What to say in job application when supervisor will speak unfavorably?
November 21, 2017 9:53 AM   Subscribe

With my last long term full time employment, I was subject to some rather unsavory behavior by my employer. Human resources had to be involved, and I wasn't told very much about the situation and they were not terminated. Most applications ask A) may we contact supervisor and B) why did you leave. Officially I was laid off, as that was really the only retaliation they could legally do (state employment). I obviously won't be getting a good review from that person even though my employment reviews were quite good. What do you say i this situation?
posted by kingbuzzie to Work & Money (22 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
Give them an HR contact to confirm employment. Your former employer will not want to be subject to possible legal ramifications by having you slandered by your former supervisor.

And then find someone else who knows you work you can submit as a non-supervisory reference.
posted by suelac at 9:57 AM on November 21, 2017 [10 favorites]


Well, a big problem is that this is the employment that I held the longest and displays my best experience. I understand what you are saying about slander, but couldn't they speak unfavorably about me with me ever knowing what they said or knowing if it rose to the height of slander?

Unfortunately there is no other employees in that office I would use as an alternate contact for that office. The applications are also quite specific in requesting supervisor information and if they can contact that supervisor. I'm curious if this is something I would address in the "why I left" section? Would I put the HR contact there perhaps and why I am doing so?
posted by kingbuzzie at 10:04 AM on November 21, 2017


I think a good rule of thumb here is that it is safe to put them in touch with HR there as long as you had good reviews and think HR is basically competent.

If there were bad things in your official record there — like "kingbuzzie was fired for cause after doing X and Y" or "kingbuzzie was repeatedly written up for doing X and Y" — then there would be some risk.

And okay, I guess another exception to that would be if you were truly infamous at your old workplace, really and truly despised by ex-coworkers who you never even met. If you were some sort of Serpico-like figure there, such that every last person in the building wanted to see you suffer? Then yeah, okay, using HR there as a reference would be a terrible idea.

But if you got good reviews, got in a bad situation with your immediate supervisor, and the official cover-their-ass story is you were laid off? Then all HR is likely to say is "Yup, Suelac worked here and was laid off." And even if they wanted to say more, all they'd have to draw on are your reviews while you were there, which it sounds like were pretty good. Only a horribly incompetent HR person would contradict your official record and badmouth you to a stranger in a situation where you could plausibly claim they'd done it in retaliation, you know? Absent some kind of burning grudge, that would just be a silly risk for them to take.
posted by nebulawindphone at 10:23 AM on November 21, 2017 [1 favorite]


They can legally give you a negative reference, and there is always the possibility that they will.

The only way it becomes illegal is if they make a false statement of fact, or if they juxtapose facts in such a way that a falsehood is implied, e.g. "There was a spate of stapler thefts in May. In June, kingbuzzie left the company." The obvious inference that anyone would make is that kingbuzzie is the stapler thief, even though each individual statement is true.

I mean this is what I know from a UK perspective, I don't know how well that generalizes to the rest of the world.

Even then, you may not have much recourse because - again, this is in the UK, but the last time I sought legal advice about false statements in a reference I was told that they don't have to provide a reference at all. Which of course is just as damning as a bad reference.

I think it would be worth your time contacting an employment lawyer about this.

Do you have copies of your good reviews from when you were employed?

As for the "why I left" thing I think you're going to have to give the official version - that you were laid off. If you cite conflict, you are giving more information than the form actually asks for. If you cite conflict as a reason for leaving, any potential employer is going to assume the conflict was 100% your fault and move on to another candidate who has never had any conflicts with anyone - or at least has the political good sense not to admit it.

But really, this is a serious matter that could affect your employability for years to come, so consult an employment lawyer. None of us is going to be able to give you an informed opinion.
posted by tel3path at 10:25 AM on November 21, 2017


So, this is a sucky position to be in and there is risk here and it is probably going to hurt you some. I'm sorry. Your old supervisor absolutely could say something bad about you, either true or untrue, or he could just be a generally negative asshole which could hurt you.

In my experience (my first full-time employer gave me an unfairly negative reference), if you don't have some kind of specific agreement negotiated with your previous employer about how they're going to handle references, you do need to get out ahead of things a bit with potential employers (unless your previous employer has a "dates of employment verification only" policy and you believe the supervisor will abide by it). Here's what I would do in your situation:

1) On an automatic-type form application, I would say they can contact your former supervisor and that you were laid off. They are *very* unlikely to call your supervisor before they talk to you, but if you're worried they will, leave the phone number blank or mix up two digits if it won't let you leave it blank. You don't want to get automatically eliminated because you're overly scrupulous on your application.

2) If you go in for interviews and you actually get through to the point when they would contact references (i.e. late in the process when they're already very interested in hiring you) and they ask you for your old supervisor's contact info then you can try to explain the situation more (but still in a 100% drama-free way). You can say something like, "So, as I said on the application, you're welcome to contact Bob from the Department of Corrections, but I wanted to let you know that we were not on great terms when I left. I had X years of great performance reviews but [very short, unemotional explanation of what happened, practice this if it's hard for you to do without getting emotional], and I'm not sure what he will say about me if you call him up. If you do end up talking to him and you have any questions about what he says, please feel free to follow up with me."

Is there *anyone* else who can speak to your work at that job (not necessarily coworkers but anyone you interacted with? A client who especially liked you?) you could try to get them to be a reference for you (since otherwise it's really just your word against your ex-supervisor's that you did well there).
posted by mskyle at 10:59 AM on November 21, 2017 [3 favorites]


These are all good points. I know this is the internet and I can misrepresent myself if I wish... but I did have very good reviews and ZERO disciplinary actions against me. This is what makes this so infuriating.
posted by kingbuzzie at 11:00 AM on November 21, 2017


But if you got good reviews, got in a bad situation with your immediate supervisor, and the official cover-their-ass story is you were laid off? Then all HR is likely to say is "Yup, Suelac worked here and was laid off." And even if they wanted to say more, all they'd have to draw on are your reviews while you were there, which it sounds like were pretty good.

Bolded for emphasis, strike-out to reflect what I've been told by my own (state agency) HR: "we'll just say that person worked here, and that's it." Of course, people can be jerks or idiots, or both.

You write that your employment reviews were quite good - who gave those to/for you?

The applications are also quite specific in requesting supervisor information and if they can contact that supervisor. I'm curious if this is something I would address in the "why I left" section? Would I put the HR contact there perhaps and why I am doing so?

I would list HR as a contact, so someone can can get confirmation that you worked there. In your reason for leaving you can spin it in your favor, writing "Looking for a job that is more fulfilling and supports professional growth," which can be read to mean that your prior job wasn't supporting personal growth, or that you just want more potential for growth."
posted by filthy light thief at 11:20 AM on November 21, 2017 [2 favorites]


My employment reviews were facilitated by the office manager (long gone), and signed by the director(s).

The short story is:

Institute gets new Director, new Director is powerful Professor with tenure. New director wishes to hire his friends to the institute. New director is told he just can't fire someone and to eliminate my position would also mean losing that funding. New director is annoyed. New director makes sure both the status and salary of my supervisor is raised significantly, then begins pressuring the supervisor to have me leave. Supervisor begins being bizarrely critical of my performance in a bid to show I am not performing my job duties, but unfortunately for them I am doing nothing wrong. I continue to do my duties with the same competence. My job duties are then cut and I am subjected to a slowly growing hostile work environment. The closer to the end of the fiscal year the more hostile it becomes, with direct statements made to me that I should leave the position. Human resources employee even tells me at one point that perhaps I should find other employment. Director hires wife of friend, gives new employee duplicate job duties as myself. Harassment intensifies while my job duties are cut by 75%. Supervisor and Director begin to do very inappropriate things that requires the involvement HR and other agency. I make it clear to HR I will not voluntarily quit my job and be denied unemployment benefits simply because the new Director wishes to hire his friends. HR will tell me very little about what went on after I reported inappropriate behavior. Harassment immediately stops, environment is tense and cold. I am laid off due to "funding". I work from home for the last six weeks of my employment but not given any assignments or contacted by my office for the entire six weeks.
posted by kingbuzzie at 11:58 AM on November 21, 2017


Sorry, that is not a short story, and there is too much drama in it.

"A new director was hired and he wanted to bring on his own people. There wasn't funding for both me and for someone new, but instead of laying me off immediately they reduced my job duties dramatically and made things very uncomfortable for me, apparently to try to force me out."

And even that might be TMI for some employers.

I don't think your description of what happened is necessarily inaccurate or anything - just the way you're telling it is probably not going to help you. Also if this is going on and you're in academia and staying in the same geographical and/or subject field, there's a strong possibility some of the people who might want to hire you are already perfectly aware of what went down at your previous employer.

(Also FWIW "hostile work environment" has a specific legal meaning in the US - I would be cautious about using that term unless that's actually what you're describing. Bullying and bad management on its own is not a hostile work environment.)
posted by mskyle at 12:29 PM on November 21, 2017 [4 favorites]


whoa whoa, you just inferred a lot there. I NEVER said I would tell a potential employer what I just wrote. I'm explaining my side (probably a little biased) on a web forum.
posted by kingbuzzie at 12:38 PM on November 21, 2017


kingbuzzie: " I understand what you are saying about slander, but couldn't they speak unfavorably about me with me ever knowing what they said or knowing if it rose to the height of slander?"

Surely you know someone who could phone them pretending to be a perspective employer and see what they say? Unless your former employer was the NSA or something they aren't going to be able to ferret out that the person from "ACME Widgets" calling HR to verify employment is actually your SIL.
posted by Mitheral at 12:39 PM on November 21, 2017 [1 favorite]


Is there not someone at that job that you could provide as a reference who's not the person you had the issue with? I have had this situation, and instead of my manager, for example, I gave my director, or a project manager on a project I'd worked on.
posted by fiercecupcake at 12:52 PM on November 21, 2017 [3 favorites]


I've been on both sides of the table for this. You do NOT want to even raise the possibility of drama.

Your answer is that you have your written HR performance reviews to share, you worked well under the former supervisor (I assume they are uncontactable for retirement or other reasons) and that you left as a new supervisor was beginning so they had no direct experience with you (yes, stretching the truth a little) therefore you can only provide HR's contact info.

You were laid off due to lack of work/funding cut which resulted in a re-org so there really isn't any colleagues they can speak with - I don't think the new place will dig too deep, especially if you start building up other references by volunteering/taking courses/contract work/reaching out to your network.

In future, when constructively dismissed you should get yourself an employment lawyer who will negotiate a positive written reference letter and positive verbal review with a no disparagement clause on top of the settlement money. Also get your legal fees covered by the other side.
posted by saucysault at 1:14 PM on November 21, 2017 [6 favorites]


Your former employer will not want to be subject to possible legal ramifications by having you slandered by your former supervisor.

The way this works is you have to know about, be able to verify and prove it, and then do something about it. In practice, this stops nobody who is a bad manager to start with. Your former supervisor might be more tight lipped with a random caller, but to anyone they have a relationship with they'll submarine the fuck out of you.

You should have someone calling your former employer (HR and manager) and finding out what they are saying about you. There are services you can pay to do this, or have a friend you trust do it. But you need to know what they are saying before you can develop a strategy to combat it.

That said, this is only a problem until you get your next job. After that, nobody will care. So, keep your chin up. It's super irritating to deal with shitty supervisors. You'll want to be doing a ton of networking, too - a personal recommendation can do much more for you than subterfuge on an anonymous application will.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 1:39 PM on November 21, 2017 [1 favorite]


You can also give your director or other higher-ranking person's contact info, with the explanation, if asked, that you don't have contact info for your direct supervisor and aren't even sure if they're still around.

Most potential employers - if they actually call anyone outside of HR - just want a contact who actually worked with you to verify "did they actually complete projects" and "were they easy enough to work with." These days, many companies refuse to provide that info for liability reasons. (If the former employee finds out what they said, and believes it was inaccurate, that's grounds for a lawsuit.)
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 2:03 PM on November 21, 2017 [1 favorite]


In your situation, I would try to contact old office manager and old director (the ones who are no longer at your ex-company), and ask them if you can use them as your references. New companies aren't going to care much that they're not the ones in the current position; they're looking for some reassurance and to tick off a box that they talked to someone.
posted by clone boulevard at 3:16 PM on November 21, 2017 [2 favorites]


Your former supervisor might be more tight lipped with a random caller, but to anyone they have a relationship with they'll submarine the fuck out of you.

This is sadly all too true. clone boulevard's suggestion of giving other references is a good one.
posted by salvia at 3:36 PM on November 21, 2017


Came in to say what Clone Boulevard said. Get contact info for the person who did your evaluations and your former director, and give them as references. Explain to the person who interviews you that there has been changeover at your former job, these were your co-workers, and that HR at the former place can verify your employment with the organization if necessary.

You might want to have a trusted friend call HR and pretend to be a possible employer to see what they say.

I'm very sorry you went through this.
posted by rpfields at 4:12 PM on November 21, 2017


At my university job of 17-ish years it was drilled in many times that the only correct action to a request about a former employee was to direct the requester directly to HR. full stop. Right up there with the yearly Harassment training where there's only one answer. And HR will only confirm employment history, job title, maybe pay grade but not actual salary. Full on litigation protection measures.

I'd have to give them the HR number and refuse the contacting of my previous supervisor on grounds of "he totally can't tell you anything except to contact HR or he would subject to bad things".
posted by zengargoyle at 4:48 PM on November 21, 2017 [1 favorite]


Hiring manager here. I'm the person who's going to be calling to check someone's reference. I can't speak to what everyone does, but I can tell you what's common at most reasonable workplaces. So, a few things:

1. If possible, don't use your current manager (the one you left) as a reference. Too risky. You'll need to explain to me why I can't call your old boss, but some variation of "they reduced my job duties until I was forced to leave" is going to seem pretty reasonable if everything else is in line.

2. Likewise, don't use HR unless you know what they'll say. Everyone saying that HR will only verify dates of employment... apparently hasn't called the same HR departments I've called. Don't give me someone's number unless you know what they'll tell me! It's totally kosher to have a friend call them and pretend to be a prospective employer. Heck, memail me and I'll do it.

3. If you must use your old boss, or a risky HR call, it's not game over for you. I'm not going to call your references until after we've already interviewed you; it's one of the last steps before we give you an offer. This means you have an opportunity to frame what I'll hear, and it means that I'll be inclined to believe you because I already generally think you're a good fit. Your situation is not uncommon. I've hired candidates in similar situations, even after their former boss slagged them when I called. So if you must use them, tell me what to expect. If you're professional and calm about this -- "hey, just so you know, I left this job after Arya cut my duties until it was untenable to stay; I don't know what they'll say about me" -- it'll be the start of a conversation, but not the end of one.

4. Do whatever you can to get your old boss, the one who gave you those good reviews, to be a reference. If you can, you don't need anyone from your old company at all. I probably won't even ask why your reference is a bit out of date -- it's normal to use the best possible reference, not the most current. And even if I do, the calm explanation will be fine.

Good luck, you got this.
posted by jacobian at 9:34 PM on November 21, 2017 [3 favorites]


PS: if you'd like to know what kind of questions I ask when I call to check references, the last page from OPM's guide to reference checking is fairly comprehensive, and really close to my own personal script.
posted by jacobian at 9:37 PM on November 21, 2017 [3 favorites]


And HR will only confirm employment history, job title, maybe pay grade but not actual salary. Full on litigation protection measures.

That may have been true at that particular workplace. In other workplaces they would look at your performance appraisals and write an assessment based on those - or ask your supervisor.

So you would have to be very sure what HR will say when you direct someone to them.

Also, if you agree something with HR, make sure they don't change it between then and when you ask them for a reference.

I was in a similar position to you once, only with much more overt aggression and outright lies from the supervisor in question. I agreed something with HR before I left. Then when it came time to get references they were completely different and contained factually untrue statements. Turned out HR had revised what we agreed "in consultation with your supervisor".

There's many a slip twixt cup and lip, is what I'm saying, so be vigilant.
posted by tel3path at 10:09 AM on November 22, 2017


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