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Your Supervisor Is A Key Reference (Like It Or Not)

Ellie had applied for a new RN position in her area and was feeling confident about her employment prospects.  She’d just come through her third interview with the hiring hospital with flying colors – they’d assured her they need only check her references and she would likely be extended a job offer in short order.  Imagine Ellie’s dismay when she was advised that one of her key references had offered negative input about her and that no employment offer would be forthcoming.  Her strong suspicion: that her former supervisor, who hadn’t been particularly supportive of her efforts, was the guilty party.

Many of us can relate to filling out an employment application and seeing the notation “May we contact your former supervisor”?  If you’re confident your former supervisor “has your back”, this is no problem and can in fact be an asset.  But what if you’re uncertain as to what your former supervisor will say, or – even worse – have reason to believe they may offer negative commentary about you?

Whether you like it or not, your previous supervisor may well get a call(s) from a prospective employer.  Employers have long since figured out that your former supervisor undoubtedly knows you better than the Human Resources contact (the other likely choice for a reference), also that supervisors tend to be more “loose lipped” than HR, whose representatives are trained to only confirm employment dates and title when asked about a reference.  While employers understand that confirmation of your dates/title are all that your former employer is supposed to offer up about you, they also know that supervisors, in particular, are more likely to give them the candid input they seek.

So, if you and your former supervisor didn’t part on the best of terms, is it a good idea to tell a prospective employer that they can check that person as a reference?  The answer is “yes”, for two reasons.  First, telling a potential employer that you do not authorize them to contact your former employer will likely be viewed as a “red flag” and could be fatal to your job seeking prospects.  Also, an employer may not be legally bound to honor your request that a supervisor not be contacted and may contact the supervisor anyway whether your wish/intend it or not.

If you anticipate a poor reference from your former supervisor, what is your best course of action? As suggested above, always tell an inquiring employer that they are at liberty to contact your former supervisor.  It is possible that even a non-supportive former supervisor will follow company policy and simply confirm your employment dates and title, or refer you to Human Resources.  But how will you know if this is the case?

Your best course of action is to have a third-party reference checking firm like Allison & Taylor check your key references prior to beginning your job search. Have your former supervisor(s) checked and – if you receive the “neutral” (employment dates/title) confirmation – then you can rest easier that this reference will not cost you future employment. However, if the supervisor offers negative commentary about you (which, unfortunately, is a very common occurrence) then you have two possible courses of action. First, you can attempt to pre-empt that negative commentary by explaining up-front to a prospective employer that you did not part on the best of terms with your supervisor.  If handled in an optimal manner, the employer might appreciate your honesty and proactive behavior. However, it’s also possible that such candor may work against you with employers who would rather select a candidate who has no negative references in their background.  This leads us to a second option: to have, once a negative reference is identified, a “Cease & Desist” letter issued through an attorney to the senior management of your former employer.  Such letters are extremely effective, as the party receiving the letter tends to have little tolerance for someone within their company who is exceeding company policy in offering negative commentary and (in so doing) putting the company at legal risk.

Also note that some negative commentary may be illegal – e.g. defamation of character, discrimination, wrongful discharge, etc. – and you may have stronger legal recourse than a Cease & Desist letter.

In summary, the first step is to determine what your former supervisor will truly say about you. Never assume that they will follow the verbal indication they may have given you – you simply have too much at stake.  Instead, conduct your due diligence and have your supervisor’s input documented by a third party – if negativity is uncovered, you will have some level of recourse as described above and ensure that your new employment opportunity presents itself sooner, than later.

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