In New Zealand, references matter.
Maybe it’s our confidence in our B.S. detection ability, which leads us to believe we can spot an honest reference from a not-so-honest one. Possibly it’s got to do with our conservative approach to hiring.
Or maybe it’s because, unlike in the UK - where due to some high-profile legal cases, most employers refuse to divulge anything but the barest of details - New Zealand employers are generally more than willing to provide detailed references.
Whatever the reason: In this country, if you’ve got a bad reference trailing you around (no matter how undeserved), you’re going to find it really tough to land a new job.
Most of the time, for most people, this isn’t an issue. I mean, you’re a great employee, right? Hard-working, competent - just an all-round delight to work with. Your references up to this point in your career are glowing. That’s all good, but you never know when you might have the horrible misfortune of landing a Boss From Hell (henceforth referred to as the BFH). No matter what you do, no matter how brilliant you are, you cannot win this person over. The BFH harbours an intense and random dislike for their victims that no amount of coffee shouts will assuage.
Eventually you’ll throw in the towel, pleased that chapter of your life is closed forever. Unfortunately though, you'll find it’s not: At some point in the future, someone is going to want to ask the BFH for their opinion of your performance.
I’ve seen several great candidates come a cropper due to that one bad reference that they just can’t shake. For them, the situation can seem hopeless – they feel their career has been permanently handicapped by something that’s completely out of their control.
The good news is, if you wake up one morning to find yourself working for a BFH, there are certain things you can do to safeguard yourself against a career-killing reference.
1. Prevention is better than cure
First off, see what you can do to improve the situation.
Sometimes, you’ll be dealing with a straight up sociopath. In this case, there’s not a whole lot you can do - short of talking to HR and/or the BFH’s manager in the hope that you’ll be adding your voice to other complaints, and the BFH will be moved on.
Often though, you’ll be working for just your run-of-the-mill, regularly-flawed human, who for whatever reason is taking their frustrations out on you. In this case, there are a number of strategies you can use to help them become a better boss, thus avoiding total workplace misery.
2. Forge connections throughout the business
You’ll also want to pay extra attention to other relationships you have in the organisation. Aside from keeping you sane, it could potentially give you an opportunity to move into another project or position.
At the very least, you’ll have other people who might be willing to provide an alternative reference when you leave.
3. During future job interviews, don’t pretend the BFH didn’t exist
Accept that when you’re interviewing for a new position, you will have to deal with a request for a reference from the BFH at some point. So, when your interviewer first asks you about your job, don’t say you loved it and all your colleagues were great.
Bitching about past employers is generally a major faux pas, but if you’re going to have to have the conversation at some point anyway, it’s better to be honest at the outset. Briefly mention that you found this particular manager difficult to work for, and then try shift the focus of the conversation back to more positive elements of the job.
4. When asked for the reference, try to provide alternatives
For example, you could say:
“Unfortunately (despite my best efforts!) we had a difficult working relationship, and I’m not confident they’ll be able to give me an accurate reference. I can give you the details of other senior colleagues at the company who would be happy to provide references instead. Would that be an acceptable alternative?”
That might work, but often it’s the corporate policy of the employer or their recruitment agency to speak to the direct line managers from the candidate’s most recent positions. At Consult, for example, we’re very stringent about this. There has to be a very good reason for us not to take a reference from recent direct managers, otherwise all sorts of exceptions to the rule start to creep in.
Legally, no-one can request a formal reference from a former employer without seeking your permission first. So ultimately, it’s up to you. You can withhold your permission, but bear in mind that may mean you’ll have to forfeit the job opportunity. Instead, try this approach:
“I understand you need to do your background checks and speak with my former manager. I’m really excited about the opportunity to join your company, so I’m willing to give you permission to speak with them. However, because I’m not confident they’ll be able to provide an objective reference, can I have your assurance that you will also contact the other referees I’ve provided, so that you can get an accurate picture of my work performance?”
5. Man up and speak to the referee
Before you give the BFH’s contact details, you’ll need to speak with them to get their permission. Depending on exactly how septic the relationship was, you may find this easier to do over email. Keep it short and sweet - explain that it’s the policy of your prospective employer to speak with all recent direct line managers, that there will just be a few straightforward questions, and thank them in advance for their time.
6. Decide a course of action after the reference has been given
If you’re lucky, the BFH will provide the bare minimum of information (dates of employment and job title), and your prospective employer will turn to your other referees for more detail.
But even if the reference is more detailed, you can take some solace in the fact that most experienced recruiters are adept at separating fact from personal vendetta when taking references. You may find that once it’s taken in context with your alternative references, the bad reference actually doesn’t hurt your job chances at all.
If you’ve been told you've been given a bad reference, and you’ve also missed out on the job, ask to see a copy. Check there’s nothing irrelevant or personal included. In New Zealand, employers are required to give an accurate reference – whether good or bad – and stick to the subject of the employee’s performance, not irrelevant personal details.
If the BFH isn’t sticking to the facts, and it’s jeopardised your job search, you may have a case for legal action. You should carefully weigh up whether this is worth pursuing though, as the emotional toll and impact on your reputation (even if you’re vindicated), may not be worth it.
Rest assured that even if you have worked for a vindictive BFH, it doesn't take much to repair your reputation. Once you have another job or two under your belt, you'll have new referees to call on, and the BFH will recede into the past like a bad dream.