transcript of “my employee lied about a reference”

Alison: Hi, and welcome to the show!

If you listened all the way to the end of last week’s episode, you heard me say that this week’s show will be the final episode of the Ask a Manager podcast. I’ll talk more toward the end of this episode about why I made that decision, but first we have a bunch of interesting questions from callers to tackle.

Caller 1: Hi Alison, I really enjoy the show and I wanted to run a scenario by you that happened to a friend of mine the other day. He told me that one of his direct reports had asked him for a reference for a part-time weekend gig to make some extra money. He said that this staff member was a high performer – in fact, he views him as being one of the best – and so therefore he didn’t have any qualms about giving him a reference.

Fast forward to a few weeks later and this same employee is tendering his resignation and it turns out that it is a full-time job. And my friend learned that he was lied to, that staff member lied to him about it being a weekend job. My friend feels betrayed and he feels shame, he is saying that they’re now losing one of the best staff members. And he has a mind to call back the woman in HR of the other job that he gave a reference to and tell her what happened.

What do you think he should do? Should he call her, or should he just bite the bullet and take the loss? I’d love to hear what you say about it. Thanks.

Alison: Ooooh, great question.

First, no, he definitely should not call the other employer!

It’s natural to be disappointed when a great employee leaves, and I get that it’s weird to realize that the person wasn’t fully honest with him about what was going on when he asked for the reference. But here’s the thing – it’s generally not safe for people to be completely honest with their managers when they’re job searching. My mail is full of letters from people whose managers found out that they were job searching, confronted them about it, and then pushed them out earlier than they had planned to leave. That’s a huge danger for people – and as a manager, you’ve got to understand that people worry about that. And even if you, as a manager, know that you would never do that, your employees don’t necessarily know that. And really, even if they figure that you probably wouldn’t penalize them or pushy them out earlier than they want to leave, they might not feel like they can risk even a tiny chance of that. This is people’s livelihoods that we’re talking about so the stakes are really, really high if they trust you and it turns out they were wrong. So as a manager, you’ve got to just accept that people won’t always feel comfortable or safe letting you know when they’re thinking about leaving.

It sounds like this employee was being pushed by the new employer to get a reference from the current job – which isn’t cool, by the way, because of exactly what I was just talking about. But some employers will do that. They’ll insist on talking to your current manager before they’ll make you an offer. And if that is what happened here, then this guy was in a really difficult position. He obviously didn’t feel like he could safely be honest with his boss, or he wasn’t willing to trust in that possibility for the reasons we were just talking about, and so he came up with this cover story about it being for a part-time job. It’s pretty understandable when you look at it like that.

But while I can understand your friend not being thrilled that he was lied to, he’s got to look at the bigger picture here – the employee did it because he didn’t feel safe potentially putting his job on the line. That is understandable. It’s not a huge betrayal. Your friend should understand why he did it, and he should wish him well. He definitely should not under any circumstances contact the other employer to report this! That would be incredibly crappy to do, and he’d probably come off really strangely to the other employer. Plus, there’s another audience for stuff like this, and that’s your friend’s other employees. If the rest of his staff hear that he tried to sabotage someone’s new job, that’s going to destroy any trust they had in him. If he’s upset this guy didn’t trust him enough to tell him he was job searching, no one will ever tell him anything sensitive again if he does that. He really can’t do that.

The best thing he can do here is apologize to the employee if he was anything other than gracious when he got his resignation, and wish him well – and mean it sincerely.  If he wants to be upset with anything here, be upset with the system that forces job seekers into this kind of position.

Okay, here’s the next call.

Caller 2: I work at a company where the entry level role requires a lot of training to become independent (as in a full six months of a senior person’s time to train them before they can work on their own). Because of this intense amount of training, we generally try to weed out people interested in grad school during the interview process.

Despite that effort, I overheard one of the newest people on my team say that they were studying for the GRE, which tells me he’s likely trying to get into grad school next year. I’m totally okay with people pursuing grad school if that’s what’s best for their career, but given the amount of time it takes to train someone for the role, it’s frustrating to have people leave for grad school only a year after they start, and this happens quite frequently. I think this is partly due to the role not being the most glamorous, and also due to the fact that the role requires very smart people but doesn’t pay that much (something which I don’t have any control over).

My question has several parts: Firstly, for this particular person, if we talk to him and it turns out he is planning on leaving in nine months or less, is it okay to limit his responsibilities or would that be unethical? It would make sense to train him on fewer things so that we don’t spend a lot of time on the more complex tasks that he will only use for a short period, but then that would of course limit his possibilities for growth, and I’m not sure if that’s technically allowable, and we would also I’m sure lose any opportunity to convince him it would be worthwhile to stay.

Secondly, for the future, what are some things we can do to stop this situation from happening? Is it okay to explicitly ask people during the interview process if they intend to go to grad school and tell them we are not interested in candidates planning to go to grad school in the next two years? In a company where I don’t have control over the salary, is there anything I can do to either hire people who intend to stay or to encourage people to stay instead of going back to school right away?

Alison: Okay, this is tricky. It’s absolutely true that there are jobs where it really doesn’t make sense to invest in training someone if they’re going to leave for grad school in a year. There are jobs where it takes nine months or longer before you’re really comfortable with the work and what you’re doing, and if it’s that kind of job, it doesn’t sense to bring someone on, knowing they’re going to leave before they’re fully trained and before your investment in them has paid off.

On the other hand, though, you also can’t really require people to make rock solid commitments to you if you, as the employer, aren’t willing to do that in return. Most employers in the U.S. don’t use contracts and can let someone go at any time. And so in that context, it’s not entirely fair to say, “We want you to commit to us for two years, but we’re not going to make a real commitment in return.” Now, I realize that you’re not asking anyone to put anything in writing on their side either, so that’s not a perfect comparison, but in general, you just want to keep in mind that in any employment relationship without a contract that spells out how long both sides are committing for, you’re got to be okay to some extent with people leaving earlier than you’d like, if that turns out to be what’s best for them.

But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing you can do here. It’s reasonable to explain in your hiring process that you’re looking for people who will hopefully stay in the role for a minimum of two years, and you can explain why. You can also say, “This role tends to attract people who are thinking about grad school, and so we’d ask that if that’s your plan, you not pursue this particular role because we really need someone who will be here for at least a couple of years.” That doesn’t mean that it won’t happen anyway – some people will agree to that but then their lives will change and plans with change and months in, they’ll realize they want to apply to grad school now, and you can’t avoid that happening. But by saying it explicitly during the hiring process, some people will weed themselves out or think more carefully about what they’re committing to.

And then if it does turn out that someone has decided to apply to grad school while they’re still early on with you, there’s nothing wrong with deciding that you’re going to do what’s best for you, business-wise, in terms of what projects you give them and how you train them and invest in them. I would just make sure that they are indeed applying – don’t rely on the rumor mill for this – and also be transparent with them. Tell them what you’re doing, so that they don’t notice that they’re being given different projects and draw their own conclusions about why. You can say something like, “I absolutely support you in going to grad school if that’s what’s right for you, but I also want to be transparent with you that it doesn’t make sense for us to invest the amount of time we’d need to invest in training you in X. If your plans change and you plan to stay, I’d love to get you on to that track, but given that we have limited resources, it doesn’t make sense to invest them in training in this right now, so instead let’s focus on Y and Z instead.”

You asked if that’s technically allowable, which I think is you asking if it’s legal, and yes, it’s perfectly legal to do that.

Caller 3: I was diagnosed with a very serious health concern back in July. At the time that I was diagnosed I had told several people at my work, and of course as it goes, it went around like wildfire, which I expected. Early on in my diagnosis, people would come up to me at my work and hug me, you know, “Hey, I heard, I’m sorry to hear this,” and give me a hug. At the time I was uncomfortable with it, but I understood that that was what people were going to do.

But now I’m three and a half months down the road, and I’m in treatment for things, and I’m still being approached by people who want to hug me. And I know this is silly – it’s definitely not sexual harassment or anything like that, so I don’t feel like I need to go to HR – but I don’t know how to decline a hug from somebody. I know it sounds weird, but I don’t want to be hugged. One, I want to avoid contact because of germs, and also, it’s just, okay, I’m ready to move on. I don’t want this to be what I’m known for. I don’t want it to be the focus of my work life.

How do I gracefully bow out of being hugged? How do I make sure everyone respects that boundary and doesn’t hug me against my will? I don’t want it to sound like it’s a real serious issue, but it is a problem for me. I don’t like it. Thank you!

Alison: It’s totally understandable that you don’t want to be hugged at work all the time, especially in the context of sympathy. I mean, sympathy of course can be a lovely thing, but it sounds at this point like it’s just too much. It’s completely reasonable that you want to shut down these hugs! It’s not silly.

I think there are a few things you can do. One is, when you see someone going in for a hug, you can say, “Oh, you know, I’m really not a hugger.” You can even laugh about it a little – “people keep trying to hug me, it’s so kind of them but it’s actually my nightmare.” That’s what I would say. Or “I probably should have said it earlier when everyone started enveloping me in hugs all the time!” Or you can skip that and just stick with, “eh, I’m not a hugger – but thank you for being so nice!”

Or, as an alternative, you mentioned that one of the reasons you don’t want to hug is because you’re avoiding germs, and so you possibly could lean into that, and say, “Oh, I’m not hugging because of germs.” But it’s very likely that people will read that as connected with your health condition, and that may reinforce this exact thing that you’re trying to get them to not have such a focus on. But if you have, like, one or two really aggressive huggers who you can tell aren’t going to accept that you just don’t like hugging, because those people are out there, you might try this with them, and it might be more successful in shutting them down.

But really, it’s 100% okay to just say, “Oh, I’m not a hugger!” And if you’re worried about that feeling a little chilly – which it shouldn’t, but you might worry about it – just follow it up with something warm. Ask how they’re doing, or ask about their new puppy or their kid, or how that meeting went yesterday, or just anything else that demonstrates that you’re taking an interest in them, not rejecting them as a person.

It might feel a little awkward the first few times, but just remind yourself that anyone who’s truly kind wouldn’t want to be forcing unwanted hugs on someone and making them uncomfortable. So speak up, and it should be fine. I hope that helps!

Caller 4: Hey Alison. I have been job hunting for over a year while unemployed, and after many, many rejections and a short time temping, I’m finally starting to see a pattern.

Every place I’ve gotten an interview, I make it to the second or third round of interviews (after one or even two phone interviews) before hearing no, or just not hearing anything at all, which is very frustrating. I’ve honestly lost count, but I’d say I’ve gotten to this point with probably 10 serious prospective positions in the least year. In fact, this whole year I have never had just one interview at any place, its always been multiples, which I guess is a good sign. I’ve received no feedback beyond “other candidates were more qualified,” so I wonder if I’m just qualified enough to be considered as kind of an outlier but not really hireable as I often see the same positions I applied for reposted after I’ve heard no.

I do my homework, I prepare and practice, I keep fine tuning my resume and cover letters, I’m definitely not suffering from over-confidence. In fact, I’m worried that I’m starting to give off a defeated and depleted vibe to potential employers in that final round and that’s what’s making them pass on me. I don’t have the money to get certified in something or return to school. Should I be aiming slightly lower to build experience? Or should I embrace underemployment and start rustling up some more side gigs?

I love the blog and the show. It’s been really helpful to my on my unemployment search, both with sound advice and a heavy dose of schadenfreude. Oh, and one last thing I’m hoping you can weigh in on. My grandma thinks that I’m not getting the job because I wear my hair in bun, like a top knot. I’m a nervous hair player, and I’ll put it up and put it down and fuss with it, and I feel like having it up is better than me fussing with it! So I just wanted to get your thoughts on that.

Alison: Well, I do not think the issue is your hair! Having your hair up in a bun is a super normal hair style, it’s perfectly professional, and in fact it’s so normal and professional that I’m wondering if it’s something different than what I’m picturing. You also said top knot. So I’m wondering if it’s something more like … remember Bam-Bam on the Flintstones, where it’s kind of shooting up from the top of her head in a fountain of hair? If it’s more like that, then yeah, that’s going to be too messy for most interviews, and so I’d agree with your grandma. But if you’re getting second and third interviews, I really doubt that your hair is the reason they’re not hiring you. But if it’s your standard bun, then no, that is nothing to second-guess. I want to talk more with your grandma too hear what she objects to about it, although I probably should not because if she’s bothered by a bun, she’s going to be horrified by the state of my own hair.

Anyway, I don’t think your hair is the issue.

I actually think it sounds like you’re doing pretty well, even though I know you’re frustrated. You’re getting a lot of interviews and you’re getting called back, so clearly the problem isn’t your resume or your cover letter or your overall experience relative to the jobs you’re applying for. And because you’re getting second and third interviews too, so I don’t think it’s something glaring that you’re doing in the interviews. Like, if you were terrible at interviewing, or came across really oddly, or were offending your interviewers in some way, you wouldn’t be getting asked back to those second and third interviews. I mean, maybe one or two companies would b open minded and give you another shot, but this has happened with 10 different companies in the last year, so I just don’t think it’s that. I think you’re probably fine, and you’re interviewing fine, and you’re just having bad luck – someone else is just stronger and beats you out, or you’re just not the exact right match that they’re looking for. But you know, if I’m on a third interview with a candidate, they’re pretty damn strong, especially relative to the rest of the candidate pool for the position. I’m not interviewing people just to waste my time or theirs. They like you and they see strengths in you, and that is why they’re calling you back. If it were just one or two companies, maybe we could come up with some alternate explanation, but with 10, I just don’t think so.

Now, you said you’re worried that you’re giving off a defeated vibe by the last interview, and I wonder if you really are feeling that way on final interviews – because if you are, yes, that could be showing, or it could just be affecting your energy or the way you come across. I know it’s really hard to control that if you’re feeling that way, but definitely, definitely pay a lot of attention to that.

One other thing you could try is contacting any recent interviewers who you felt you had pretty good rapport with and ask if they can give you any insight into how you could be a stronger candidate for similar jobs in the future. Not for them, but for similar jobs, because sometimes people are more likely to give feedback when they don’t feel like they’re leading you to think, “Oh, if I change this one thing, then the next time I apply with this person they’ll hire me.”

You could even say something like, “You know, to be candid with you, I’ve been getting to the finalist stages for a bunch of jobs like this and I’m wondering if there’s something I’m inadvertently doing or not doing that might be getting in my way. And I’d be so grateful if you were willing to take a minute and give me any insight or advice you might have.” Do that via email, not a phone call, because you don’t want to put people on the spot, but this is a totally okay thing to ask. I have candidates ask me this all the time! I don’t always give them a super useful answer, because sometimes there really isn’t any answer other than “you were good, but it was really competitive and someone else was stronger.” But it’s still worth asking, and even what I just said is somewhat useful to hear. And especially with the jobs where they rejected you but are still advertising and so they don’t seem to have filled it yet – in that case where it’s not just someone else was better – it might be especially interesting if you can get feedback from them about those. But you know, sometimes it just comes down to something that’s out of your control, like that during the interview process they realized they really need someone with more of a background in X and your background is in Y.

But try asking for feedback. Not everyone will give it to you, but some will, and it’s worth asking.

But the fact that you’re getting to the finalist stage for so many positions tells me that you’re not applying for the wrong types of jobs. You’ve probably just got to keep going, and sooner or later one of these is going to pan out. I know it’s really frustrating meanwhile, though – sometimes it’s almost easier if you can realize “oh there is this thing I’ve been doing wrong” because then you have something to fix. But I would say just hang in there.

Caller 5: I work for a very small company that in many ways is still in startup mode, with lean budgets and very few formalized policies.

Every year a small group of employees travel thousands of miles to participate in an industry trade show. Last year was my first time going on the trip. While there, it became apparent that everyone was expected to pay for their own food: to chip in for dinner, buy their own morning coffee, and so on. I was so stunned to discover this that I didn’t say anything in the moment and just played along (and paid along). Over the course of the five-day trip, I probably spent $150-200 of my own money that I would not have spent at home.

I never brought it up, even after the trip was over, and I now regret that. But, the trade show is around the corner again and I’d like to know how to broach it with my boss. I’m not sure if she doesn’t know that it’s standard practice to cover expenses, which would be consistent with some other things I’ve observed, or if she thinks the company shouldn’t have to cover it. Either way, I would like to avoid paying for food again if possible. What’s the best way to address this?

Alison: Yeah, it’s pretty standard to cover meals during business travel! The idea is that you shouldn’t lose money just because you have to travel for work – work travel shouldn’t cost you anything – and you’re probably not eating out three meals a day at home the way you will be when you travel, so that is why meals are typically covered. I suspect you’re right that this is about this being a small company that’s still in start-up mode, and maybe about your boss being inexperienced and unfamiliar with how companies normally handle this sort of thing.

So yeah, talk to your boss ahead of this next trip. Tell her that you had to spend $200 of your own money last time, money that you would not have spent if you had stayed at home. I’d say something like this, “Before this next trip, could we formalize policies about expense reimbursement for travel? Last year I ended up spending about $200 on meals that I wouldn’t have spent at home, and I know typically these sorts of expenses are reimbursed during business trips. Ideally I’d love it if we could formalize some arrangements for submitting expenses for business travel, but if there’s not time for that before we leave, can you tell me what you’ll need from me in order for me to get those expenses covered?”

So the way you’re wording this, it’s not “will you please consider maybe reimbursing this?” It’s “this is a standard practice, and what do I need to submit to get it handled?”

But if she pushes back and says that you’re all expected to pitch in for your own expenses or some BS like that, then you can say, “Hmmm. Can I ask for that to be reconsidered? Because otherwise it will cost us all money to do business travel, which doesn’t seem right, and it would be really at odds with how other companies handle this.”

If your boss is unreasonable and you expect a fight over this, then before you talk to her, I’d actually talk with some coworkers so that you can approach her about this as a group. That’s going to make it harder for her to brush you off – and really, this is such a normal thing to ask for and expect that you really should be able to speak up about it.

One caveat though – I might not push for the coffees to be reimbursed. If she’s resistant, just focus on meals because that’s an easier sell Every decent company does cover meals, but some don’t cover extras like coffee.

Alison: All right, those are our calls! I promised I would talk more at the end of the episode about my decision to end the show. And actually, I was hoping a caller would have left a message on burnout to use in this episode, because I figured it would be a great tie-in, but I didn’t have one. Basically, though, this is a case of me needing to take my own advice. I have been overscheduled and overworked for quite some time now. When you work for yourself and you have a lot of work coming your way, it’s very easy to think, “Well, I have all these opportunities now, but who knows how long that will last – this could all dry up next year, and so I had better take advantage of it now.” Any freelancers out there probably know what I’m talking about. And for years, I dealt with this by taking on as much work as I could possibly do, which meant that for a lot of the time I have been working way too much and barely seeing friends or family.

And you know, I’m not convinced that that’s a terrible way to go for a short time – but it’s not sustainable in the long-term, and so for a while now I’ve been trying to figure out how to make more room in my life for things that are not work. And I’ve had a really hard time doing it, because I like my work. I like everything that I’m doing, and it’s hard to cut something out. I’ve gotten pretty good at saying no to new things, and at saying no to small things, but it hasn’t been making enough of a difference.

And in my capacity as a work advice columnist, I’ve advised other people in this situation plenty of times. When people come to me with this type of problem, I talk about getting really, really clear on what’s important to you in life, and being brutally honest about the trade-off’s you’re making, and that you can’t just have wishful thinking and plan to do it all. When you do try to do it all, something suffers – maybe it’s your work, maybe it’s your relationships, maybe it’s your sleep, maybe it’s your health. And so I’ve accepted that I need to take that advice myself, and so here we are, with me wrapping up the podcast to get more breathing room back.

But I want to say I have loved doing the show! And I’m so grateful to the amazing people at How Stuff Works for making it happen, and to the people who called in with questions and let us dissect them, and to all of you for listening. Thank you so much for letting me do this very fun thing with you.

I’ll still be answering letters all the time at the Ask a Manager website, so if you want more Ask a Manager, there will still be plenty there every day, at

Well, that’s the show. Thank you for listening!