The bad boss badmouth...
February 27, 2008 10:34 AM   Subscribe

QuitFilter: How do I deal with a difficult boss (potentially) giving me a bad reference?

I'm currently coming to the end of a contract and I may be offered a full-time post, but I don't want to continue working for my current boss. I have a couple of interviews lined up for other jobs in the same sector and if I get one I'll need a reference from this person. My problem is that I think she may not say favourable things.

Although we have generally got on alright, I've had to adapt a lot and find her very difficult to work for. In a recent progress meeting she told me she wanted to discuss my attitude and had a general go at me, winding up saying that although she felt my work was good I was too emotional and needed to 'tone it down'because I was upsetting the team dynamic. I was a bit shocked by her comments, as I feel I've been keeping my lip buttoned for the majority of my time here and I really get on with, and respect the other members of the team. I asked (discreetly) around the office, but everyone disagreed with her view of me. I don't think she dislikes me personally but several people in the past have said she sees enthusiasm and collaborative discussion as unprofessional (wtf!!) - and I'm worried that she will see it as her responsibility to label me as such for a potential employer.

I do get passionate about work and am very solution-focussed, so have been fairly vocal (not yelling or arguing) in meetings. I also have no patience with office politics and lack of transparency, and at management level this place is rife with both. I generally deal with it by being cheerful and tacitly refusing to get involved, which I feel arouses suspicion as she is deeply political and very withholding. She's also generally known within the organisation for being overbearing, inflexible and difficult to the verge of bullying - staff turnover is high in this team largely because of her. People have lodged complaints but the general organisation place moves slowly and any punitive measures won't happen til I'm long gone.

I know I'm good at my job, and I've never encountered this before, my enthusiasm and experience has always been a plus in previous roles, but this institution is highly respected within the sector and a negative reference from her will carry weight because of it.

So, how do I explain or mitigate anything negative she may say in a reference? Should I pre-empt it in the interview (e.g. in response to the 'What are your weak points' type questions)? Or would it even matter, as I know my other referees will give good reports?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (7 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
It sounds like you'd be better off without the reference.

I've always felt that trying to explain why you didn't get along with a previous employer is a red flag for interviewers; they don't want to hire someone who doesn't get along with management.
posted by Brocktoon at 11:07 AM on February 27, 2008

Generally, you only ask for references from people who don't have anything bad to say about you. If you need a reference that only says that you worked at the company, then direct your interviewers to the HR department.

I'm surprised this is a problem - in every company I've worked for (admittedly not a lot), employees were forbidden from giving references for employees who worked at said company, for liability reasons. All requests were forwarded to HR.

Are there any employees who don't work for that company who can vouch for you? They won't be directly managing you, but it's better than nothing.
posted by meowzilla at 11:13 AM on February 27, 2008

She may not be allowed to say anything negative in the reference. If you're in the U.S., more and more companies are handling this by simply having the HR department at the job you're leaving only confirm your status as an employee, and maybe your salary range or history. Don't put her on your resume as a reference, and future employers won't call her.

And what meowzilla said.
posted by rtha at 11:19 AM on February 27, 2008

Don't use her as a reference. Find a colleague who is willing to speak on your behalf.
posted by ottereroticist at 11:21 AM on February 27, 2008

In every interview I've been in, I've been asked questions about my previous job. What did I like about it, what didn't I like, why was I leaving, etc. It sounds like you could wait for such a question, and then talk about how this job gave you the opportunity to learn to work with people who have different management styles than you're used to. "Though I prefer to focus on the results of my work, I learned a lot about how organisational politics can be important to other people too, and how to deal with that." Etc. An interviewer who relishes hierarchical bull will appreciate that you've acknowledged those things as being important to some, and an interviewer who can't stand that kind of stuff will get that you can't either. The key is to actually mean what you say - that you learned how to deal with this stuff - rather than having it come off as a thinly-veiled insult to your previous boss. This will give them some context for when they talk to your former boss as a reference, and has the side bonus of potentially helping you suss out whether you'll have to deal with similar politics with the new employer.
posted by vytae at 11:24 AM on February 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

It sounds like you want to work for the same organization, though, so I think the US laws about references for past employers may not apply. There probably wouldn't be a "formal" reference, if you're applying to just a different department within the same company, but you're right, the hiring manager will most likely speak to your current supervisor informally.

I'm not sure if there's anything you can do to control that informal hallway conversation. I guess just be prepared to address it, if it comes up in an interview. If/when you're asked "How did you like working for while I was there, but fundamentally we have different styles. I tend to get pretty impassioned about my work, and that didn't seem to work well with her management style."

Having said that, you might have some legal recourse if you can prove that your current supervisor slandered you during the job interview process and prevented you from getting the position. IANAL, and I'm pretty anti-litigious. YMMV.

posted by dblslash at 11:31 AM on February 27, 2008

Once you finish up at the job (or even before you finish, if you think that's appropriate), have a friend ring up your boss posing as someone who wants to hire you in a new job. Make sure your friend takes notes about everything your boss says. They can then report back to you telling you exactly what kind of reference your boss will give you. The added bonus (if it's a bad one) is that you know what kind of criticisms she'll level at you toward potential new employers, giving you plenty of prep time to come up with answers to counter them. That's if you decide to include her, anyway.

Good luck with everything!
posted by Effigy2000 at 12:28 PM on February 27, 2008 [3 favorites]

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