What to Do When Your Best Reference Has an Attitude

Question: I worked for a semi-famous woman, who is known for having a huge temper and being reactionary. I use her as a work reference and, during my job search, she was called by people who just wanted to talk to her — even in cases where I had not interviewed with them. At one point, her response to someone I hoped would have been my future boss was harsh. Her tone was blunt, and I didn’t get the job. Everyone told me I wasn’t hired because of this encounter. How is someone supposed to address what a prospective employer hears from a former boss who is just having a bad day?

— Name withheld

Answer: You can guide and control many trivial matters during a job search — what paper stock to print your resume on, how hard to shake your interviewer’s hand — but you have little power over a more major part of the application process. You can’t easily regulate what your job references will say about you. This is true even if your work was terrific.

“The emotional contract with a reference is that this person could say anything,” says Ken De Meuse, an Eau Claire, Wis., psychologist and associate vice president of research at Lominger International. Lominger, a division of executive-search firm Korn/Ferry International, works with managers to develop their skills. “If you asked me to be your reference, it would be inappropriate to tell me that I shouldn’t do this or that,” says Dr. De Meuse.

But just like you can cover your eyes when you feel a scary part coming up in a movie, you can prepare a potential employer for a job reference saying something negative if you know the person can be cranky.

Be honest with prospective employers about the reference’s mercurial temperament. Tell them her behavior is unpredictable and sometimes venomous. That way if they do happen to call that person on a day when all of his or her comments are curt, and this person doesn’t give you a proper recommendation, your potential new boss won’t be surprised. A brusque conversation is much more damning if the employer wasn’t expecting it.

“It’s a good idea to tell a potential employer that sometimes this person doesn’t give the most glowing references,” says Kenneth Lloyd, a San Diego-based psychologist and the author of “Jerks at Work: How to Deal with People Problems and Problem People” (Barnes & Noble Inc., 2007). “You should say something like, ‘This is my previous manager, but you never know what she’s going to say, and I just want to tell you that.’ ”

Don’t let your word be the end of it. Back up your claims about this person’s mood swings by providing other references that can verify them. “Say something like, ‘Call this manager who knows this reference and can back up what I’m trying to say,’ ” Dr. Lloyd says.

Confronting your former manager about why she was rude to your prospective employer, however, will make you seem whiny and unprofessional. You should not tell her that her bad day was the reason you didn’t get a job offer and that you wished she’d phrased things differently or been a little nicer.

If you have a close relationship and feel comfortable talking with her about the situation, Dr. Lloyd suggests saying something like, “I need your help. Please be clear and honest when they call you. I’m not asking you to do anything but tell the truth.”

You may find, however, that the repeated warnings to prospective employers and pleas for her to be straightforward get tiresome, and you want to dump your well-known reference. Don’t let her status as a boldface name prevent that. “I can’t imagine that you would include a person you know is fairly temperamental and kind of flippant as a possible reference,” says Dr. De Meuse. “I’d rather have a good reference from a non-famous person than a bad reference from a famous person.”

And in the future, whether the semi-famous reference makes the list or not, to prevent unnecessary and irritating calls to any of your references, don’t give out any contacts until an employer is interested in you.


HR, job