My boss sabotaged my job search. How do I move forward?
July 23, 2021 5:49 AM   Subscribe

I have been trying to find a new job with very little success since the end of 2020. After a lot of failed attempts. I finally landed an interview for a data science position at a startup, which I thought went very well. After the interview, they asked me for professional references, including from my current supervisor. After a very prolonged process from there, I finally learned I didn't get the job. Today I learned from a personal contact within the company that despite his assurances to me that he'd be happy to give me a positive reference, my boss failed to do so, and his equivocal endorsement was a major factor in their decision. In fact, prior to speaking with him, they'd been enthusiastic about hiring me. I'm gutted, but also very concerned this will happen again. How do I deal with a less-than-positive reference from my supervisor in future applications?

Three wall-of-text paragraphs of background follow, which can probably be skipped by anyone wanting to answer this question, but which were very therapeutic for me to write and post.

My workplace has been an extremely toxic environment for several years now, and in particular over the last two years or so my boss's behavior has become increasingly erratic and occasionally abusive, culminating in inexplicably abusive behavior directed towards his two most vulnerable employees within the last 18 months. Because of the nature of my industry (academia), there is very little recourse to seek intervention from any power structures above him. HR has had some minimal involvement, but its role is clearly to protect the reputation of our employer rather than protect employees. Beyond the normal ethical implications of this, there are certain relatively powerless groups involved (undergraduate students and nonhuman animals, specifically) that I feel a particular obligation to shield from the negative effects of his (and certain others' in our work group) behavior, and although I've done my best to maintain a positive relationship with my boss despite his behavior, it's clear I exhausted whatever social capital I had with him some time ago in trying to meet what I see as inviolable ethical responsibilities of our work.

When it finally became clear to me that I could no longer protect the vulnerable groups involved in our work, I knew that my academic career was over and it was time to find a new job. That was in late 2020, and I have been actively job searching ever since, with my boss's knowledge and apparent support. Unfortunately, due to the nature of our work, there are regular unplanned events that may occur which directly impact the medical or behavioral health and welfare of the animals in our care, which require my involvement. (Among his other issues, my boss has refused to listen to his employees repeatedly telling him that we are understaffed, and consequently I am one of only a few people, or in some cases the only person, qualified to respond to these events. I do not know what is going to happen once I leave.) These events can be extremely time-consuming as well as emotionally and physically draining for me and have significantly impacted my ability to job search, but I feel ethically obligated to respond to them nonetheless. I am desperate to get to a point in my life where this type of work is no longer my responsibility, but the work itself is impeding my ability to escape.

An added complication is that I came to my current job suffering from a significant mental health impairment (major depression, strongly career-associated for me) that has unarguably impacted my job performance over the years. Consequently, despite the fact that essentially every single one of my peers has expressed to me on numerous occasions without prompting that they find my contributions to their own work to be invaluable and that they would not know how to approach solving many of the problems that they encounter without my help, my boss clearly regards me as a charity case. Despite the fact that I have spent a significant fraction of my professional life trying to keep this sinking ship afloat and ultimately bolstering my boss's reputation without adequately advancing my own, and despite the fact that I have (very stupidly but largely as a consequence of my mental health struggles) allowed him to underpay me relative to my peers, it's been clear to me for some time that my boss does not understand the important role that I play within our workplace and does not value my contributions. While I'm genuinely grateful to him for the patience he's shown me as I struggle with my mental health, it's also clear that he's willing to exploit that gratitude by reminding me of what he's done for me while ignoring what I've done for him. While I had hoped that for the purposes of providing a reference, he would see it as being in his own interests to emphasize the positive work I've done for him in order to get someone else to hire me, it seems he's either actually genuinely unable to perceive my positive contributions, or perhaps (the more cynical side of myself thinks) would rather continue to have me beholden to him than find employment elsewhere.

All of that is background and possibly just minimally-relevant venting. My actual question is, given all this, how do I handle this situation as I continue my job search? Time is becoming critical as my contract will expire at the beginning of October, and I am obviously quite eager to escape this situation. This most recent employer was very specific in wanting to get a reference from my current supervisor, and I believe that is going to be standard. In addition to my boss, they spoke with three additional professional references, all three of whom told me they were excited to give me a positive reference, and all three of whom contacted me immediately after they spoke with the company to tell me they'd done so and that they hoped they'd done a good enough job in endorsing me. My contact at the company told me that he'd directly lobbied to the hiring manager that my boss's equivocal endorsement should be discounted, for which I'm obviously incredibly grateful, but clearly that wasn't enough, nor is that an advantage I'm going to have in the future. Is there a way to prepare a hiring manager to expect a not-stellar reference such that they'll understand it may be due to an issue with the boss rather than the employee? (Even worse for me is the fact that my boss is supposedly an expert on "leadership" and has written a book on the topic, a fact that I and many of my peers in our group find darkly amusing, but which I imagine likely makes his assessment seem more valuable.) Unfortunately I have been working for this person for over a decade with only a brief interruption, so I don't have other recent supervisors I can ask to provide a reference to counteract whatever negative or equivocal things my boss might say.

Will hiring managers be willing to look past my boss's opinion? Or am I fucked?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (23 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Is there another senior person in your lab, or a collaborator, that could provide a reference about your current work instead? I did that under similar but not identical circumstances and got a job.

Another option might be to pre-write a letter of recommendation that includes all the positive comments you’ve gotten, so he has that to hand when giving a verbal recommendation.
posted by tchemgrrl at 6:02 AM on July 23 [3 favorites]

Sorry to hear that your supervisor had not given you good references like he promised.

You need endorsement or at least corroboration from someone who was there... fellow worker (other professors, tenured or not), underlings (TAs, students), maybe even department secretaries, even your industry contacts (if any) are probably better references to your suitability for work.

And obviously, stop listing this supervisor for references.

Keep contact with the person who "almost" hired you. While they may not immediately consider you for another position, keep the contact, at least, and if s/he has connections and/or time to hear your story, and your "new" set of references that you believe paints a better picture of you, try it. Wouldn't hurt.
posted by kschang at 6:12 AM on July 23 [5 favorites]

Hey, this happened to me, a long time ago. I'm so sorry it's happening to you. After my first job out of college (an academic lab job) my PI gave me a really unnecessarily bad reference. I missed out on at least one really good-seeming job because of it and it was emotionally devastating and I felt like my life was ruined.

Here's what I did:

- I stopped offering her as a reference.
- I reached out to others in the department (a couple other professors who I hadn't worked for directly but who were generally aware of my work) and the lab (a mature grad student who I trusted) who knew me AND ALSO knew about Professor Awful's bullshit and asked them to be references instead. I didn't have to tell them a whole big sob story, just "Professor Awful has been giving me a bad reference, can I ask you to be a reference for me, and can you try to give interviewers some perspective on Professor Awful and the way she operates?"
- When specifically asked for my most recent supervisor as a reference I would say that they were welcome to talk to Professor Awful but that things had ended badly with her and I hoped they would talk to my other references to get the fuller picture.

I would recommend *not* telling potential employers all the details of your beef with your boss, however justified you might be in doing so. If you can come across as the cool, collected one who's handling the situation like a grownup, that's a big plus for you. Let your other references address your unfair treatment by your boss (indeed, encourage them to do so!).

If you give the interviewer a general heads-up that your boss's rec is unlikely to be glowing and that you don't feel like it accurately reflects your performance, that allows the interviewer to listen more carefully to what your boss is saying and whether there's any real substance to it or if it's just vague bullshit. I remember talking to one PI about what my bad boss had said to him and I remember him saying that she seemed to take zero responsibility for various lab problems that she blamed on me in spite of the fact that it was HER LAB and I was a 21-year-old with a BS.

If you're applying for academic or academic-adjacent jobs these PIs/managers/search committees have 100% seen this situation before. It sucks, it's incredibly discouraging and realistically it's probably going to make this current job search more difficult than it should be BUT you can still get out of there, I promise.
posted by mskyle at 6:38 AM on July 23 [25 favorites]

Interesting - in Canada (and maybe the US) most direct managers/employers give very minimal references - because they are agraid of legal action.

Typically, they will confirm that you worked for them from date A to Z, your role title - and if asked they may state that they would re-hire you. Anything further is risky.

Myself - I never give out my current manager as a reference - unless I am on a contracted project and it is coming to a successful completion with no renewal. Instead I find other people - and I make a note of their role and our relationship in my reference sheet. This hasn't been a problem in 30-years - but I am in the IT industry, so different expectations.
posted by rozcakj at 6:56 AM on July 23 [9 favorites]

Yes, it is actually very uncommon to require a reference from a current supervisor. Among other things, you are requiring your candidates to blow their cover with their current job before they might be ready. Additionally, the incentives are such that getting an honest reference from a current supervisor is very difficult. People will give good references to bad employees to get them out the door; people will give bad references to good employees to keep them.

Speaking as a manager in tech, I would always welcome a reference from a senior coworker at a current workplace. There are so many good reasons why someone wouldn't want me to contact their boss that no explanation would be necessary.
posted by goingonit at 7:02 AM on July 23 [31 favorites]

Oh yeah, goingonit makes a really good point: it's very common to not offer your CURRENT supervisor as a reference - most people do not tell their current supervisor that they are job-searching at all. Where you're on contract and your boss knows you're job-seeking, it *would* make sense to offer him as a reference if he were giving you a good reference, but you can probably just leave him off and say you're keeping your job search quiet.

(And a lot of people say that most managers only give minimal "confirm dates" references, but that has never been my experience, either as a job-seeker or a reference for job-seekers.)
posted by mskyle at 7:10 AM on July 23 [2 favorites]

All the publicly traded companies I have worked for (software/tech, US) have had a policy that supervisors should not give references beyond confirming dates worked. I think going forward you should tell prospective employers that you can't* get a reference from your supervisor and offer alternative people.
*The definition of "can't" can include both policies against references and the fact that your supervisor sucks.
posted by martinX's bellbottoms at 8:46 AM on July 23 [2 favorites]

Hi, I used to be you. When I was getting out, I didn't use my boss as a reference, and used senior colleagues instead. Nobody needed to be told why.

Outside the petty little world that you're stuck in, nobody knows or cares who your supervisor is or what he thinks. He does not have the power that you feel like he does. The only reason he's been able to sabotage your exit is that you gave him that ability by suggesting him as a reference.

When you give a potential employer a list of people to contact for references, you're telling them "these are the people I think you will get the strongest recommendation for me from". Although hiring managers will look at who they're from and what position those people knew you in, at the end of the day what they say matters more than who they are. If the best reference you can get from people is an ambivalent one, that doesn't look good for you.

Pick some people who have worked with you who will give you a glowing reference and use them.
posted by automatronic at 9:28 AM on July 23 [5 favorites]

One thing I’ll add is, leave your publications off your resume, if you can (it they’re not required for the job). I had a job interview go sour because someone knew my former advisor personally and noticed their name on a paper I included on my resume. Apparently the lukewarm response, which the interviewer relayed to me, was disqualifying. Since then I’ve removed those papers.
posted by Alterscape at 9:43 AM on July 23 [3 favorites]

Lots of good advice! I used a client I consulted to as my reference rather than my supervisor and while I did it to avoid dealing with workplace crappiness, I actually think that the client was able to speak much more knowledgeably to what I do and how I do it than my boss would have been able to. And no one batted an eyelash about me not listing my most recent supervisor as a reference. I think lots of people understand why that might not be ideal.
posted by jeszac at 10:13 AM on July 23 [2 favorites]

This most recent employer was very specific in wanting to get a reference from my current supervisor, and I believe that is going to be standard.

Nthing that requiring a personal reference from your current direct supervisor is weird and not really standard at all.
posted by desuetude at 10:39 AM on July 23 [5 favorites]

I would tell jobs you apply to while you are still employed that your job search is confidential and that you have not apprised your boss that you are looking. Then give other references. You don't typically have to give your current supervisor as a reference.
posted by shadygrove at 11:32 AM on July 23 [2 favorites]

Don't talk to your boss about your job search. Don't presume you have your boss's support, no matter what he says. Lie or be vague about specific job applications if he asks. Do not give him any information.

And, if you asked, don't ever give your boss's name as a reference. You can say, "That won't be possible." If they ask you why, you can say, "My job search is confidential at this point." You need to find someone as close to your boss as possible but who will be supportive and keep this confidential to be a reference. If an employer pushes (and I don't think current supervisor is standard in all job searches!), you can push back and say, "I'm sorry but this just isn't an option. Is there any flexibility?"

Just don't let them talk to your boss. Don't warn them about your boss and give them your boss's contact info. When someone warns you not to use someone as a reference, it's important to take that seriously.

If you get to the point with a potential employer where they are checking references, they should have some flexibility here.
posted by bluedaisy at 11:47 AM on July 23 [2 favorites]

I hire data scientists. Ref checks are the exception not the norm and I'm confident you can get a job without one AND no one will bat an eye at not providing your current boss as an option. That's not to say getting jobs is easy, but in my seven years of hiring I've done exactly 1 ref check for my hiring, and participated in two for people who used to work with me (including a former team member, like in your case). Keep pushing!

The market is actually quite hot right now and it's hard for employers to get talented people. Salaries are rising to compensate. IMO your takeaway from this offer should be "I'm a great candidate and the issue is my boss is an asshole!" and carry that energy to your next 5 interviews and get another offer!
posted by heresiarch at 2:38 PM on July 23 [6 favorites]

I was going to say the same thing as heresiarch--I'm quite surprised they asked for references, never mind that they actually phoned your current boss. I might even go so far as to say this is a bullet dodged--I suspect you maybe ran into the "people with PhDs are impractical" bias and they let your boss confirm their already existing bias, and that's not a great scenario for a first outside-of-academia job.

Like everyone else said, there's approximately zero expectation outside of academia that your current boss be one of your references--have a current or past colleague or two on standby, but odds are you won't need them.
posted by hoyland at 3:48 PM on July 23

Talk to an employment lawyer.
posted by PSB34me at 9:10 PM on July 23 [1 favorite]

"This most recent employer was very specific in wanting to get a reference from my current supervisor, and I believe that is going to be standard."

Why do you think this? US job searches are almost always confidential. Even when your contract is expiring, you may be considering re-upping so wouldn't make your job search known. I have never heard of any interviewers requesting a reference from the current supervisor. You may be in a country with different norms, but are you sure this is standard? Because as others explained above, a current supervisor is the least likely to give an accurate reference. I suggest you investigate whether a current supervisor reference is actually standard in your area. If you find it is not, you will have additional confidence in declining diplomatically.

You have great references from other colleagues. Your current supervisor is not accurately reporting your performance and talent. Whether it is the norm or not, you have to avoid giving your current supervisor as a reference. The scripts suggested by others above give several paths to avoid this negative reference while avoiding bad-mouthing your current supervisor. You should ask your other references not to try to counteract a negative reference from your supervisor, but to assume he won't be involved in the discussion. Even if he is involved in the discussion, having others anticipate a negative reference from him and try to explain it away is not advantageous for you.

By the way, I think you did a tremendous job of explaining your situation in your three "wall of text" paragraphs. Please don't re-up on your contract. Use your great references and get a new, better job. Best wishes to you in your search.
posted by KayQuestions at 10:10 PM on July 23 [1 favorite]

I’ve worked in roles adjacent to recruiting and HR, for the US and Canada, for years. I’m aghast that the company you interviewed with insisted on a reference from your current supervisor. Like others already pointed out, that’s putting your livelihood at risk before they’ve even offered you the job. It’s not just bad form, it’s a horrible, outright dangerous practice, and not standard at all. I think you’ve dodged a bullet, actually. I feel it’s a strong indication that you’d have gone from one toxic workplace to another.

If another company ever asks for a reference for your current role, it would only be considered a “standard request” in situations where it’s the only relevant work experience you’ve held in a very long time span, for example, where they don’t have any other possible references to contact. Many larger companies no longer provide or ask for references at all, as a matter of policy, and instead rely on background checks to verify details of past employment and ensure you don’t have, say, a criminal record, or bad credit if you’re applying to work in a role where that matters.

Next time around, absolutely use your colleagues as references, or a trusted leader that is not your own boss. When I left a very toxic work environment, it was well-known to everybody outside of our team how terrible our leadership was. Managers from other teams quietly contacted me and offered themselves as references, knowing that anything my direct manager had to say would be bullshit. If you can think of anyone like that at your current toxic workplace, someone who doesn’t drink your boss’s koolaid, consider asking them if they would feel comfortable speaking about your performance positively.

I wish you all the luck in finding a new job at a great workplace. I know just how demoralizing and hurtful to one’s self-esteem it is to be in your position. Please take heart that you have so many colleagues who are grateful to work with you. That’s the real story, not your boss’s gaslighting tactics.
posted by keep it under cover at 5:33 AM on July 24

I’m sorry, I reread your question and see that I missed the part where you have indeed worked for just one manager in a long time - all my other points still stand. A potential good employer should understand that your current boss is off limits for references and accept a reference from a colleague or other senior person at your workplace instead. That would be the standard practice for collecting references, if the company utilizes references at all.
posted by keep it under cover at 5:44 AM on July 24

I feel your pain, was just in a similar situation with a psycho boss

I just finished interviewing, and found that it was more small companies and startups that wanted references that bigger places (the Googles Snapchats Twitters etc) so I defaulted to one of the latter

If you’re this well regarded by your colleagues and survived working in academia (I was in academia for many years and I regard people from academic settings pretty highly as a hiring manager) want a referral for a data science or analytics-ish role at a bigger tech company you’ve heard of, I’d be more than happy to put in a good word for you and do a referral, and it’s very unlikely the hiring manager will speak to your current boss if you get the offer.

Please memail me.
posted by shaademaan at 6:10 AM on July 24

For everyone saying it's not standard to ask for a reference from a current supervisor - it depends on the sector as well. I work civil service in NY, and we're *required* to get a reference from the current supervisor. We don't check references until we're basically ready to make a nomination, and we'll hold off on that call until the candidate is ready, but we do *have* to get that check in to move forward with the process.

That being said, if I hear good things from the two other professional references, and the current supervisor talks poorly of the candidate, I'm going to take that with a grain of salt.
posted by mrgoat at 8:38 AM on July 24

My contact at the company told me that he'd directly lobbied to the hiring manager that my boss's equivocal endorsement should be discounted, for which I'm obviously incredibly grateful, but clearly that wasn't enough, nor is that an advantage I'm going to have in the future.

Between the weirdness of insisting on a personal reference from your current supervisor and the weirdness of this bit that I just re-read, you may have inadvertently dodged a bullet with this company? Their concepts of professionalism and a hiring process sure do seem to push some boundaries.
posted by desuetude at 7:52 PM on July 26 [1 favorite]

Nthing that it's unusual for a job to require a reference from a current supervisor, and very common to decline to provide one.
posted by Ragged Richard at 10:48 AM on August 3

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