              1. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

                It’s apples and oranges due to the consequences. If you don’t want your friends to speak to me, I just lose out on conversation. Maybe camaraderie if I’m an extrovert. Making an accusation to a prospective employer, especially when the candidate is already unemployed, is trying to deprive them of a means of supporting themselves. It’s taking food from their family’s mouths and shelter from over their heads.

                1. Nanani*

                  Giving a bad reference isn’t an accusation. We are talking about things that actually happened, and the natural consequences that follow.

                  You are projecting one hell of a cinematic universe, here.

                2. Kella*

                  The ex-employer isn’t the one making the decision whether or not to hire. The new potential employer is. And they deprive hundreds of people of jobs by denying their applications for dozens of reasons. It’s not the responsibility of a company to provide financial support for everyone. It’s their responsibility to find the best candidate for the job, and typically racist, sexist, sexual harassers don’t make the best employees.

                3. DANGER: Gumption Ahead*

                  So if I am contacted by a potential employer of an old boss who bullied people based on race and disability and was ultimately fired for sexually harassing staff from another org during a fundraiser, I should not tell them? Because it might deprive an already wealthy person of a little more wealth? I’m glad I don’t live in your reality where sexual harassers, bullies, and racists just get to move on and get paid to do it again.

                4. Archaeopteryx*

                  So every job candidate is entitled to get every job they apply for?

                  And someone who was dishonest, sexist, lazy and/or incompetent is entitled to have everyone else in their life cover that up?

                5. Archaeopteryx*

                  This definitely feels like trolling. This isn’t a stance anyone could have logic’d themselves into.

                6. Observer*

                  Making an accusation to a prospective employer, especially when the candidate is already unemployed, is trying to deprive them of a means of supporting themselves.

                  No, it’s trying to help keep an organization from making a bad hire. It’s trying to help an organization keep from hiring people that could destroy it, thus costing a lot more people their livelihoods. It trying to help organizations keep from hiring people who would do unethical or illegal things, with potential consequences that range from depriving people of their livelihood to long term health effects and worse.

                  Responsible people simply do NOT think only about one side.

                7. Observer*

                  Making an accusation to a prospective employer, especially when the candidate is already unemployed, is trying to deprive them of a means of supporting themselves. It’s taking food from their family’s mouths and shelter from over their heads.

                  You do realize that the EXACT same things is said to victims of all sorts of harassment and abuse, except that the word “current” is subbed in for “prospective” employer.

                  Why is an abuser’s right to a job higher than the literal safety of the other people who work at the job?

                  Yesterday there was a post about someone who was literally physically abusing someone. According to you, they should not report it, because it would “deprive them of a means to support themselves.”

                  You can’t have it both ways. You can’t complain about bad, vindictive bosses and then complain when a company takes steps to avoid hiring people like that.

                8. JelloStapler*

                  Um. If they are bad at the job, they need to get better or find another job. I am all about not having people starve but I am also all for personal accountibility.

                9. Not So NewReader*

                  Eh, we already do this.
                  I learned of an instance where a person in education who molested children moved from school to school without consequence because no one said anything negative on reference.

                  There’s doctors, priests, financial people, almost any arena that you can think of that have abusers, con artists, and unethical people moving around in that arena freely with no repercussions.

                  Some how NO one is happy about this.

                10. Andie Begins*

                  Sola I totally agree that one’s ability to house/feed/support oneself for the rest of one’s life should not be left in the hands of your hopefully-not-totally-vindictive former manager (who, by conventional job search wisdom, is the reason you left your former position in the first place). But unfortunately the more proximate problem here is with capitalism tying survival to productive work, not references.

                  References should just be a tool to help fill positions that need filling with people who have the skills, abilities, and temperament to perform them well, and they are frequently used instead by people with more power to make miserable people with less power, but paving the way for a world where the can’t wreak so much damage on your work prospects is going to involve lobbying for a different healthcare/housing system, UBI and a more robust social net, not phasing out references.

            2. New Jack Karyn*

              It’s not a punishment to be honest in a reference. It’s a consequence of poor behavior or job performance. If it’s just poor performance, the reference might say, “New Jack was diligent and willing, but ultimately this particular job wasn’t a good fit for her,” or something like that. If I were going for the same type of job, that also would not be a good fit and I shouldn’t be hired.

              If it was poor behavior, well, I’d think HR or the hiring manager would want to know about that, too.

              1. Juno*

                It’s not a punishment to be honest in a reference. It’s a consequence of poor behavior or job performance.

                I’m always pleased for people who have yet to be screwed over by a vindictive ex-boss, who tries to ruin you purely out of spite, or for their own sick enjoyment.

                I’m sorry, but the reference checking process is often abused. A bad reference very rarely has anything to do with “poor behavior or job performance”, and everything to do with either some sort of vendetta, or an inability from a bad manager to see that their incompetence meant the employee never stood a chance of performing well.

                OP1’s situation may be different, sure, but most bad references do not come from a genuine concern about the candidate’s poor work performance potentially being fatal or otherwise damaging. It comes from something far less objective.

            3. Archaeopteryx*

              Why do you think employees are entitled to a clean slate, and given that the reference checking system is predicated on telling the truth, why do you think people are entitled for their former employers to fudge the details in their favor?

              Yes, some people lie. That’s true of any type of human communication. Obscuring the truth further helps no one. And we don’t treat non-criminal-justice interactions as though they take place in a courtroom.

              A hiring manager who checks references for two candidates should be able to factor in whether one of them was a disaster at their last role. That bad employee isn’t doomed to be out-of-work forever, they just may have less desirable options available until they build back their reputation.

            4. Observer*

              and if you wish to continue to punish them, you should be required to continue to pay them.

              This has nothing to do with punishment.

              I realize that I’m not going to change your mind. But here is what you need to realize for your own benefit. Smart, ethical and responsible hiring managers and organizations actually do NOT operate that way.

              1. Anon Supervisor*

                Exactly…me telling the truth when being asked a direct question isn’t punishment, it’s cause and effect. Why should I lie and compromise my ethics because someone else nearly blew up my business?

            5. SnappinTerrapin*

              Well, I had some friends who wouldn’t vote against Roy Moore because he hadn’t been convicted of a crime, which was their prerogative, but facts don’t have to be proven beyond reasonable doubt for me to decide not to entrust someone with power over others.

            6. NerdyKris*

              Well that’s contrary to the entirety of human social interactions. There is no such thing as being able to just do whatever you want free of consequences to your reputation, and never will be as long as you exist in a society of more than one person.

              1. Observer*

                There is no such thing as being able to just do whatever you want free of consequences to your reputation, and never will be as long as you exist in a society of more than one person.

                At least not in any sort of livable society.

          2. Ask a Manager* Post author

            Although out of curiosity, if you have a candidate who you’ve been told left his last few jobs after sexually harassing colleagues/making racist comments/engaging in homophobic attacks, you shouldn’t consider that in your hiring decisions because it wasn’t proven in a court of law?

            1. Richard Hershberger*

              “It doesn’t count if it wasn’t proved in a court of law” is an intellectually rigorous argument only in extremely limited circumstances.

              1. Pippa K*

                Among other things, it’s what allows institutions and co-workers to turn a blind eye to misconduct like sexual harassment.

                The “prove it in court” standards exist to keep the mighty power of the state from unjustly punishing individuals, not to keep me from warning the next woman that this guy harassed a bunch of us and is horrible to work with.

              2. DANGER: Gumption Ahead*

                Such as actual, factual courts of law. Shoot, on the civil litigation side the base is preponderance of evidence, so a bad reference wouldn’t count unless +50% of the other evidence showed the same thing.

              3. quill*

                Yup. In circumstances where the thing being considered is a legal consequence. If the thing being considered is “should I hire someone who, based on testimony of their previous employer, will probably harass their coworkers” you don’t need to bring the law into it, you can just not hire them!

            2. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

              An attack is an assault, and if I want it to follow the employee, that’s a role for law enforcement. The alleged assailant has every much the right to due process as person attacked.

              Bigoted comments I would let the new employer deal with. One scenario is that the person learns from being fired and refrains from making them, which is a better outcome than sabotaging them with a bad reference. Another is that water finds its own level and the comments are tolerated at the new employer, in which case the bad reference didn’t prevent anything. A third is that the person does not reform and gets PIP’d, fired, and denied eligibility for rehire again. I didn’t deprive them of an opportunity for redemption; the person chooses their own destiny.

              I’d have to handle sexual harassment the same way; if it rises to the level of a criminal offense, hand that information over to law enforcement and assist in the prosecution. If it does not, support the wronged employee in pursuing civil recourse (e.g. suing). If the wrong employee declines both, but there is too much baggage to continue employment, the employee should be fired and ineligible for rehire.

              In hiring, I would not consider a reference under any circumstances.

              1. Ask a Manager* Post author

                Wow, okay. Very little of what I described ever rises to the level of criminal offense, but your employees still deserve not to have to deal with someone harassing them. Hiring someone known to be hostile to women, LGBTQ people, or people of color because you refuse to consider anything that’s not right in front of you in the interview room is … certainly a take. Not one that will help you retain women, LGBTQ people, or people of color (or anyone else who wants a decent working environment), but it’s a take.

                I’m pretty disgusted now so I’ll be leaving this here.

                1. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

                  I apologize for having disgusted you.

                  If someone makes offensive comments to LGBTQ+ individuals or POC (or really, bigotry towards anyone) at work, then the consequences proscribed in the company’s handbook must be applied. I should hope that’s the fast-track to being fired.

                  That stops at the door, though. An employment agreement does not give you the right to dictate the rest of that person’s life.

                  I can accuse you of bigotry right now. It won’t make it true.

                2. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

                  Please excuse this last comment; I hadn’t made it down to your request lower yet, which I will now honor.

                3. annonie*

                  I’m out of threading, but Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est you are prioritizing this one man, who doesn’t even work for you, over the rest of your employees who do. It’s weird. If I worked for you and got harassed by this guy and found out you knew about it when you hired him but hired him anyway, I’d nope right out of there and I think I’d take a lot of people with me.

                4. Observer*

                  @anonie, if someone sued your employer and was able to show that they had refused to do any research about whether the prospective employee can behave in a decent and legal way in the office, they’d also lose in court, no matter how good their other policies. Because they actually have a duty of care.

                  And their duty of care is higher to their existing employees than to any given applicant.

              2. New Jack Karyn*

                “A third is that the person does not reform and gets PIP’d, fired, and denied eligibility for rehire again.”

                And this takes time, energy, and resources at the new job. They have to go through their PIP process, and then go back through the hiring process again. Not to mention the impact on their current employees who were subject to racist/sexist behavior by a colleague.

                1. Rainy*

                  Yup. If I’m working somewhere and my leadership hires someone who comes in and is relentlessly shitty to me because I’m queer, and then I find out that the hiring manager knew that the person was a homophobic shit and hired them anyway because references are only allegations, I’m leaving that organization as soon as I can, because it’s not going to be the last time that happens.

                2. AvonLady Barksdale*

                  For real. This take is the workplace equivalent of “That guy is bad news; he dated three of my friends and stole all their money and treated them terribly” “But he’s nice to ME!”

                  Sometimes warnings are earned.

              3. Kella*

                You skipped the part where the person goes onto their next place of work, engages in the same kind of attacks again, and more people get harmed. It’s really weird that you think you have zero responsibility to warn people that that’s a possibility. Social consequences exist separately from legal ones and are honestly a much bigger part of how we make day to day decisions than legal ones are.

                1. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

                  You skipped the part where the person goes onto their next place of work, engages in the same kind of attacks again, and more people get harmed.

                  How do you punish someone for mistakes that haven’t been made yet?

                2. Ace in the Hole*

                  Yeah. It would have been really nice if one of the references or previous employers had told us our new hire had been fired twice for operating equipment unsafely. Maybe if they had, he would have been denied the opportunity to run over my coworker.

              4. Nanani*

                Because the criminal justice system is famously even-handed and accessible to everyone and takes victims seriously no matter their background

                (if you hear a thud that was the metric ton of sarcasm dropping)

              5. Pippa K*

                It sounds like you’re counting on “not eligible for rehire” to convey the message “this was a bad employee; avoid this person.” Which is exactly what a reference can do, only more clearly and frankly.

                1. Observer*

                  Also, less damagingly. Because if I don’t know WHY this person is not eligible for rehire, then I may have to draw the worst conclusions.

                  Is this person ineligible for rehire they harassed people, did illegal things, etc. Or are they ineligible for rehire because they were fired for incompetence, but you are hiring for a different skill set? How can I know?

                2. Rainy*

                  I worked at what used to be a large retail chain where the common practice in my sales region was to schedule people who quit and worked out their notice for one last shift after the end of their notice period. When the ex-employee no-called/no-showed for that last shift, they’d be marked ineligible for rehire, just to screw them for having the temerity to leave.

                  It got to where anyone with any longevity in the store at all warned ALL the newbs, and if you left you had a pal check the schedule for two weeks after your last day so that you could either call in or arrange coverage.

                  Sometimes “not eligible for rehire” means “the person’s manager is a piece of garbage”.

              6. Observer*

                An attack is an assault, and if I want it to follow the employee, that’s a role for law enforcement. The alleged assailant has every much the right to due process as person attacked.

                Forget the ethics of this. This is factually and legally incorrect. Not every attack is a legal assault that law enforcement can be involved in.

                Also, employers actually have a legal obligation of care to avoid these kinds of situations. And the legal standards that employers are held to are not “what can be proved in a court of law” but should this employer REASONABLY have knows about the issue.

                Any employer who gets hauled into court and claims that they refused to do background / reference checks because they don’t WANT to know about past bad behavior, and will only deal with the bad behavior after at least one person is harmed is gong to be badly slapped down.

                Any employer who actually lies about this stuff and gives a good reference when they actually know of such behavior can face both civil and (in some cases) criminal penalties. The only way a company can avoid sharing this kind of information without legal liability is to NEVER give a reference, no matter how much a person actually deserves it.

              7. JelloStapler*

                And it perpetuates an issue and leads to more victims. let me use the analogy of the Catholic Church’s former (?) practice of just pushing a priest to a new parish after allegations of abuse were found. Should the next victims of said abuse just have to “deal with it” because no one would hold the person accountible?

              8. Ben Marcus Consulting*

                That’s negligent hiring and your organization could be liable for harm that comes to your other employees due to your misguided effort to give everyone another chance at redemption.

                1. Autumnheart*

                  I mean if a person wants to work at Missing Stair Inc. and hire all the sexual harassers and toxic managers and whathaveyou, I’m sure the feeling of Giving Someone A Chance will last almost as long as it takes for those people to torpedo that person’s business into the ground and ruin that person’s professional reputation. Better hope someone else agrees about your “My bad decisions shouldn’t follow me” philosophy because that’s YOUR only shot at a new job.

                  People who hire lousy employees on purpose…like, what are you even doing. Even if we exclude the supposed ethics about knowingly impeding someone’s chances at a livelihood, you’re hiring someone YOU KNOW WILL SUCK. For what? There are a gazillion competent people you could hire. Is there some psychological attachment to the underdog/savior complex you need to address, that you would strive to preserve this objectively bad employee at the expense of all the competent ones? It’s ridiculous. It has nothing to do with whether there’s legally actionable “proof” that they suck. That isn’t a requirement. Nobody responds to a Yelp review about a restaurant’s food with “Oh yeah? PROVE IN COURT that it wasn’t good!” A reputation is built by a collective of subjective opinions. If enough people have a bad opinion of a candidate, that should at the very least be weighed as a factor, not just dismissed because “a lawyer couldn’t prove it”. Bad actors depend on a lack of proof. Is that worth your job and your company?

        2. Walnut*

          With all due respect, you’re a manager, not a prosecutor, judge, or jury, there are no appeals of your judgment and you have no burden of proof

          I know I’m late to the party, but I had to chime in here with very hearty agreement for this comment. The fact that a manager, for whatever reason, wants to give a negative reference about someone should not mean that their opinion is actually held up to be The Complete Truth.

          Reference checking is not an effective means of telling you anything other than if the candidate gets on with the person you happen to be speaking to. People give great references to people who they like all the time, no matter how middling or incompetent their friend actually is in the workplace. They also give lukewarm or bad references to strong performers who they don’t mesh with, for whatever reason, which has absolutely nothing to do with the actual job.

          I think a reliance on reference checks might be one of those things in life that people don’t actually realise the serious problems with until they themselves, or someone close to them, is burned really badly.

          The fact that someone performed well, or badly, in one particular environment doesn’t actually mean anything unless you have all possible information at hand. Someone who works well under one manager will crash and burn under another. The same goes for the overall work environment, culture, funding, health and personal issues, and a thousand other things well outside a strong performer’s control that impact upon their ability to do their job.

    7. The New Wanderer*

      That’s an extreme take based on a false choice. Sometimes people should not be working in a particular job or field because they’re objectively terrible at it and honest references will reflect that. That is not their only choice in life, there are many other career paths they could be suitable for.

    8. Persephone Mongoose*

      I don’t understand this response. No one is suggesting that people give bad references as revenge. The ED in LW1 did a genuinely terrible job, to the point of burning bridges there from what it sounds like, and is relying solely on the friendly relationship they had with the LW. Potential future employers deserve to know that.

      Does this mean the former ED deserves to never work again and starve in the streets? Of course not. But good references are earned by…doing good work. If that means they need to start over in a new career, so be it. No one forced them to be a terrible ED and they’re not entitled to anything more positive than “I can only confirm they worked here from [date] to [date]”.

    9. Alexis Rosay*

      There is a gigantic difference between not being able to get another job as an ED (a challenging, higher-paying job) and living a life of poverty.

    10. Beany*

      “Otherwise acceptable candidate” doesn’t jibe with the letter. If you trust OP’s narrative, there’s no way this person should be considered acceptable for this kind of role.

      If a “fallible manager” is qualified to write letters supporting a similar or better role elsewhere based on the applicant’s history, she’s also qualified to write letters discouraging such a role. The applicant is entitled to make a living, but not in any role they want, based on their poor understanding of their own strengths & weaknesses. And there’s a whole spectrum of employment possibilities between “executive director” and “public assistance”.

      If the applicant has three or four other glowing references, that at least gives the prospective employer pause to think — bad fit at that one job, or perhaps a vindictive/unreasonable reference-writer. Either deserves further probing and a follow-up call — not taking glowing *or* abysmal letters as gospel.

      The one thing I don’t agree with is providing an awful reference without giving the applicant prior warning. If they were completely clueless about how bad they were in the role, then they have no way to improve or decide to switch career direction.

    11. Lokifan*

      There’s no reason to think it’s a “vendetta”! And people will get work, it will just be difficult and take longer, which I think makes sense when people were bad at their jobs.

      I also think it’s not true that a bad point or even two becomes “a scarlet letter”. It would more mean you’ll be hired by jobs where the thing you’re bad at doesn’t really matter, which again is a good outcome.

    12. Metadata minion*

      If someone seems phenomenal but their reference paints a completely different picture, I would probably ask to talk to more references (and hopefully did that already) and ask the candidate about things that concerned me so that they could indeed defend themselves. It’s always going to be a matter of subjective opinion on all sides, but getting multiple viewpoints on a candidate’s performance can help figure out if this is a case of someone who’s terrible to work with, a vindictive boss, or just a terrible previous job fit and the candidate is looking forward to the position I’m hiring for, where they will never have to do X job task again.

    13. Forrest*

      This was someone who was at Executive Director level: there are probably a million and one jobs he can do where he’d have less responsibility and maybe he wouldn’t have these problems.

      I do think a bad reference should be very honest about the circumstances, type of work and level that someone was performing at, so that future employers have the full context to decide whether that’s relevant. Say that the job required him to manage staff, work with external funders and manage a budget: he did not succeed at any of these things” is much more useful than just, “ugh, he’s awful, don’t hire him”.

      But there’s an overwhelming cultural idea that someone who has had a high-level job is entitled to another one, even if they were bad at it! It’s so toxic. Obviously Bob in the post room can’t be put in charge of the multi-million pound infrastructure project, but Dido who completely screwed up the last major infrastructure project and oversaw corporate manslaughter should be given another chance. No! If working on the post room is good enough for Bob, it’s good enough for Dido too.

    14. JustKnope*

      We do need references baked into the labor market because people aren’t really inclined to be honest about their shortcomings! The reason we have reference checks as part of our hiring practices is because you want to hear a third party’s opinion of working with the candidate. Presumably you’d hear from multiple references and get a sense of the person overall. If someone does terribly in their work then yeah… that should probably affect the roles they’re offered in the future. It doesn’t mean they should never be hired in a job again (that’s a very weirdly hostile thing to assert) but maybe they shouldn’t have a certain level of responsibility!

      1. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

        We do need references baked into the labor market because people aren’t really inclined to be honest about their shortcomings!

        So where then does the assumption of honesty from the reference come from? Especially if it’s a reference that’s sought via consult of a previous employer and not offered up by the candidate?

        1. Colette*

          The applicant has more incentive to lie because they want the job (and the money that goes with it). A former manager has much less incentive to lie.

          1. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

            A former manager has much less incentive to lie.

            A lie needs no more incentive than keeping a story straight. It’s not a high bar to clear.

            1. Kella*

              No, you need a reason to keep your story straight in the first place. People don’t just lie about previous employees for no reason. It’s not like managers have a hobby of making up terrible stories about their ex-employees.

              Are there reasons a manager would lie about an ex-employee’s performance? Sure. But that’s a lot less likely because the manager won’t lose anything if the already ex-employee gets a new job. And it’s certainly not likely if you contact multiple references that ALL of those managers independently decided to lie for no reason.

              1. Walnut*

                People don’t just lie about previous employees for no reason. It’s not like managers have a hobby of making up terrible stories about their ex-employees.

                You have read the letters sent into AAM, right? ;)

                Managers are human beings, not infallible paragons of truth and justice. They lie for all sorts of reasons, including out of pure spite.

                But that’s a lot less likely because the manager won’t lose anything if the already ex-employee gets a new job.

                And some of the vindictive types love the idea of power and control, including over employees who have left. They don’t lose anything if the employee starves on the street because they can’t find work, either. And, trust me, it happens, and more often than anyone likes to admit.

            2. Colette*

              But why lie in the first place? Most decent people want to help their former employees succeed. I’m sure there’s the odd vindictive manager out there, but I don’t think it’s that common.

              1. Walnut*

                I’m sure there’s the odd vindictive manager out there, but I don’t think it’s that common.

                I’m glad you have never come across it. But it is frighteningly common.

            3. Spero*

              No, that’s simply not how people operate. The vast majority of people do not go around lying about former employees for no reason. And you completely ignore Colette’s point that the former employee DOES have an incentive to lie (to get a job) and that’s much more likely than a randomly vindictive person.

            4. Tuesday*

              Most people check more than one reference, especially if they hear something unexpected. Part of the reason is that they know that they may be speaking with someone who isn’t as reliable a reference as they’d like. So they talk with more people to get a better idea of what working with the candidate is like. It’s much less likely that multiple people are going to decide lie to a reference checker about a particular candidate.

              1. Walnut*

                It’s much less likely that multiple people are going to decide lie to a reference checker about a particular candidate.

                Many people come across multiple toxic workplaces and/or toxic bosses. This becomes even more of a problem if people’s sane, honest, good references from other workplaces become unavailable as time passes.

                I’ve worked in recruitment for years, and I am always amazed that people cannot work out the glaring issues with placing reliance upon reference checks.

                This sounds simplistic, but would you rely upon the opinion of some random person you’ve never met and know nothing about for the purchase of a car, a house, or even a pair of jeans? Or would you rely upon your own judgment and the opinion of an expert who you know for sure is someone whose opinion you can trust?

                Let me put it this way. I would trust the honest, negative reference of someone who I know well who has worked with that candidate, even more so if I have worked with the reference myself, over that of some stranger I know nothing, or next to nothing, about.

                The fact that they are a manager means nothing without context. Why do they have that management job? Are they good at their job? Are they a competent manager? Do they play favourites with their staff? What is their staff turnover like? Do their staff like them? Is the workplace toxic? Do they treat their staff fairly and with respect? Do they understand the job the candidate does? Are they even adequately able to judge the performance of someone who they manage but whose job they don’t actually understand?

                1. Salsa Verde*

                  But I would absolutely rely on the opinion of the person who last lived in the house or owned the car, because they have experience with the exact thing I am looking to use.

            5. Starbuck*

              So sorry about whatever horrible thing must have happened to you that led you to such extreme attitudes, but very, very few people will lie on a job reference for fun or for no reason or for…. any reason, really. It doesn’t make sense to just get rid of references completely because of a very rare problem in a normally routine and useful process.

              I’ve spoken to probably about a hundred different references at this point after doing several years of hiring, and the worst response about a candidate I’ve gotten at this point was an “eh, they were just okay” kind of response.

              1. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

                It’s a similar story to Ben Marcus’ below; I ended up with my previous two supervisors providing bad references after I left my last job. It was a more-or-less mutual parting of ways in nominal good standing both times, so no unemployment benefits.

                The last supervisor was saying that I did no work for her for the final ~14 months. It was a half-truth–I was still processing data for her, but she stopped delegating programming changes to me after a month because I wasn’t getting up to speed fast enough to please her. In those 14 months, I did rewrite the automation system, eliminate 2 FTE’s, filled in for 8 of the 12 employees onsite during PTO, and a host of other tasks from other stakeholders, but she was offsite and wasn’t in a position to witness any of the work.

                The job before I left 6 weeks after my new supervisor took over, because a policy change meant that I now had professional liability on every project the department did (because I wrote libraries everyone used) and I went from perfect standing to my final strike on the same day the policy went into effect. He was saying I quit at the first challenge that came down the pike, and implying I wasn’t mentally tough. The previous supervisor I did do all the hard work for dropped off the grid and cut communication with everyone when she left; she wanted a clean break from the place.

                Neither were outright lies, both were some degree of CYA, and neither were anywhere near the whole truth–and why dig for details in when there’s another 20 similarly qualified candidates on the stack without any allegations?

                I’m beyond lucky my current employer was desperate enough to take a chance on me when they did, and now I won’t trust a reference as far as I can throw it.

                1. Ben Marcus Consulting*

                  I feel like I should emphasize that I in no way support your stance on this. References are a good thing, maybe not for all roles, but for the professional level they are an absolute must.

                  If you’re struggling to find work because you’ve been unable to provide satisfactory references, you really should take a step back to reflect on what you should be doing differently.

                  #1: Have you asked these people if they will give you a good reference? Never assume someone will be a reference for you, and you really should be aware of what people think of you before listing them.

                  #2: It sounds like you were actively told during your employment that you weren’t meeting goals and objectives. Rather than focusing on proving the statement wrong by showing all the work you were doing, focus on what was causing the statements in the first place. Own up to your failures and explore how you can prevent those same issues from repeating.

                  #3: You may need to take a position that’s a few steps down or with smaller companies. Build up your portfolio of work. This is more about producing reputable work product that people will speak well of and less about gaining experience; though it certainly sounds like you may need that as well.

                  #4: Consider your work personality. Professional Ben Marcus is a facade put on for work. In my case, the character and person are very similar, but the little difference helps me to maintain separation with my personal life and keep up professionalism at all times. Succinctly, Home Ben is covered in Cheeto dust 15 minutes after his nightly run and may show up 25 minutes late to a family gathering, while Work Ben is polished and prompt.

                  #5: Reflect on your morality. Frankly, I’m disgusted that you support the idea that abusers should be freely hired into the workplace with little regard to the rest of your team. Toxic cultures are exceptionally difficult to eradicate from a corporation and will absolutely drive talent away.

                  #6: Drop the idea that everything needs to be proved in a court of law. The first thing that I do when screening candidates is to google their name in various combinations of past employers and cities. I am absolutely looking for indications of legal issues. Every hiring manager I’ve met or trained does the same. Court documents are public records and could easily show up during this. If I saw that your previous employer took you to court over work performance, I would toss your resume without a second thought.

                2. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

                  I didn’t mean to imply you agreed with me, simply that the story was similar.

                  #1 – I never offered either supervisor as a reference. Both gave references on calls to verify my employment history.

                  #2 – Are you referring to revoking my workload because I was still learning? How would I show improvement without the work to do, let alone improve?

                  I won’t address the balance or strawmen because I am honoring Alison’s request.

        2. Allypopx*

          You have even less of an assumption of honesty from the candidate, who has clear incentive to present themselves in the best light possible. The point is to collect as much data on a potential employee as is necessary to get a clear picture. If one vindictive reference is an outlier, you can ask the candidate about it, but that’s why you ask for multiple references to see what points come up repeatedly and can sift out what might just have been a bad fit. Reference checkers also push for negative feedback from good references, by the way. No candidate is perfect, nor does anyone expect them to be. It’s all data taken together.

          Again, this is an ED level position. No one is going to live in abject poverty due to this bad reference. And many low level jobs won’t require references, so there will generally be options. You’re creating imaginary stakes around this.

          1. Kella*

            Yes, your last sentence is an important point. This is an imaginary problem. Incompetent and difficult to work with people are hired all the time, as is evidenced by this website. There is not currently a surplus of people out of work because they are facing the consequences of their own actions. If anything, there is the opposite problem: Incompetent people being hired despite messing up over and over.

      2. Juno*

        We do need references baked into the labor market because people aren’t really inclined to be honest about their shortcomings!

        Err, you do realize that referees aren’t actually being required to swear an affidavit that everything they are saying about the candidate is honest and true, right? Referees also have absolutely nothing to win or lose if the candidate is hired into a good job, or one that suits them, or even if the employer is getting a good deal. They don’t care. They could tell good lies about an incompetent person, or bad lies about an awesome person, and it makes no difference to them 99% of the time.

        It’s all extremely subjective, and I’ve recruited enough people to know that there are plenty of people who will give a bad reference purely out of sheer spite.

        It also means basically nothing as to if someone works really well at another company. It doesn’t mean that they’ll work with yours. And vice versa.

    15. V. Anon*

      Someone who had a job at the CEO level is unlikely to fall onto public assistance unless their pride prevents them from accepting a job at a lower level. I have worked for spectacularly incompetent people who have been pushed out only to fetch up later in another executive position. These people have university degrees. They can do SOMETHING to keep the wolf from the door. Your position seems to be the market in general should keep people in the style they are accustomed to, like some sort of labor-market alimony. No one is entitled to a C-Suite job just because they had one before. It’s not vindictive to say “this guy came in and trashed the place.” I’d say that in a reference about a general contractor. Why not an executive director?

      1. Forrest*

        >> Your position seems to be the market in general should keep people in the style they are accustomed to, like some sort of labor-market alimony

        I love this phrasing. And I think this general idea is SO COMMON— it’s why certain people keep failing up.

    16. Colette*

      As long as the references are honest, people are getting the references they’ve earned. If you want a good reference, do a good job.

      Of course some people will have vindictive/incompetent managers, but if you are a good employee, you will often have other people who will be references for you.

      You’ve mentioned before that people in IT should change jobs often to improve their “alphabet soup” of qualifications, but references is one of those things that you lose when you do that.

      1. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

        You’ve mentioned before that people in IT should change jobs often to improve their “alphabet soup” of qualifications, but references is one of those things that you lose when you do that.

        You’ve got this backwards; by leaving every 3 years, references are one of the things you gain. Because you no longer work at XYZ corp, your peers there can vouch for you without jeopardizing your employment there, and by moving on every 3 years, your most recent group of former coworkers are never too far back to be relevant. It works, until one of the underlying assumptions like honesty, general likeability, or transparency of information falters.

        Contrast that with an employee in a position for 20 years, who cannot use coworkers as a reference without risking word getting out that they’re trying to interview out, and whose previous supervisor is probably retired or has passed on.

        1. Allypopx*

          It sounds like maybe you’ve been burned before, and I’m sorry if that’s the case, but I’m sorry you’re wildly out of touch with how the hiring process works and that’s not something you can resolve with paranoid forum posts.

          1. Juno*

            It sounds like maybe you’ve been burned before, and I’m sorry if that’s the case, but I’m sorry you’re wildly out of touch with how the hiring process works and that’s not something you can resolve with paranoid forum posts.

            I have to say, I think that is both an extremely unkind statement to make, and a really naive one. Being really good at your job is not protection against a maliciously bad reference which is also completely dishonest.

            I’ve recruited a lot of people, and I have to tell you, the only type of referee who is actually likely to be completely honest is one who works internally and is going to be directly impacted by the hiring decision at hand. Their reputation and daily life will both be impacted if the person is the wrong fit. Bonus points if the person is part of the decision-making panel.

            If this helps, I’ve had people give dishonestly bad references because of the following stupid reasons:
            a) they didn’t want the candidate to leave their current role;
            b) they wanted to hire the candidate themselves and wanted to limit the candidate’s options so they wouldn’t refuse that offer;
            c) they were always jealous of the candidate;
            d) the candidate was dating, or had married, someone the referee liked;
            e) the candidate had needed to make a (valid) complaint about bullying, underpayment or so on, against someone the reference was friends with or otherwise loyal to;
            f) the referee was having a bad day;
            g) the referee knew someone else who also wanted the same job the candidate was in the running for, and didn’t want the candidate to get it over the other person; and
            h) someone with a vendetta against the candidate called in to provide a negative reference check by pretending to be one of the listed references. (I’ve also had a variation of this, wherein someone who is not a listed reference finds out the person they hate is either in the running for the job, or has actually got the job already, and rings up the office just to trash the person.)

            In short, I do not put a lot of stock in reference checks. Mostly, they are a waste of time, and sometimes, they are actively damaging or otherwise unhelpful. Plenty of people have been hired based off positive references, only for it to be painfully clear that the other candidates were indeed the better choice.

            Frankly, I’m surprised that anyone who has read any of the letters on AAM would be surprised that the same terrible, toxic managers some people are unfortunate enough to encounter could continue to wreak havoc on someone’s life long after they’ve left via a dishonest negative reference. To those of us who have encountered more than one of these bosses…what exactly do you think the outcome is going to be if those managers are asked for a reference? They certainly aren’t going to be honest.

        2. Colette*

          A retired person can be a reference. And if you work somewhere for 20 years, it’s highly likely that you’ve worked for more than one manager who can be a reference.

          Sure, if you change jobs every 3 years and have references from each job, that’s great! Nothing wrong with that. But if you leave after a year or 9 months, you’re not likely to get a reference from the job, if for no other reason than that people won’t remember you.

          1. allathian*

            Not everywhere. I’m in Finland, and when a person retires here, it’s absolutely not acceptable for a potential employer of a former report to contact them for a reference. Not unless they have a reasonably close relationship with a former report and are willing to be the reference. And the retired person has to offer, it’s not okay to ask.

        3. Starbuck*

          You’re wrong about a lot else, but moving jobs every three years (or whatever is a long enough tenure to avoid seeming like job hopping) can indeed give you the benefit of having relatively recent references from a previous workplace instead of a current one when you’re trying to leave for another new place.

          But again, wow, so super wrong about almost everything else re: references.

    17. Ben Marcus Consulting*

      I have absolutely had previous employers and employees try to seek revenge by torpedoing background checks. These aren’t people that I’ve listed and want to associate with my career, but they do end up in the mix from time to time. Whenever that happens, I freely discuss those situations with the potential client or employer, and let them make the informed decision. Usually, things still go to my favor. I don’t try to evade, I don’t try to punch down, I just lay out what happened from my perspective and own up to anything I didn’t handle well.

      It may mean that the subject of OP’s letter will need to seek lower roles, and it could be an ongoing thing. Not everyone is cut out for continuous advancement.

      1. starsaphire*

        I’ve experienced this too – just recently, in fact; the place I was contracting was going to hire me on, and a prior employer tried to torpedo my background check by claiming I’d never worked there.

        There was a simple and easy solution. I still had copies of my signed hiring agreement, plus pay stubs and glowing reviews. I faxed (yes, in 2020) copies of my contract and some pay stubs to the background investigator that proved my story.

        If they’d claimed that I had worked there but been a terrible employee, I could have faxed copies of the reviews and the amended contracts to reflect raises/promotions.

        It’s not foolproof, but nothing is. And yeah, I was furious, but I also had the evidence to fix it. Not trying to turn the rest of the world into hoarders, but… evidence is good.

        It’s on “you” (generic you) as a manager, if you get two good references and one bad one, to ask the prospective hire what’s up. And if you get three bad ones… it’s on you for the sake of your company and your co-workers to think really hard about how to proceed from there.

    18. Khatul Madame*

      You will be happy to hear that numerous companies have adopted a policy never to give references outside of dates worked, to protect themselves from getting sued by former employees.
      At least one former employer had a policy never to check references, for the same reason. I guess this was more important than protecting the company against bad hires.

    19. Observer*

      Please, honest references are not about “vengeance” or “vendettas”. They are about providing organizations the information they need to make sensible decisions.

      Let’s flip this – does an organization have an obligation to hire someone who does illegal things to keep them off the streets or form needing to go on public assistance? Someone who is likely to legally come close to destroying the organization? Or maybe organizations “only” have an obligation to hire people with a history of incompetence and / or misbehavior that just costs the organization significant amounts of money and makes other people working there miserable.

      1. JelloStapler*

        the phrase “set yourself (colleagues, organization, etc) on fire to keep others (possible bad hires) warm (and fed)” comes to mind – parentheses are mine.

      2. Walnut*

        Please, honest references are not about “vengeance” or “vendettas”. They are about providing organizations the information they need to make sensible decisions.

        References have no obligation to tell you the truth about a candidate, nor are there any stakes for them whether you lose a brilliant hire in the candidate due to their untrue negative reference, nor if you make a bad hire based on their untrue positive reference. The candidate, on the other hand, has everything to lose.

    20. pleaset cheap rolls*

      Better on public assistance than running another org into the ground, hurting its programs and employees.

      Someone like that should apply to a much more low-level job or a job in a different field that is simpler, and prepare the references for that – “I know I didn’t do very well as ED, but this job is mainly data entry with no management, so I think I’d be good at it. If they call you, can you try to confine your comments to things that might relate to that?”

      For a similar job they are not an “otherwise-acceptable candidate.”

    21. Mental Lentil*

      Wow. It seems you’ve had some really terrible experiences and are exhibiting some real PTSD symptoms here.

      I really do hope you get some help, because nothing you’re written in this thread is reasonable.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        Agreed. I am feeling a lot of anger rolling off the sentences here.

        You know, there’s healthy ways to use anger. But left unchecked anger can become our biggest drawback. It can leach into all aspects of our lives, ruin employment prospects, ruin home life and so on.

        My father had lots of anger over stuff that happened to him at work. Like you show here, his anger was probably JUSTIFIED. But the fallout was almost fatal. Literally. He was in his late 50s early 60s when he had his bypass surgery. By then other parts of his life had also fallen apart, and he was not able to return to work again. He retired young.
        This is the power of anger that has not been redirected in some manner. Eventually our health goes to crap.

        My serious suggestion to you, is to be more selective about who you work for. You can find many discussions here on how to avoid toxic employers. No magic bullet, of course, but it might at least give you a leg up so you can find the good people in this world. People can feel the anger or negative rolling off of others and they know to avoid that person. It’s worth the effort to try to get to a different space in your thinking for your own health.

        I do think that regularly reading AAM will help you to do a reset and help in many other ways also.

        I am sorry you got screwed over. You deserve an employer who treats you with respect, pays a decent rate, and allows you to have a life also. I hope you get that in life.

        1. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

          I eventually landed on my feet. My current gig delivers more of those wishes than it doesn’t. That happened a decade ago, when I was a singleton and saving aggressively for a home; if it happened today, with a family to support, I’m more valuable dead than alive.

          The ordeal did serve me well in one regard; I have no faith at all in assertions or trust in authority left. If you dig into why my quality scores are high, it’s because I validate and trap for mala fide in places where someone who hasn’t been burned would trust their sources. I also refuse to do unto others as I was done (that coupled with no desire to be in management explains the wrong answers to Alison’s hypothetical questions above).

          It’s far enough back that the advice here would support dropping those jobs off my résumé, though it’s hard to explain some quirks in my skill set without them. I’m still fenced in by lack of references, but maybe I’ll get an offer from another of those terrible companies that don’t rely on them someday. I’m slowly coming to peace with the fact that this will probably be my gig until retirement.

          1. Juno*

            I’m really sorry that you went through all of that, Sola.

            I had three highly toxic workplaces in a row early in my career, complete with managers who loved living out their vendettas by giving intentionally dishonest, negative references about ex-employees. (How toxic were they? One of them eventually ended up in jail for criminal behaviour in the workplace, another ended up disbarred from the profession, and the third ended up targeting an employee with a very powerful family member and was run out of the org, but not before he was allowed to destroy people for more than a decade.)

            I thankfully lucked out with a manager who had been burned in similar ways himself and recruited based on an interview, previous work samples and short assessment tasks more than anything else.

            He rarely bothered with reference checks beyond “did this person work for you before?”, and was often asked by the large company we worked for to coach other managers on hiring because he was known for making the best hiring decisions in the org. But a lot of the other managers never could grasp the basic concept of “references lie about candidates, and not always to make the candidate look good”.

            He was also a great boss, and I often wonder how screwed I would have been if I’d had to rely upon those previous three toxic managers for references. I’m so grateful.

          2. Observer*

            You know, there is no law that says you need to change jobs every x number of years. If you are with a good employer there is no need to move.

            Keeping your skills up to date in case things change and you decide you should find a new place is a good idea and would probably give you some peace of mind. But other than that, why not enjoy not feeling the need for the job search with all of the attendant stress?

    22. A Feast of Fools*

      This is literally the wildest thing I’ve read on this site, and that’s saying a lot considering we’ve seen managers asking (demanding?) that employees donate their organs, people pooping in potted plants, and managers showing up at weddings / hospitals to ask non-dire questions.

    23. Been There*

      What? No. This letter reminds me of a former exec at a nonprofit I used to work for. He did allllllll sorts of very shady and questionably legal things and put the org in a very bad position. But for reasons I don’t completely understand the board paid him to go away. This wasn’t a negotiated to let him save face thing. From their perspective THEY were saving face not admitting to making a terrible hire. He was there for a handful of years before he got whistleblown out of town, supposedly to focus on his “consulting work”. Yet four months later he had a same-level job at a similar non-profit across the country, which he probably got because they’d agreed not to badmouth him, because if they admitted what they let him get away with they’d all look like assholes. Some intense googling revealed this was at least the third time this happened with him, and my understanding is it’s happened at least twice more. Because no one is willing to say outloud: this guy has no ethics and causes several flavors of harassment complaints everywhere he goes.
      We’re also talking about someone executive level. High paid dude paid to schmooze other rich people. With a flair for misusing non-profits’ funds. Giving the bad reference isn’t a Scarlet Letter and it’s not a vendetta. It’s sharing the very logical conclusion one has reached based on real events that this person should absolutely not be put into this sort of position again. Actions have consequences. If no one ever calls out shitty execs, they go on being shitty execs and have zero incentive to stop their wrongdoings.

    24. Juno*

      I completely and totally agree, Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est.

      In my experience, reference checks are useless at best, and actively harmful at worst. People are not objective and most negative references do come from some form of vendetta, no matter how petty.

      Exhibit A: an incompetent manager who set an employee up to fail from the beginning and then have the hide to trash that employee if they’re ever asked for a reference. Exhibit B: a manager/company who the employee has to make a complaint about, for bullying, wage theft, sexual harassment etc, who then trash the employee when asked for a reference. Both of these are backdoor references 99% of the time, and of course, would not be willingly put forward by the candidate as references.

      OP1 may fall into the 1% or so of negative references that actually have a good reason behind them, but I also suspect that Board oversight was lacking (as is usually is in both the non-profit and private sector, in my experience), and my own experience with a bad CEO of a non-profit who also nearly brought the whole org down tells me that the likelihood of this bad ED being able to cause this much damage single-handedly (without factors including a lazy/bad board and other negative internal politics at play) is possible, but probably unlikely.

      1. Observer*

        Anecdotes are not data. Sure there are some terrible bosses who lie about former employees. Just because you have had a couple of bad experiences, doesn’t mean that 99% of references are lies.

        1. Walnut*

          Anecdotes are not data. Sure there are some terrible bosses who lie about former employees. Just because you have had a couple of bad experiences, doesn’t mean that 99% of references are lies.

          With the greatest of respect, all the comments here saying words to the effect of “I’ve never had issues with a vindictive ex-manager giving me a bad reference full of lies” are also anecdotes.

          I’ve had a couple of vindictive managers myself in the past, and have worked in recruitment for a long time. When there is any real reliance upon reference checks, plenty of excellent candidates lose jobs they are excellent choices for based on lukewarm or poor references, and plenty of subpar candidates get jobs based on very positive references.

          Plenty of references lie about candidates in reference checks. Sometimes, they do it to the candidate’s benefit to try to ensure they get the role, which does not always result in a good hire for the employer. Sometimes, they do it for vindictive reasons to try to ensure that the candidate is not hired. This happens far more often than people would like to believe. Remember, there is no accountability for a dishonest reference.

          Also, the commenter above didn’t say 99% of references are lies, they said that candidates will not usually put forward a vindictive referee, and that it is backdoor reference checking often bring these people into the mix.

      2. Starbuck*

        “1% or so of negative references that actually have a good reason behind them”

        [citation needed]

        1. Walnut*

          “1% or so of negative references that actually have a good reason behind them”

          [citation needed]

          Not the commenter you’re replying to, but as someone who has worked in recruitment and management for a very long time, I’m happy to provide a “citation” in the form of my own experience.

          The vast majority of negative references do come from vindictiveness in some form. It may be outright spite, simmering resentment, or just some other vested interest. That reference not wanting to lose the candidate from their current role, or wanting to re-hire the candidate themselves in the near future, are strangely common.

          Note that I am referring to negative references, not balanced, honest references, which are very clearly two different things. But do I put any real stock in reference checks as a recruitment tool for the vast majority of roles? No, not really.

  17. Old Cynic*

    LW#2: Is this an age thing? I often call customers to get a quick answer to a question and if they are under 40-ish, I will likely get sent to voicemail followed by an email response asking what it was I needed. More often than not this leads to back and forth emails (or texts) that take hours or even days to resolve an issue that would have taken a minute or so on a voice call (or in person visit). A complete waste of both peoples time!

    I should point out that I dislike speaking on the phone but sometimes it’s a necessary evil.

    1. Mental Lentil*

      I don’t think it’s an age thing, because I’ve always hated speaking on the phone. And I really hate voice mail, largely because people speak so softly or so rapidly, I have to listen to it multiple times just to get basic details.

      Just send me an email that is 1) accurate, 2) brief, and 3) complete. I’ll have all I need from there.

      If you’re having to go through hours or days to resolve an issue, I think maybe you are not asking the right questions in the first place.

      1. quill*

        I think it’s a “usefulness of the technology” thing.

        For a while, you were more likely to get younger people using email and older people taking phone calls based on whatever they were most used to. You still get people with hearing or auditory processing issues, or simply a need to have a readily-available record of a conversation (whether for their own records or not) sick to death of places / people that insist on calls over text based systems. And you get people who either 1) cannot rustle up the documentation conveniently to take a call 2) can easily send emails while at work but not take a call, 3) are sick of playing phone tag instead of email tag, because if You call Me and I’m in the shower, then I call you and you’re with another caller… it’s at least more likely to get a full summary of what I need to know if I email you. Might not be faster in terms of when it’s done, but it is usually faster in terms of time taken to call back and forth if you assume there will be at least one more missed call in the equation.

    2. Nanani*

      When 95% of unsolicited calls are spam, and they are, this is to be expected.
      People expecting to hear from a job application are more likely to answer the phone but “quick question for a customer” won’t fall into that window for most people most of the time.
      Just email people with what you need – which can be needing to call them! Emailing to schedule a call is not weird.

    3. JelloStapler*

      Sometimes I do this when I know I will need a paper trail or what was asked is easier shared via an attachment or link.

    4. ArtK*

      I’m in my 60s and this is likely what you’ll get from me. There is far too much spam for me to go leaping to the phone every time it rings. If someone I recognize starts to leave a message, I may answer unless I’m busy.

    5. Workerbee*

      I have never liked speaking on the phone at any age, and am grateful that texting was developed.

  18. quill*

    If I’m reading this correctly there was an investigation as to whether he, the former employee, was creating a hostile workplace? And that he was the cause of your business nearly going under? I don’t see how you could give a factual statement of their performance as an employee without mentioning these facts.

    Unless this is an employment verification check (Grima Wormtongue was employed starting ____ as king’s advisor, and resigned on ____, and is NOT eligible for rehire) and not an actual reference check.

    1. Pikachu*

      Poor Grima. He could have gone to work for Theoden without an application or reference, but it’s not often you get to rage quit by stabbing your boss only to get told you don’t get the job by an arrow through the chest. War for talent indeed.

  19. Laney Boggs*

    “If you go for more niche advertising (for example, Idealist for nonprofits, or other professional-niche-type sites), you’ll generally get higher-quality applicants who actually read your posting.”

    uhhh….anyone want to drop links please? :)

  20. ElleKay*

    WHY would you use personal funds for a work incentive program anyway? This is 1000% something that the business should be paying for and, if they can’t, then you don’t run the program or find a different incentive: NOT pay for the gift cards out of pocket.

  21. Metadata minion*

    #2 — if your workplace has a chat system of some kind, it might be a nice happy medium to send them a message asking if it’s a good time to drop by. At least for me, chat feels much more immediate than email, but less intrusive than physically showing up in someone’s space.

    1. Lizcase*

      I do this. Send a quick IM asking if they have some time, them chat, call or walk over as makes sense. Sometimes the response is ‘put something in my calendar’, which works great for me.

  22. Angela*

    #3 — Ooh, I can relate. Our team was given a choice of gift cards to help make up for a super busy time. They asked us to choose from a small list of places, and I chose the burger place since I wanted something practical. (Free meals, yay!)

    But I didn’t get the gift card I requested- I got a coffeeshop one instead. It’s been nearly 2 years and I haven’t spent a dime on the card, because there’s absolutely nothing I would get from there. (I don’t drink coffee, and I hate their tea. Nothing they have appeals to me at all.)

    I felt awkward coming back and going ‘Um, this isn’t what I asked for?” since it was a thoughtful gesture in the first place, so I just quietly accepted it and kept the card in my wallet in the deluded hope I will use it at some point. I’ll probably give it as a gift. But overall, it was worse getting a card somewhere I hated instead of getting nothing at all.

    1. Richard Hershberger*

      I nice illustration of why gift cards aren’t actually all that great an idea, if “generically acceptable” is the goal.

    2. Not So NewReader*

      I could (anddid) easily fill a garbage bag with all the stuff I have been given: a golf umbrella, when I don’t golf; a gift card to a French Restaurant when I eat a limited diet; baseball caps too small for me and that I don’t wear; lots of pins; spendy pens that don’t write; company swag that I will never use; bath oil; dog shampoo; candy… ugh the list is endless. The amount of waste takes my breath away.

      Extra cash or extra time off. Those are the two things people want and will use.

      OP, if you are paying out of your own pocket for these cards, please stop. It’s not helping you and it’s not helping them.

  23. Dorothea Vincy*

    Please do give honest bad references for behavior that extreme! I worked with someone who was fired for physically attacking someone else, got fired from the next job (that I was frankly surprised she got) for the same reason, and ended up in jail. And it turned out that two people from my job had given her positive references because “She’s a single mom and her daughter doesn’t deserve to starve.” Well, the people she attacked didn’t deserve to be attacked, either. This decision that says job-seekers with terrible behavior are more important than anyone else is bizarre to me.

    1. Juno*

      Honest references are always best, but it needs to be balanced, too. If they have bad points, be honest, but also be honest about any good points, or any safeguards that could be put in place to help the employee counter any negatives.

      But also be honest as to why those negatives happened. Like, if the person failed to perform as well as they could in their last job, was it because they couldn’t perform, or because they were being bullied by their boss and were never actually trained for the role in the first place?

      1. Workerbee*

        How would you word a reference for someone who has chosen to physically attack another employee in more than one job?

        Dorothea mentioned “extreme” for a reason. This is far beyond the “There should have been safeguards in place” onus on the company.

        1. Dorothea Vincy*

          Yes, thank you, Workerbee. I don’t see that it’s up to me or a manager to inquire what kind of “bullying” or issues this person had. She grabbed someone else by the throat and slammed their head into the wall. She doesn’t deserve a, “Oh, but it must not be her fault, because I’m sure she’s really a sweetie except for trying to hurt someone else!” reference. The fact remains that she physically assaulted a coworker.

          Most situations will be a lot less extreme than that or than OP’s description. But the ones that are extreme do deserve bad references. I remain on the side of the people who were assaulted, not the one who did the assaulting.

  24. Callie*

    I know it’s a common practice, but it still seems unnecessary to ask for an essay from every single person that applies to your job. Why not pick a group of top resumes and ask those candidates to follow-up with a cover letter?

    1. Aspiring Chicken Lady*

      It’s not an essay. It’s a paragraph or two of words indicating that you have paid attention to who you’re applying to and why you think that you specifically would be a good candidate for this specific position.

      If you don’t know what the answers to those questions are by the time you’ve finished applying, you may be a resume bomber.

      1. Mental Lentil*

        Yes, this! I’ve always viewed a cover letter as a way to connect the dots between the job description and what they should look for in your resume that actually fulfills those requirements. “You need this—I’ve done this!”

        I know a lot of people think it’s just a pointless exercise, but when well done, it’s really not.

    2. Colette*

      A cover letter is a chance to include stuff that’s not in your resume that might be relevant, and is part of how the employer figures out you are a top candidate. It can give context about things that might otherwise raise questions (e.g. why you’re applying somewhere you don’t live) and show that you understand what this specific job is all about.

      It’s also a chance for the employer to check out your written communication skills.

      But ultimately the answer is that what you’re suggesting is more work for the employer. They’d have to get a bunch of resumes, review them, pick the top candidates, and then ask them to write a cover letter and wait for a reply, then go through all of them again.

    3. Nanani*

      What? No. Its not a college application essay, it’s a way to contextualize the experience listed on your resume and explain things that might otherwise seem odd – like why you’re applying to a job requiring less experience or why you’re relocating or something like that.

      1. Rainy*

        I get a surprising number of cover letters that read like college applications essays, which is why I firmly believe that spending even a scintilla of effort toward writing a good cover letter puts a candidate head and shoulders above the pack.

  25. Aspiring Chicken Lady*

    If you bought gift cards (or any gift, really) and discovered that no one was using them, then rather than worry about that failed gifting experience, take it as your opportunity to check in with your giftees for next time.

    “Hey, we’re about to hit our busy season and I know you’re going to rock it, so what can I do this year to reward everyone? Do you like gift cards? Or a group event? Company branded swag? Or should I just bake brownies every Monday?”

  26. kiwidg1*

    Re LW#4
    I admit that this one had me stumped awhile back when I was dropping resumes into the automated systems. I had a document for my cover letter and one for my resume all ready for upload. But the system would only allow me to upload one of them.

    At the time, none of the advice columns or articles I read even suggested to combine the cover letter and resume into a single document. It seems obvious once you’ve figured it out, but perhaps it’s just not? We talk about the writing and drafting of them as separate entities, so it’s something that maybe is just not thought about.

  27. Q*

    Our boss gave us $15 gift cards for a little café near our office. It was a nice thought but the cheapest thing on the menu is $22 and we don’t get a real lunch break where we could even go there to eat. We’d have to order ahead, pick it up, rush back to the office and eat at our desk while working. 2.5 years later the gift cards are still sitting in our desk drawers.

    1. Sunflower*

      Can you all combine your gift cards and share food? I’m not sure who can rush over to pick it up though.

    2. Alexis Rosay*

      Lol yeah, our nonprofit gave all the staff $25 gift cards to AirBnB. Like, what if you can’t afford to travel? Even the day activities AirBnB offers start around $50.

  28. abcdefg*

    No. Do not give bad references. Give honest ones, emphasising their strengths, but note what their weaknesses are and state how you believe a manger could assist the person in overcoming those issues.

    For example, they were disorganised. So just say, “they were prone to being a bit disorganised, but if you have someone checking in with them every day, or every couple of days, they’d probably be okay”.

    Very few employees are actually nightmares. Some have other stuff going on, and some do not gel with their manager. Some managers are also utterly hopeless, and never gave the employee a proper chance. Robbing someone of their ability to eat and keep a roof over their head just because you didn’t like them is an awful punishment. Unless there is actual criminal activity involved, don’t ruin someone’s ability to earn a living.

    1. Juno*

      I have to agree. If adequate oversight was in place, I doubt the situation that OP1 describes would have occurred, or at least would not have been as bad. It is, however, quite typical of many of the boards I’ve dealt with in both non-profits and the private sector.

    2. Observer*

      That’s all good and fine if you are actually dealing with a decent employee who just couldn’t make it at your org / in this job for Reasons.

      But when you get to REALLY bad employees, or people with really bad behavior (even if it’s only one aspect of their behavior), it’s a different thing. When a high level employee does as much damage to the organization as the OP describes, and *honest* reference is NOT going to emphasize the positive, because that’s just a lie.

      1. Walnut*

        That’s all good and fine if you are actually dealing with a decent employee who just couldn’t make it at your org / in this job for Reasons.

        But when you get to REALLY bad employees, or people with really bad behavior (even if it’s only one aspect of their behavior), it’s a different thing.

        Not in specific reference to the person OP1 is referring to, but the vast majority of managers are pretty incapable of giving an honest, balanced reference in the “decent employee” scenario you mention. The blame often lies with them, and they are usually not self-aware enough to own up to it. “If I’d trained this person better they would have been awesome” or “our office environment is toxic” or “I’m a massive bully” is not the type of honesty that arises.

  29. MollyG*

    #1 If one guy can wreck an organization that quickly then you must also look to failures of the board. I am going to go out on a short limb and say that at least some it not all of the following are true: the board ignored clear warning signs, did not have a way for employees to have concerns taken seriously, there was internal politics that got in the way, too much powers was vested in one guy, and there was little to no oversight.

    1. Observer*

      All of this is almost certainly true. Which is why I’m betting that his former employer didn’t give an honest reference – they didn’t want to look bad. And why I’m betting that this Board won’t give an honest reference either. They also don’t want to look bad.

  30. Juno*

    OP1, I’m very sorry you went through this!

    I personally hate reference checks. Under 99% of circumstances, I think they’re useless at best, and actively damaging at worst.

    The situation OP1 describes may be one of those rare, 1% of circumstances when the reference check may come in useful to the recruitment process…but it also depends on the job this ex-ED is now interviewing for. It could be one where his ability to manage up well is very important, and the rest of his failings are not really relevant. If I were the OP, I would request a copy of the job description this person is in the running for before I make any further decisions.

    I would also have a very long, hard think about if the blame really does lie at this person’s feet. Having worked with non-profits for a long time, I’ve certainly experienced something similar to what OP1 describes, but I’ve also seen people angry they didn’t get the ED job actively work to bring the successful candidate undone in their role. I’ve seen both good and passable leaders brought unstuck by resentful staffers, but I’ve also seen hopeless, incompetent EDs screw up no matter how welcoming and helpful the existing staff were. I’ve also seen a change in leadership flare up existing staff and cultural dysfunction, no matter how good or bad the new leadership was. A bad board, or internal politics on a board, will also cause problems, no matter how good or bad the ED is; they’ll often also take advantage of a change in leadership.

    This sounds like it might be a case of an incompetent ED ruining something which was awesome before he arrived, which would have been awful. Again, I am very sorry, OP1! I saw something very similar with a bad CEO at a non-profit, and he almost sank us for similar reasons. It was genuinely traumatic and I was very angry about it for a very long time.

    So, I would certainly state this person’s positive AND negative traits in any reference given. But I would certainly give an honest reference, but keep it objective and based on truth, rather than on any understandable emotions you’re feeling. If he has any good points or skills, emphasize those, but also be honest about the negatives. But don’t allow emotion to get in the way. this is purely because a reference, especially a negative one, where strong emotions are evident are likely to be discounted or ignored completely by many hiring managers.

    1. Observer*

      But I would certainly give an honest reference, but keep it objective and based on truth, rather than on any understandable emotions you’re feeling.

      This is something I agree with 100%

  31. IrishEm*

    OP1, be very careful about libel/slander laws where you are. In Ireland, for example, it’s impossible to give a bad reference and so if someone wasn’t a great fit all they can do is say OP worked from Date to Date. And that’s it. That’s the reference 2 previous employers of mine gave as a matter of course, but also because I was let go from one. (This is also partly why my unemployment case worker told me to lie about being on a temp contract rather than let go, but that’s rant for another post).

    I once worked with someone who stole from the staff, yours truly included, and we found out through a private investigator (she disappeared with the three grand and a cockamamie story about what she had done with our money) that at her previous job (hospice) that she stole from the sick and dying and their families, but they couldn’t warn for it during reference checks out of fear of being litigated against. My employer couldn’t even sack her because she hadn’t stolen merchandise or from tills but from staff. *sigh*

    1. Observer*

      You’ve just made the case for at will employment.

      In the US, an employer can fire anyone for almost any reason that is not based on or related to illegal discrimination. And when there does need to be showing of cause, good faith attempts to get accurate information is sufficient – it does NOT need to be at the level of “proven in court.” Also, with very few exceptions, any time the a person threatens the safety of of other staff, there is actually an obligation on the employer to do something about it, if the did or reasonably SHOULD have known about it. An employer can (almost) always fire someone for stealing from other staff!

      As for libel, in the US truth is always a complete defense. An error made in good faith may or may not be protected. But if you stick to facts and make it clear what is opinion and conjecture vs facts, you are safe.

      1. 2021*

        So…the entire workforce should be left with unstable, insecure employment – which damages everything from health to relationships to the economy – all because there is occasionally a bad employee that is difficult to fire?

        I see the point you’re making but “at will” employment is abused by those in power more than it actually helps anything.

        A bit like reference checks, actually, which I’ve certainly seen abused many times by people with an agenda.

  32. dogsandcats*

    LW#1, having seen dozens of wonderful people be left unable to support themselves due to negative references (which were completely or mostly untrue) given by ex-bosses with some sort of axe to grind (which had nothing to do with work performance), I am very cautious whenever a negative reference is given. I’ve heard a lot of them over the years, and only a couple of them were actually either true or relevant.

    However, if the fault in this situation really is entirely with this former executive director, a calm, objective statement of the facts may not go astray should you be called upon for a reference. If, however, some of the fault actually lies with the Board (who should have kept a much closer watch on all this), or with existing internal politics, or any other factors that were not actually the doing of this former executive director, I would make sure that is also mentioned. Also, ensure to mention the former executive director’s strengths.

    I was once asked to be an informal reference for someone who was the COO of a NGO I had worked for previously. This person was deeply incompetent, to the point that he could not actually do his actual job. I was asked, off the record, if I would recommend him for a management position, and I said “no”, but I also said why. I also noted some of his actual strengths.

    1. Observer*

      I am very cautious whenever a negative reference is given.

      You should be.

      I was asked, off the record, if I would recommend him for a management position, and I said “no”, but I also said why

      Yes, this is important.

      To me, an reference who just goes on about how bad (or good) someone is without concrete explanation of what makes the soooo bad is a major red flag. So is a reference that is very out of sync with what others are saying or with facts that I know to be true.

    2. Pepper*

      Well said. Reading this discussion has been kind of interesting, with all the comments insisting that there was no more than a vanishingly small chance a former boss or manager would lie in order to to damn a former employee. Being a boss or manager is being in a position of power, and human history is full of examples of people using their power to hurt those with less power.

      1. Walnut*

        Reading this discussion has been kind of interesting, with all the comments insisting that there was no more than a vanishingly small chance a former boss or manager would lie in order to damn a former employee. Being a boss or manager is being in a position of power, and human history is full of examples of people using their power to hurt those with less power.

        I agree so, so much with this. This is a brilliant summary of the truth of the matter. People know that bad bosses abuse their power all the time. People know that plenty of people end up with more than one awful boss. Why would this abuse of power by bad bosses not extend to the extremely flawed reference checking process? If a boss bullied or otherwise mistreated the employee when that person worked for them, why would they not continue to mistreat them by trying to ensure they cannot get another job?

  33. MLH*

    When I get a gift card I almost always put it aside either for a special occasion or larger purchase, or a rainy day when I might need a special treat (or essentials if it’s something like a Target card)

  34. birb*

    I really do feel for OP#1, but I think any reference given needs to be balanced and calm, and would need to take the job the former ED is applying for into account.

    Also, I would be surprised if this one dude was able to cause so much terrible damage all by himself. Even if no one else was enabling the carnage directly, the Board should have pulled their collective finger out and ensured checks and balances were in place, including oversight.

    I worked for a non-profit earlier in my career where a new CFO was able to bring the place to its knees for similar reasons, but there were also a lot of internal politics and an incompetent Board in the mix. The dysfunctional internal politics of the Board, the senior management and other parts of the workplace played both a direct and indirect role. To make matters worse, the CFO was also best friends with the CEO.

    None of this may be the case for OP#1, but I would be astounded if no one noticed the damage the ED was doing until it was too late.

    And as to giving bad or negative references in general, they are very rarely helpful. If they are full of obvious emotion, they will either be given too much, or too little, weight.

    Also, I used to work in HR and recruitment and the experience left me very wary of the concept of reference checks: I worked for a couple of very big companies and if there is a lie that someone can tell about another person, I’ve heard it. Much akin to the fact that just because someone interviews well, it doesn’t mean they would be any good at the job, reference checks are the same.

    Without fail, the most negative references I heard were always about the people who were actually the best hires, and the most talented people overall who were the best fit for the role. This was especially common in situations where some fool was insisting that people who were not on a candidate’s list of references were asked about the candidate. I always assumed envy played a strong part in this, and it was a worryingly prevalent trend.

    Similarly, many of the very best, most glowing references I heard were very often about people who were, at best, adequate in their roles, if not outright incompetent.

  35. Eclecticism is a Virtue*

    LW #2, I’m working from home for now, and have been for the last however long the pandemic is at, but when I was in the office, my desk was in an open floor plan and easy for people to get to. I’m also in a position where I know one thing very, very well and most other people in my office do not know much about it. That means I get a lot of questions and requests. Are the interruptions annoying? Sure, if I’m trying to focus on something. But, that’s where headphones come in to hopefully signal I don’t want to be interrupted (of course, that depends on your office and its culture), and I know that staying at my desk opens me up to interruptions. If I really, really cannot be interrupted, I would book a conference room and work there instead. All that said, are the interruptions sometimes welcome? Absolutely! It gives me a break from the work I’m doing. And it lets me socialize a little (I’m not a fan of socializing in general, but many of the interruptions are from people I’m friendly with), and if I regularly answer questions and do favors for people, well, that helps my professional reputation. Plus, the people asking me for favors are people I often need favors or assistance from. We just all help each other as it comes up and assume it evens out in the end. Maybe you’re not in a position right now to be of very much help for the people you’re interrupting, but you could be someday!

    So if you put yourself in the position of the person you’re asking, yes, the interruption could be bad in some cases, but overall interruptions are frequently useful and not a burden. Obviously all of this depends on your office’s culture, as Alison said, but I wouldn’t just assume interrupting someone’s work is always bad. There are definitely times when people are grateful for the interruption!

Comments are closed.