Bully Bosses Can Inflict More Damage with Negative References

By Dinah Wisenberg Brin February 12, 2018
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​Employees trying to escape a bullying boss, and even those who have managed to land a new position, may be surprised to learn that their workplace nemesis is causing further damage by providing negative job references.

HR departments similarly may not realize that supervisors are disregarding company policies against giving references that go beyond confirming job titles and employment dates.

With prospective employers often bypassing human resources and calling supervisors for references, bully bosses can and do impair employees' future job prospects, experts say.

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"In the good old days, the references were HR, and in many cases, in many companies, HR still is the traditional venue. But we've seen a marked shift of interest in calling the former supervisors," said Jeff Shane, president of reference-checking firm Allison & Taylor. "Hiring managers have long since figured out that supervisors tend to be far more talkative."

Job seekers often wrongly believe that their current or former employers will say nothing negative and do no more than confirm employment, Shane said.

Many supervisors, however, never receive company training on how to respond to employee reference checks, while many others forget or ignore the policy, he added. His Rochester, Mich.-based firm checks references on behalf of job seekers, compiles reports on responses from former employers, and, if necessary, sends cease-and-desist letters to companies violating policies or even laws by supplying negative references that cross the line into misrepresentations or lies and that could be construed as defamation.

"We call a great many supervisors as references for individuals. The vast majority of the time, the supervisor has something to say" beyond titles and employment dates; their reviews, even if sincere, often are less than optimal. "In many instances, they know exactly what they're doing" and that the employee is unlikely to ever find out if the negative review caused a missed opportunity, Shane said.

Nearly half of all reference checks that Allison & Taylor conducts contain some degree of negativity, he said. Even a supervisor who gives an employee a positive letter of recommendation will sometimes go "180 degrees in another direction" when called for a reference, he said.

Smart firms wanting to avoid litigation coach bosses to give only employment dates, said Gary Namie, Ph.D., co-founder of the Workplace Bullying Institute, which refers bullying targets to Allison & Taylor to learn about feedback from a current or former employer. Often the news confirms a candidate's fear, and "a great many of our clients are totally shocked and devastated" by what is found.

Job seekers may try to avoid a supervisor's risky review by asking co-workers or others to vouch for them, but people checking references typically believe, incorrectly, that a boss is the most trustworthy source of information on an applicant, Namie said.

"The person who was bullied doesn't stand a chance if the bully boss is loose-lipped," he added. "These supervisors who are bullies because of their own narcissism are eager to talk and tear this person down." Workplace bullies have reason to lie about their own actions, he added.

Some vindictive bullies even go so far as to track a bully target who leaves the company and to spread negative comments about the worker to new supervisors, according to Namie and Shane.

"They can continue to make that person's life very difficult," Shane said.

Namie's institute considers workplace bullying—repeated mistreatment and abusive conduct—a national epidemic, with 60.4 million Americans affected. Namie says employers are failing to take responsibility for preventing and eliminating it.

Bosses account for more than 60 percent of workplace bullies, the organization's 2017 survey found.

Even a supervisor who doesn't provide an overtly negative review can use meaningful pauses and tone to convey a damaging opinion. "Many times, the tone of voice of the reference will speak volumes about their level of enthusiasm or lack thereof for the person we are calling on behalf of," Shane said.

Online reference-check provider SkillSurvey aims to eliminate both the "tone" problem and situations where references go off the record to unfairly harm a job seeker's chances through its software-based rating system.

Job applicants must enter more than two references, who then rate applicants in several areas, with all responses kept in confidence and provided to the hiring organization in a report that averages all of the references' ratings. Five is the norm, often with a mix of supervisors and colleagues, according to SkillSurvey CEO Ray Bixler. The references are all provided online—with names removed, ratings averaged and no calls made.

If four of five references give glowing reviews while a fifth gives lower ratings, the prospective employer might call the applicant in and ask about it, Bixler said. "At least at the very minimum, the client is able to start making decisions of whether it was a rogue reference."

Many applicants enter more than five references, which can further reduce the damage a bullying boss might inflict, Bixler said.

Dinah Wisenberg Brin is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia covering workplace issues, entrepreneurs, health care, personal finance and logistics.

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