Boss is undermining friend: to tell or not?
May 28, 2015 10:43 AM   Subscribe

A former colleague & friend from institution A applied for a job at institution B. She did not get the job because the current boss at institution A told the boss at institution B that she was a bad employee. This is untrue. Do I tell my friend?

"Sarah" and I work in a niche area of academia-- about 5,000 people do our jobs across the US, so I am deliberately being vague. Jobs in our area have three levels of progression:
- Entry level: spend 8-15 years doing front line work
- Midmanagement: after ~8 years, get promoted and supervise 3-7 entry level people for 5-10 years
- The Boss: after ~5 years in midmanagement, get promoted and supervise 3-6 midmanagement people. The end of progressing.

As you can see, there's not enough room for everyone to move up the ladder, so people get stuck or choose to stay at entry level or midmanagement for their entire career. It is usual to move between 2-5 institutions when in the entry level category, and when going between categories.

Sarah and I started working together at Institution A in 2005. I was brand new, she had 5 years experience. I had a lot of amazing colleagues but Sarah really took me under her wing, which I appreciate so greatly. She was an awesome mentor to me and we became friends. I left Institution A in 2010 because of ethical questions (my midmanagement supervisor took my data analysis and published it under her own name; neither she nor The Boss thought this was an issue) and am very happy in my entry level job at Institution B; I am up for a midmanagement promotion so I am doing something right. I literally would not be where I am now without Sarah's steadfast support, guidance, and friendship.

Sarah stayed at Institution B and moved into midmanagement. She is doing a kickass job with awful circumstances (The Boss refuses to hire more entry level people, so everyone, including Sarah, is working 60 hours/week on the regular; The Boss gets 6 figures and everyone else works at below market rate, so people are unhappy and they are easily headhunted; Sarah's filled my job 4 times since 2010). The Boss of Institution A has on several occasions publicly congratulated Sarah on making things happen despite challenges and given kudos to her skills specifically in managing people and maintaining standards despite lack of funding. Amazingly, Sarah has kept her spirits up through this all, and just radiates happiness and kindness, and continues to mentor new people into the profession.

Sarah applied for a job as The Boss at institution B. She is qualified and ready. She used The Boss from Institution A as a reference. In her written reference, The Boss of A gave her glowing recommendations similar to prior public statements. The Boss of A is also good friends with my direct supervisor, Midmanager at Institution B. The Boss of A had dinner with Midmanager of B and gave her an earful "just between the two of us": "Sarah is a terrible worker, the worst employee I have ever had. She constantly overrides my decisions and undermines me, she is not a good manager of people, she does not steward resources well, she'll never succeed at being The Boss. You should not hire her." Midmanager B was the chair of the hiring committee for The Boss of B. Of course, Sarah did not get the job.

Midmanager B told me this because she doesn't know Sarah and I are friends. She shared it like "whoa good thing we dodged that bullet-- this candidate seemed great during the interview, but after that info, no way!" I am 99% sure that The Boss of A is saying this stuff because if Sarah leaves, Institution A is totally fucked, they have no one left to run the place: Boss A is just covering her ass. Thing is, Boss of A is well-known and well-respected in the professional community. If any other Boss jobs open up, and Sarah applies, I am fairly certain someone on the search committee will personally know Boss of A and will get this same "between the two of us" conversation.

I'm just not sure if I should tell Sarah about what Boss of A said unofficially. I am not sure because:
- I realize I have my own issues with Boss of A and her ethical choices-- mainly, I think she stinks through and through. I am obviously seeing this situation as part of that. But is my anger at being treated unfairly by her in the past clouding my judgment now?
- I have a vested interest in seeing my friend achieve her dream of becoming The Boss, and I know these "unofficial references" could be a stumbling block for her. If it were me, I would want to know, if only so I could try to head it off at the pass by providing multiple additional positive references from people I supervise and former supervisors.
- What the hell will Sarah do if she knows? She has to see the Boss daily and work with her. Can she realistically do anything, or will it just be one more wound that she has to keep hidden at a job that tries her patience daily? She is already trying to get out. Would knowing that her boss undermines her in references make that slog of doing applications/interviews/etc any better? Will she hate me for telling her?

My loyalty overall lies to Sarah as a human being. She was kind and friendly to me at a time when the world seemed overwhelming and alien; I owe her a lot as a person and as a professional. I want to do right by her. Should I tell her or not? If so, how can I soften the blow?

I tried to be detailed, but just in case, throwaway email:
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (22 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
If I were being undermined by a reference, I would ABSOLUTELY want to know!
posted by wintersweet at 10:46 AM on May 28, 2015 [29 favorites]

Why didn't you say Boss A was flat out lying because of the reasons you stated?

I'm confused why you let this obvious lie stand.
posted by jbenben at 10:47 AM on May 28, 2015 [47 favorites]

Tell her. She will continue to use Boss of A as a reference and continue to get hosed and never know why no one is hiring her. It's far, far better for her to know the truth. Lay it out to her the way you laid it out to us (hell, send her a copy of this question), and don't take it personally if she lashes out at you. If she does, just take a step back and let her, then apologize and tell her you're there for her if she needs anything.
posted by Etrigan at 10:48 AM on May 28, 2015 [10 favorites]

This is a dangerous situation, largely because your relationship and trust with your own boss is at risk. I think the best thing you can do here is to _verbally_ tell Sarah "Listen, I was told that your boss had some very negative things to say about you at a dinner with my boss. I don't know what specifically was said, but you may want to reconsider using boss A as a reference."

Explicitly state that you are telling her this in confidence. Do not get into details of what was said.
posted by bfranklin at 10:51 AM on May 28, 2015 [17 favorites]

Definitely tell her. But I also think you should have told the hiring manager. I would consider telling her now, even if it's too late for this job, as she could spread false information about this person's reputation. And I'm not a lawyer, but wonder if Sarah has a defamation claim.

Also, it's strange to me that the hiring manager wouldn't have questioned the obvious discrepancy between the written recommendation and what the old boss said. Why would someone write a false recommendation and contradict themselves?
posted by three_red_balloons at 10:55 AM on May 28, 2015 [29 favorites]

Also, it's strange to me that the hiring manager wouldn't have questioned the obvious discrepancy between the written recommendation and what the old boss said. Why would someone write a false recommendation and contradict themselves?

Agreed. I would be questioning YOUR manager's judgment if they didn't immediately discount the opinion of someone that submitted a glowing recommendation in writing, but then attempted to tank the person's chances verbally.
posted by bfranklin at 10:58 AM on May 28, 2015 [10 favorites]

The Boss of A had dinner with Midmanager of B and gave her an earful "just between the two of us": "Sarah is a terrible worker, the worst employee I have ever had. She constantly overrides my decisions and undermines me, she is not a good manager of people, she does not steward resources well

Goodness, what a terrible situation. I am not a lawyer either, and I have no idea whether Sarah could make a case stand up in court even if she desired to sue, but it seems to me that Boss A obviously defamed her. I would tell her; if nothing else, she can't use Boss A as a reference any more and she needs to know that. I'd also hope she ditched her backstabbing boss for greener pastures anywhere else and leaves Bad Boss holding the bag.

Just out of curiosity, does the organization you and Sarah work for have regular performance reviews in which Boss A would have gone on record either saying these things or something completely opposite? Boss A's conduct is shockingly unprofessional and dishonest and should not be rewarded.
posted by Gelatin at 11:00 AM on May 28, 2015 [3 favorites]

Of course you should tell her. What she does with the information is up to her, but she deserves to know, and if you're her friend she would expect you to tell her. (And I too am wondering why you didn't set Midmanager B straight.)
posted by languagehat at 11:44 AM on May 28, 2015 [1 favorite]

Yeah, the elephant in the room (as jbenben and others have noted) is that you had the opportunity to set the record straight and yet, it seems, did not?

This is relevant because if you tell Sarah, I would expect her to ask what you said in response to learning about the lie.

But yeah, tell her. You have to. This person is intent upon fucking up her career and is succeeding.
posted by jayder at 11:44 AM on May 28, 2015 [3 favorites]

Nthing to please tell her.

Boss A is very much in the wrong here, and in ways that visibly show mismanagement. As in if Boss B isn't calling around to check in with others and saying, "hey, did you guys know that Boss A writes glowing reviews but then totally contradicts themselves verbally? This is a dangerous sort to have in our business," then Boss B wouldn't be much of a manager either.

And as someone who *ahem* knows someone *ahem* who has been in this situation. No one spoke up for the person I know, but in time, the Boss A equivalent was fired. For harassment and mismanagement.

Repeating for good measure: this is not "just" ethics (which are hugely important in any case), this is absolutely mismanagement and could be a fireable offense for Boss A if someone with good management sense and firing power is looking. (IANAL, FWIW.)

Given how Boss B seems to have taken Boss A at their word without bothering to think through the obvious implications for other aspects of their business – if it makes you feel any better, it's your friend who probably dodged a bullet. Look for a boss who knows the value of the written word. (Good grief, it's so obvious from a legal standpoint, it hurts.)
posted by fraula at 11:51 AM on May 28, 2015 [1 favorite]

Tell Sarah not to use Boss A as a reference. That's just standard good practice, because so many bosses react poorly when they hear you're trying to leave.

And tell Midmanager B that you know Sarah well, and what she told you did not accord with your experience. I don't know how much more you can say without accusing Boss A of lying, which Midmanager B may not respond well to. But if you have a good relationship with her, she may believe you.

wonder if Sarah has a defamation claim.

She does: Boss A lied about her in a way that led to direct adverse consequences to her. Of course, nobody wants to be the person who sues someone for this, but when Sarah does get a good job, she should mention to someone that Boss A is putting the institution at risk of a defamation lawsuit.

This is why many places don't give references: they merely say when someone worked there, and give no other information.

I certainly would never provide someone as a reference whom I wasn't convinced would support me. And I wouldn't list my current boss because I don't want him to know I'm looking.
posted by suelac at 11:51 AM on May 28, 2015 [9 favorites]

Yes, tell Sarah.

However, I don't know if it's going to be avoidable for her to have Boss A's opinion crop up on job searches. Note that Boss A went out to dinner with her good friend Boss B, and dished the dirt. If Sarah had not used Boss A as a reference, Boss B would have interviewed her, and then said "Hey, this person we might hire works for my good friend Boss A, I'll ask her when I see her for poker night." If it's a tight social circle in the industry, Boss A may find opportunities to share her opinion despite not being a reference.

So tell Sarah the whole story, and she can decide what to do about it.
posted by aimedwander at 12:30 PM on May 28, 2015 [1 favorite]

Definitely tell Sarah not to use Boss A as a reference anymore--if your field is as tight knit as it sounds, it's not at all unreasonable for her to specifically ask interviewers not to let her current boss know about her job search and to use other references. You would be doing her a mitzvah.

I also think that you could try to mitigate the damage with your boss, Midmanager B, because in a tight knit field where everyone knows each other, it's easy to torpedo people with a casual "Oh, we interviewed Sarah too. Yeah, we liked her, but then I got some informal feedback about concerns with her performance." Probably the best way to do this would be to go to Midmanager B and say something like "I felt awkward about mentioning this when we spoke earlier, but I was a little troubled by what you said about your conversation with Boss A. I actually know Sarah pretty well from Previous Job and I had the opposite experience with working with her. Of course I don't know all the details and I'm not second-guessing your hiring decisions, but I know these things can get around informally and I just wanted you to know that Boss A's description of her sounds very different from all my previous experience with her, as well as from Boss A's letter of reference." Don't ascribe motives, just state your experience and move on. If Midmanager B is smart, she'll think twice before passing on gossip about Sarah's performance, which is probably all you can hope for.
posted by The Elusive Architeuthis at 2:00 PM on May 28, 2015 [11 favorites]

Someone I know had a similar situation and a member of a hiring committee later told them in confidence not to use x person as a reference as they weren't giving them the support they needed. You can phrase it in ways that are not wholly negative and thus mitigate any fallout while still getting the message across. Leave it at this and do this all via personal discussion, not email. She will not be likely to ask you too much and it is a kindness to let people know. I would even for a casual acquaintance and better that you stop this negative reference now before it can do any further damage to her career than she find out much later from a relative stranger.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 4:25 PM on May 28, 2015 [1 favorite]

I'm in this situation at the moment and there's nothing I can do specifically because the standard in that particular career is to talk to the previous supervisor, regardless of who is giving the reference (the director was pleased with my performance and consistently gave me excellent reviews and voluntarily acts as a reference, the supervisor less so, but that's who they demand to talk to). So I implore you to tell Sarah so if she can, in any way, mitigate the circumstances and GTFO she has a chance.

I know I'm getting poor references because of the differences between 'we're just doing a final reference check, we do need to speak to Supervisor' and the 'we're sorry but we're not going to fill this position externally as nobody suited' were stark, and the person who called me made it clear that she had received a poor review of my ability to do the job.

(upshot is changing careers, but nonetheless, it stings)
posted by geek anachronism at 5:03 PM on May 28, 2015 [1 favorite]

I don't have any skin in this game, but frankly I would consider calling up Boss A and confronting them and suggest they attempt to make things right. I would also suggest friend call a lawyer.
posted by rhizome at 5:05 PM on May 28, 2015 [1 favorite]

I would also suggest friend call a lawyer.

Yeah, there are companies out there that get sued for *true* reports that an employee is awful. I'm sure the situation varies by location, but if the situation is as you describe, Boss A is quite possibly on the wrong side of the law.

Telling your friend they shouldn't use Boss A as a reference anymore sounds like the minimum good thing to do here. I think informing Sarah as fully as possible (letting her make further judgments about talking to a lawyer or personally confronting Boss A or just get out ASAP) is probably better... but I could respect a certain degree of caution or veiled disclosure if you think there might be a good reason your own job could be at risk.
posted by weston at 5:52 PM on May 28, 2015 [1 favorite]

One additional comment: I would NOT, as some people here have suggested, suggest to Midmanager B that Boss A is lying. The issues that seem to have come up at the dinner are all managerial issues (undermining Boss A's authority, not stewarding resources, etc) and someone who hasn't worked under Boss A might reasonably suppose that the Boss would be able to see problems with Sarah's managerial style and allocation of resources more easily than a supervisee in his/her first job, which you were at the time.

I really think the most you can do, IF you decide to speak to Midmanager B about it, is to say that the concerns that were brought up didn't match your experience and leave it at that.
posted by The Elusive Architeuthis at 6:26 PM on May 28, 2015 [1 favorite]

Mod note: From the OP:
Thank you for the responses. I appreciate it and am working out a script for calling Sarah on the weekend (so she can have a day off work to process it).

To clarify a few things:
- Boss A took it upon herself to contact Midmanager B and tell her about Sarah. This was not part of the formal reference process. aimedwanderer has it right: Boss A is well-placed in the community and so people will likely seek out her opinion on Sarah in informal ways, no matter who Sarah lists as a reference.
- Midmanager B told me the info about Sarah well after the hiring decision was made; I wasn’t on the committee and had no input in the decision. I know Sarah had all positive written references because at my workplace, it's apply-> check references->if all positive, interview. I did respond immediately when Midmanager B told me the lies: I had very different experiences when working with Sarah, and gave examples, and that I actually am doing a project with a person who works alongside Sarah in the same middle management capacity at A, and she reports also only good things.
- Midmanager B and Boss A are very good friends who have known each other for ~45 years (like, they make cookies together twice a month, no lie). I’ve known midmanager B for ~6 years. After I said my piece in #2, midmanager B told me that "opinions are opinions" and that my opinion carries less weight than Boss A’s, because they’re closer friends and have known each other longer.
- I am well aware that midmanager B has a difficult time with acting ethically. I knew that when I took this job, given her close association with Boss A and my experiences with Boss A.
posted by restless_nomad (staff) at 10:17 PM on May 28, 2015 [2 favorites]

Given your follow-up, I'm getting kind of concerned that Midmanager B could be your boss A in a hiring situation and you could find yourself in the same position as Sarah. Is there any way you could make a lateral move to another company where you wouldn't be dependent on unethical people's onions of you?
posted by hazyjane at 10:32 PM on May 28, 2015 [5 favorites]

Given your follow-up, it sounds like the only thing you can do is tell Sarah not to use Boss A as a reference, and why. In future, she should also be careful to ask potential employers not to contact Boss A, and she should provide them another former supervisor to talk to. Does she have current coworkers to list as references?
posted by suelac at 8:09 AM on May 29, 2015 [1 favorite]

Yeah, this appears to be a shitshow where you and Sarah need to watch your backs until you have your own power in that world.
posted by rhizome at 2:06 PM on May 29, 2015

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