Quit. Don’t Want A Bad Reference!

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about boss from Hell: She stated she had put up with me for almost 10 years and she wanted me out! (Never in the 23 years working at my place of employment have I ever been given disciplinary actions, reprimanded or told my work did not meet expectations.)

After 23 years and in a manager position, I could not take the stress of working for my boss. She is a Boss from Hell: Screaming, throwing temper tantrums, throwing things and belittling people all the time. No compassion. One staff member was receiving chemotherapy for breast cancer and would work half days when going for treatments. This boss had the nerve, in the rudest voice, to say, “You have to be gone again? Just how much longer is this going to last?” This attitude was expressed on a daily basis to staff. Complaints to her boss did nothing. After 10 years working for her, I could not take it any longer. I would literally cry before leaving for work. On Friday nights, I would obsess that I only had two days before having to go back to work. Sunday night I couldn’t sleep. Finally, I got sick. I hit rock bottom-high blood pressure, dizzy spells, anxiety and panic attacks. I missed almost one month of work. And I confided in a co-worker that the boss’s attitude was making me sick and I couldn’t take her anymore. Upon returning to work, I gave the boss my doctor’s slip. She took it, looked at it, inquired if there were any restrictions. I replied no and that was it. Didn’t ask how I felt. Three days later, I was called into her office. She stated she had put up with me for almost 10 years and she wanted me out! (Never in the 23 years working at my place of employment have I ever been given disciplinary actions, reprimanded or told my work did not meet expectations.) I could see she was upset, but I said I had no clue what I had done. She stated-several people told her what I had said. I asked, “What?” She stated she wasn’t going tell me who or what was said. She just wanted me out! I was not given a chance to find out what was said, if it was taken out of context or what. I think it must have been the co-worker telling her I said the boss was making me sick. I was going to be demoted, and salary was going to be cut. I was already making less than the people I supervised (due to union raises-management didn’t receive raises several years). I was now going to have a pay-cut that made me making even less although I had more seniority. I decided to resign. Now the problem: I worked there for 23 years.

The only real employment I ever had. I worked my way up to the position I held. Most job applications require your supervisor’s name. If I write her name, I know she will give a bad reference although all my job performance evaluations stated exceeding job expectations. I am in my mid-fifties and need a job! Health insurance is rapidly depleting my savings. Any advice on how to handle the question of why did I leave and who was my supervisor?

Signed, Don’t Want A Bad Reference

Dear┬áDon’t Want A Bad Reference:

I’m very, very sorry you are having to deal with such an unhappy situation! You didn’t write to ask about your handling of your former work place, so I won’t over-do my thoughts about that. But, if you can look at what you wrote to us from an objective viewpoint at this time, given how badly you must surely feel about all that has happened, you will see that you stayed far too long where you could not be at your best.

Now, as you say, the issue is what to do next. I’m confident your knowledge and skills will be appreciated far better someplace else. You know your own situation, so you will likely need to adapt my thoughts on this subject. 1. First, keep in mind that many former employers limit their references to stating that an employee worked for the company from that date to this date, and they leave it at that. This is caused by fears of a lawsuit over defamation of character, retaliation and so forth. The truth is that more often than not, when the cases these employers cite are researched, they involve former employees who had filed EEO complaints, who were whistle-blowers under the law or who were wrongly given a negative reference. Nevertheless, it has become the norm for references to be extremely limited–to the detriment of many new employers and even to employees who might otherwise have gotten more specific, positive references. In your case, it would work in your favor if your employer made only a limited reference. So, don’t assume your supervisor would say something negative.

2. I recall reading an HR magazine’s suggestion that employees have a friend or relative who can do a good job of acting, to call the former employer and pretend to be an HR person in a new company, asking for a reference. In that way, the employee knows what will likely be said and can be better prepared for it. There is nothing illegal about this approach and it might be something you would like to ask someone to do for you. If the friend pretends to be an HR person they won’t be expected to sound like a business executive or even very knowledgeable about the specifics of the career field involved. If they don’t want to call your supervisor, have them call the HR section of your former workplace and pretend to be the assistant of a potential boss.

3. Think about what a potential employer is looking for in a reference. They want to know if you are a good risk for employment, if you possess the knowledge and skills required for the work involved and if you will likely fit their work culture. You can certainly show that you stay in a workplace for a long time! Consider providing more than just references or a resume to show your potential value to the new place. Do you have a work product from your former work, such as letters, reports, written material you developed or similar items? Could you duplicate some of those if you don’t have copies? Consider preparing a packet of material to show the work of which you are capable. If you need to show you can do a spreadsheet, produce one. If you need to be able to write, show that. If you will be supervising, develop samples of narratives you have used in evaluations for employees, to demonstrate your style. If you work with technology, develop a full list of the areas in which you are competent.

Add those to employment applications, rather than depending upon the application alone. If you use a resume, don’t stop at the one to two page rule you may have heard about. Employers will read more if there is more to read. (That assumes that what you are providing is applicable to the job and worth reading.)Make it your goal to clearly show not only what you are capable of doing, but also what you will do for the new company. The unspoken question of all potential employers is, “So what?” The idea is that a candidate might say he or she can do this or that or has done this or that. But the interviewer or reviewer is thinking, “What will you do HERE?” In your application letter or in interviews, give them a clear picture of what you will do for them.

4. As you have noted, employment applications ask for references and usually automatically check with former employers. So, provide references both at your former workplace and elsewhere, who will be able to assist your potential employer in making a positive decision about you. Consider the following sources for those references, keeping in mind that each of them should be able to refer to qualities need by employers, not just qualities desired in friends. *If the application asks for your supervisor’s name, give them the name of the person above your supervisor. That person is more likely to want to avoid negative references and also won’t have the personal issues of your former direct supervisor. Even if the application asks for your direct supervisor’s name, list the second level supervisor. Rarely will those who check references quibble over the supervisory level involved. *If there were other managers or supervisors in your former workplace who were supportive of you, list them. If your former manager was as bad as you describe, perhaps they would be willing to counteract anything negative she might say. *Former subordinates you supervised are often unexpectedly good references. Peers of yours might also be good. Although, as you found, apparently not all of them felt as negatively about the boss as you did…or at least were not loyal to you in that area.

So, be cautious about who you might list. *List clients and customers with whom you did business in your former job. They only need to be told that you are looking for other work and would appreciate having them vouch for your work with them. These people are sometimes nervous about what they are obligating themselves to and may be prohibited from using company letterhead on reference letters. Let them know you are only seeking a few statements that indicate your overall abilities as they saw them. *You were there for a long time–go back in time if necessary, to before the problem manager. If that person is still available–even if retired–list them as a reference. Tell them your concerns and ask for their help in moving to a better employment situation. *Other people who can vouch for your work ethics as well as your honesty, personality and overall working style. This might include volunteer work, clubs and organizations and anyone else who has seen your work in one form or another.

5. It’s always a good idea to get a letter from your listed references to include with resumes and applications. The value of that is that you will know exactly what they will say…and they are more likely to write a positive letter that you will see, than they are to say something positive if they think you’ll never know about their comments. Call those you will list and ask them for a one to two page letter you can include with your applications. Make a list of the areas in which you think a new employer might be interested.

Then, ask each reference to emphasize one or two of those areas, as well as making general statements. That way you will cover all of the areas by the time all references write something.Ask for five signed originals. Those are easy to produce on a computer. Consider sending them a stamped, self-addressed envelope, with cardboard inside to keep the letters from being creased. That way the process is made easier for them. I have requests such as that made of me all the time, and I actually appreciate the specifics of the request. It makes it much easier for me to focus my writing, rather than trying to decide for myself what I should write.

6. Send a letter to your former employer’s HR section and ask for copies of your evaluations if you did not save copies. Include those with your resume or application. In that way your potential employer will see that you were rated highly, even if you receive a less than good reference. If you cannot get a copy of your evaluation (and you should be able to) make a point of including in your resume or application letter, an overview of what those evaluations said, or the general nature of the score or measurement. If you ever received an organizational commendation or positive citation, include that or say that you received it. If you received verbal commendations from anyone for anything, mention that as well.7. If you are asked why you left your former workplace, put the emphasis on how long you were there. After all, that is a career lifetime, and indicates that you were apparently considered effective for a long time. Then, quickly but honestly, say that you decided it was time to move to another phase of your work life. This was not only because of the amount of time you had already been in one place, but because the work environment had changed over time and made it easier for you to go. That kind of phrasing sounds less hostile and negative but sends a message. Potential employees know you probably won’t say bad things about your former employer, but they can read between the lines.

8. A key issue is to present your self as someone who is a mature, effective employee in any setting. Thus, you would not want to talk about your extreme emotional and physical reactions to your former work situation. It’s too late to tell you now that you had options for handling it differently then. But I hope you can see, in retrospect, that such an extreme situation as you describe is not an example of effectively handling conflict and contention. There are always options–even if one doesn’t like them at the time. A potential employer would be very hesitant to hire someone who had the extreme reactions you did, even if you could prove you had the worst boss in the world–or the boss from Hell! So, put your focus on your knowledge and skills and your desire to use those in a new workplace. Best wishes as you develop your resume and application letters. If you wish and have the time, let us know when you start in a much better workplace and with a much better boss! Search for a WEGO-minded workplace.

Tina Lewis Rowe