My former employer is acting like a crazy ex-girlfriend.
March 29, 2011 12:16 PM   Subscribe

My bosses loved me, I had nothing but good performance reviews and praise. I left the company and asked for a reference, I received a letter simply stating that I had worked for the company. This is the only company I've worked for since graduating college, I feel burned. Is this a big deal?

I had been with this company for about 5 years, then there was layoffs at work, pay cuts and my position had basically been eliminated. I had seen myself as the head of my group, to being the only one left. I saw the writing on the wall and when a great opportunity appeared I took it, and then that company went under in less than 3 months.

I left my first company under good terms, with a lot of pleas of, "Please stay with us, we love you!" I couldn't, the 20% pay cut was way too much for me to handle. I'm looking at a job right now that's something I really want and they've asked for references. I e-mailed my former boss, received no reply. I mailed him again, a week later I get an e-mail from the HR department that simply says, "Anonymous has worked here from x/2006-x/2011," signed by my boss. I called a couple of other previous employees and this seems to be the company's MO. Great, 5 years of working extra hours and coming in weekend to get projects done on time and on budget for this.

I had a friend, who is an actual recruiter, call the company and ask for a reference to see what they would say. He said they were very rude to him and would only confirm employment and my last position held. Furthermore, they told him that my last position held was "Junior Developer" and I had been promoted to, and received compensation as, "Senior Developer / Project Lead." This is what I've been putting down on my resumes. I never printed out anything or kept any documentation as to being promoted, I never thought this would be an issue. Should I worry about this?

So what do I do? When someone asks for references what can I put down?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (25 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
No. The HR department is only allowed to say that you worked at the company. You can ask your former boss for a personal reference, however.
posted by stubby phillips at 12:20 PM on March 29, 2011 [8 favorites]

No references is standard, often giving references is a liability. Many people work around this by finding specific people who will skirt the rule and offer to give one. Were you close with fellow employees who would be willing to do this for you?

When I was promoted I was given a new job description to approve, did you receive anything like that? What about your performance reviews, was your title on them? Did you keep your signed copy? You could use that as documentation if you have it.
posted by Kimberly at 12:21 PM on March 29, 2011

This is pretty standard. Former employers don't want to take any liability based on what they say (i.e., you sue them for giving a bad recommendation) or what they don't say (new employer sues them for not revealing that you had anger issues, etc.). It doesn't speak badly of you. I would clarify with HR what your actual title was, though. I don't think you can do anything about them being rude, sadly.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 12:21 PM on March 29, 2011

HR at one place I worked said that legally, employment dates and position held were all they were allowed to give, so they couldn't be sued or something. But even if they are holding to that, they need to get your position right; phone HR until they pick up the phone and ask for that at least to be corrected in their information.
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 12:21 PM on March 29, 2011

That's pretty typical - most companies will only give out dates worked, and sometimes position names..

You need a personal connection.

Find old coworkers who were also laid off that you have a good relationship with. Bosses usually carry more weight, but if you haven't kept up with anyone (or didn't have as good a relationship as you thought), you might have trouble.
posted by k5.user at 12:21 PM on March 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

Somebody's pissed that you left. You're going to have to roll with it. Is there a co-worker you were on good terms with you could use as a reference if required? Your former boss(es) aren't going to help you out.
posted by killdevil at 12:22 PM on March 29, 2011

You mentioned bosses. Can you contact any of them?

I'd also suggest calling your main boss, by phone, ostensibly to clear up the "Senior Developer/Junior Developer" snafu but also ask him if he'd be willing to provide a "personal" reference while you're on the phone with him.
posted by arnicae at 12:22 PM on March 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

This is not unique at all. Though it is a myth that companies are not allowed to say anything negative about a former employee, many have policies that they do not give any references -- positive or negative -- beyond when the person has worked there and maybe what their tile was. It is pretty likely that your boss is following company policy.

This might feel like it sucks for you -- but it is very standard and most people hiring will recognize this.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 12:22 PM on March 29, 2011

My father, who has worked in HR at large corporations for the last couple of decades, has told me that many companies will only permit employees to confirm this basic information when called as references. It's about liability. Though personally my previous bosses have been happy to speak at greater length on my behalf, I understand this to be fairly common. I hope this means that your prospective future employers will understand and won't count it against you.

It is a problem if they're making factual errors about your time there, though. Maybe you can call them and confirm the information with them, without saying your friend called on your behalf. Pretend you're just making sure your resume is accurate?
posted by dixiecupdrinking at 12:22 PM on March 29, 2011

Generally, I would put down coworkers who I worked with for a long period as "work" references (although they would be doing so in a personal manner), or any members of professional organizations that I knew well.

Contacting someone in the context of their work, especially a former manager, is likely to end up routing you through corporate channels.
posted by mikeh at 12:22 PM on March 29, 2011

Every employer I've ever had has told me this, and it has nothing to do with performance. I always get recommendations from former coworkers, and prospective employers have always accepted this. It's pretty standard.
posted by katillathehun at 12:26 PM on March 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

when i was a manager i was expressly forbidden to give personal references for my employees. you contacted your boss, he passed it along to HR. chances are this is something he's been instructed to do. find a coworker, someone you're still on speaking terms with, and ask if you can use them as a reference. don't go through work channels to achieve this.
posted by nadawi at 12:30 PM on March 29, 2011

The organization for which I work told me when I was hired that they don’t give out letters of reference. I was instructed to hold onto copies of my annual performance evaluations as it would be the only thing I would have outside of confirmation of my employment dates. Our supervisors are only allowed to give letters of reference for educational purposes. As to whether or not an individual person adheres to that policy, well that tends to vary. As others have said, you may want to ask around.

Did you have annual written performance evaluations? If so you could request copies of them from your old HR department. The company you are interested in may be okay with just some personal references and then copies of the performance evals.
posted by Palmcorder Yajna at 12:55 PM on March 29, 2011

Not uncommon. Ask for copies of your performance reviews. Ask for a copy of the HR policy regarding references.
posted by theora55 at 12:58 PM on March 29, 2011

Contact HR and make sure that they list your title right. Good grief, how irritating.

When you're asked to give "professional references" on your resume, they're looking for personal references from your professional life.

To your former employer, a "professional reference" is more like an endorsement -- HR is de facto speaking on behalf of the company as an entity. Depends on your field how touchy the line is. (Coincidentally, I gave a glowing reference for a former assistant from my work phone today. With both of us now in academia, the line is not so touchy.)

I've always listed my references with their name, their relationship to me (former employer, committee chairperson, whatever), their current job title, and their preferred contact info, which is as often as not their personal email address and phone number.

Most people have some sort of line between their personal and professional lives. I mean, my professional experiences have certainly informed my view on many subjects, but I don't sign my letters to the editor with my job title - it might gain me authority, but it would blur a line too much for my comfort.
posted by desuetude at 1:10 PM on March 29, 2011

There is nothing but potential loss to the company if they do anything but verify that you were and employee between certain dates and had a particular title or titles. Sorry.
posted by plinth at 1:35 PM on March 29, 2011

There are a lot of myths in this area. Most of them are found here.

>The HR department is only allowed to say that you worked at the company.
>legally, employment dates and position held were all they were allowed to give
>often giving references is a liability

Many of these are thought of as "legal" limitations because they are based on a lawyer's advice.

But because they are so widely believed, this policy is pretty standard.
posted by yclipse at 1:40 PM on March 29, 2011

Many of these are thought of as "legal" limitations because they are based on a lawyer's advice.

Well, to be fair, there is a real legal risk involved. Negative references expose a former employer to defamation suits. Obviously truth is a defense to a defamation suit, but (1) even if you win it's a pain to get sued, and (2) it can be difficult to prove that someone was, in fact, not a good employee.

Hence, most companies avoid the risk of being sued altogether by having a policy of providing only easily verifiable information.

Also, you might wonder whether employers could still provide positive references, since obviously someone who receives a positive reference isn't going to sue for defamation. The answer is that if you provide positive references to some, but "neutral" references to the rest, the implication for those who receive neutral references is that they were poor employees.
posted by pardonyou? at 1:56 PM on March 29, 2011

Sounds like this may be standard company policy and you may be out of luck with respect to a reference from your former boss. I think it's acceptable to use former coworkers as references. Is there any former coworker you can use?
posted by bananafish at 2:00 PM on March 29, 2011

My current (UK) employer would do exactly what your former employer did (I've been bluntly told by current boss, who likes me, that the only reference I'll get from them is the letter from HR). As far as I know, I can't even give my boss's name as a personal reference.

On the other hand, all my employers in New Zealand would do far more - my ex-bosses would happily speak to anyone who wanted to check my references, and go into specific details about my work.

I suspect there is some national variation, therefore, but what you're describing doesn't sound odd to me.
posted by Infinite Jest at 2:02 PM on March 29, 2011

Employers are allowed to say anything about former employees that isn't defamatory. As a matter of prudence, most employers in the US do not do anything more than confirm dates of employment. Corporations are pretty gunshy about getting sued, particularly in areas where they can completely avoid it, so many HR departments have adopted this practice out of an abundance of caution.

You may be able to get something a little more if you call one of your former bosses directly, but their hands might be tied.
posted by valkyryn at 2:04 PM on March 29, 2011 [2 favorites]

This is why I really need to solicit LinkedIn reccs while I'm working at companies and not after. Just from looking at other peoples' LI profiles, praising employees online while they're still at the company seems to raise fewer HR hackles than after the fact reccs.

Not useful for you now, but perhaps good for future reference. I'd go with the former co-workers if you've got 'em, but you could also call into HR at FormerCo and see if you could get them to verify your last title. (Be friendly about it - I'd take the tactic of trying to clear up a probably mistaken error vs. interrogative or confrontational.) But it's in their best interests from a liability perspective to not be giving out incorrect or mis-interpretable info on your employment with them, which is part of why many companies have such strict policies on recommendations in the first place.
posted by deludingmyself at 2:06 PM on March 29, 2011

It's common practice, so it doesn't reflect poorly on you.

As valkyryn points out, employers are allowed to say negative things, but not defamatory things. They also are not allowed to make statements that are factually incorrect.

From what you say, they have made a factual misstatement about your job title. Try to find some documentation to prove the job title you actually had, and ask them to correct it. Consult an employment lawyer if they don't cooperate. You may also want to consult a lawyer to find a way to enforce cooperation (not to sue, before anyone suggests I'm recommending that).

It's easy for employers to say they "love" you when they want you to come in evenings and weekends. You find out how much anybody "loves" you when it counts, like now for example. They don't need to motivate you to come in evenings and weekends any more, so even if they have a policy that would allow them to commit their "love" for you to paper, there's no reason for them to do it, because you haven't got anything that they want. So in the future, document all the feedback you get, because unless you can build up external verification of your achievements, the only measure of your worth is your boss's subjective opinion. If he tells you on Thursday that you walk on water, be prepared to produce a copy of the email on Friday when you get canned and someone calls him for a reference and he gets you mixed up with Joe from Accounts that he never liked.
posted by tel3path at 2:18 PM on March 29, 2011

My former employer only allowed supervisors to provide references for academic applications, but not for jobs. This isn't just HR, this was a policy applied to supervisors personally writing a letter for you.
posted by elpea at 4:19 PM on March 29, 2011

It standard policy here.
posted by mary8nne at 6:23 AM on March 30, 2011

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