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My Boss Gives Everyone Bad References When They Leave

…And four other tricky workplace dilemmas.

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BY Alison Green - 20 Aug 2018

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Editor's note: Inc.com columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues--everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.

Here's a roundup of answers to five questions from readers.

1. My boss will give me a bad reference

What do you do when your current manager has shown he or she will purposefully give unflattering references to leaving employees? He won't directly speak negatively or lie, but will purposefully sound unenthusiastic.

Our department has had significant turnover in the past year, and our department head is not happy about it. A coworker listed our department head on her job application but specifically said for him to not be contacted. The potential employer contacted him anyway, and our manager purposefully gave an unflattering reference. (My coworker has never had less than a glowing review and our manager has always spoken highly of her.) He then approached my coworker and called her unprofessional, saying she should have informed him that she was interviewing elsewhere.

I have two potential job offers coming within the next few weeks. How do I approach this if they ask to speak to my current supervisor before offering me a job? I do not trust him to be honest and not sabotage an offer.

Green responds:

Most employers understand if you refuse to allow your current employer to be contacted, since in many cases that can jeopardize someone's job. But if you encounter an employer who insists a job offer is contingent on talking to your current manager, be direct about the situation: "My manager has a history of trying to prevent people from leaving by giving poor references for them, regardless of how strong their work has been. However, I'd be glad to put you in touch with many others who can speak to my performance at my current job." And then offer other coworkers, ideally ones in higher-level positions than you -- as well as clients or anyone else who can talk about your work. If you happen to have copies of glowing performance reviews from this manager, those can be helpful to offer up too.

Also, your manager is awful.

2. Can I apply for a transfer right after starting a new job?

Less than a month ago, I started a job that was a small step up from my last position. I'm currently an office assistant. I'm overqualifed for the position (it doesn't require a degree, none of the previous employees in this position have had a degree, and I have a graduate degree in a field relevant to the work done in the office).

A colleague with similar qualifications and education may be leaving the office soon. This position would be the next logical step in my career path, something I wanted to move in to after I had put in a year plus at my current position. However, now that the opportunity looks like it may arise, I want to jump on it.

However, I think my supervisors would be hesitant to consider me as they have had trouble keeping my position staffed in the past. They've praised my work and they have said I fit in well with the office culture. I'm sure that they like me as a person and an employee, but I don't think they would want to open my position again. Are there ways I can convince them otherwise?

Green responds:

I wouldn't try to convince them. You can broach the topic once, lightly, but if they don't bite, you shouldn't pursue it -- because you've only been in your current position for less than a month, and it won't reflect well on you if you're already pushing to get out of it. Broaching it lightly means saying something like, "I realize I just started, and I'm happy in my role, but I'd love to move into a position like Jane's in the future. It's absolutely fine if it doesn't make sense for me to throw my hat in the ring for it since I'm new to my current role, but I did want to mention it and see what you think." But that's it -- you can throw it out there, but you can't do more than that without raising real questions about your commitment to your current role.

Also, be careful about considering yourself overqualified. Having a degree for a job that doesn't require one (graduate or otherwise) doesn't in and of itself make you overqualified. If you have education or experience doing A but you're in a job doing B, you're not overqualified. I'm assuming that your masters degree isn't in office assistance, which means that you might be differently qualified, but you're probably not overqualified.

3. Was I wrong not to share job contacts with my friends?

A while back, I found an excellent staffing firm and was placed at some great organizations for short-term work. The problem was that my unemployed friends would hound me for contacts at the company I was working for. "What are all the directors' names? What are their cell phone numbers? Can you get me an internal directory?"

I considered the company my client so I would only give them the HR contact and encourage them to sign up with my staffing firm so they could start making connections of their own. They felt it was commonplace to "network" and share contacts. But I didn't want anyone calling my boss saying some form of "Hey, Jenny Penny who has been working for you for three days said you are great and you could get me a job!"

Did I behave correctly? Or was I being stuffy and it really is okay to share organizational information?

Green responds:

No, it's reasonable not to let yourself be used as a connection when you're brand new to a job and still proving yourself, especially (a) as a temp, (b) when your friends are aggressive as these friends sound, and (c) if you really think they'd say something like what you give as an example here. Plus, networking isn't about sharing lists of names; it's about vouching for people and helping them find job leads that might fit both their needs and the employer's.

Of course you want to help your friends, but you were totally justified in choosing not to do it in this particular way (which likely wouldn't have been especially helpful to them anyway).

4. My employee won't copy me on his emails

One of my subordinates is trying to sideline me by not copying me on his emails. Should I send out an email to all departments, asking them to copy me when sending emails to my subordinates? If so, how should I frame the email in order not to sound too odd?

Green responds:

It's not normal for employees to copy their manager on all of their emails, or for managers to request that. The reason you can't figure out a way to request it that doesn't sound odd is because there isn't one -- it would be odd, and in most cases it would reflect badly on you.

Unless there's some really unusual extenuating circumstance here, you should drop this expectation and figure out better ways to stay in the loop.

5. Should I give thank-you gifts to my references?

When someone gives you a job reference, would it be nice to send them a small thank you gift in the $10-15 range such as a Starbucks gift card or bottle of wine? Or would a thank-you card suffice? References could potentially be contacted a few times, and sometimes they need to fill out a written form. So this process isn't totally painless and I wanted to show my appreciation. These are my own references that I know, so it's not as "gimmicky" as sending a gift to a hiring manager. Would a small gift be a nice gesture, or overdoing it?

Green responds:

Overdoing it. Giving references for past employees is just a normal part of being a manager, and gifts come uncomfortably close to implying a quid pro quo.

The best way to show your appreciation to references is to (a) thank you them (in a call, email, or note) and (b) keep them posted on the outcome of your search. People who give you glowing references usually like hearing whether you ended up getting the job or not.

Want to submit a question of your own? Send it to alison@askamanager.org.

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