Friday, June 27, 2008

Mom with Bad Job Reference

My husband recently relocated us to South Carolina from Florida. We had just had a new baby, and I began work with a large law firm as a legal secretary/floater, which required me to have oncall hours one weekend per month, and one day per week. Since starting the job 15 months ago it has gone to 2-3 nights a week with some nights ending at midnight or later. My husband is a 3rd shift officer and we have two small children so I really can't work past 9 pm any longer.

I have also been subjected to yelling and cursing from other secretaries and it has escalated to a point where this job just doesn’t work for me.

I emailed my boss (who was portraying herself as a good friend, even calling me outside of work and always acting concerned about my family life and well being) and told her something along the lines of, "This really doesn’t seem to be working so well. The oncall hours are too much and I can't handle being cursed and yelled at. I think I need to start looking for another job." She replied “I want you to be happy and I will support you in any way I can.” I also told her I was not giving notice of resignation, and that I'd like to stay at the job until I found another one.

Weeks went by and I got called into the HR manager’s office. I was told “things just aren’t working out and we need to agree your last day with the firm will be the 30th” (30 days from the day of the meeting). I was shocked. I had been told what a great team player I was, how helpful, and professional, etc. I asked my boss, “Am I fired or what?” She replied, "No, I don’t think we look at it that way; it just isn’t a good fit anymore." A week later I inquired as to whether I will be paid for my remaining vacation time, as the manual states. I was told, "No." So, I started using up my sick time, and I put in a request for vacation time, which didn't get approved.

I went about my interviews, but I didn't get any calls after I submitted my references. I went to a staffing agency, which requested a letter of recommendation. I called my boss to ask for one, and she said, "I can’t give you one in a situation like this. All inquires have to go through the HR manager.” So, I emailed the HR manager, requesting a letter of reference.

Then the emails started coming, “Since we mutually agreed you would be leaving…”. I wrote back, “I never mutually agreed to anything. I told you that I was going to start looking for another job because of the oncall hours and constantly being yelled at by co-workers. But I never resigned or said I was giving notice, and I didn’t set the date of the 30th -- you did.” I don't want them to screw me out of unemployment, saying I “mutually agreed” to leave, especially when the job market is the worst in 22 years and I have 2 small children to care for.

Can you help me make some sense of all this? I am so worried.

by Garla Smith, Smart Moms®, LLC, and

Dear Mom with Bad Reference,
This is indeed a tough time for you. There are a couple of issues that I can address that may be motivating.

The first and foremost issue at hand is how do you get a job when you may not have a strong reference at your previous employer? I think the first course of action would be to find out exactly what the employer is saying about you. By law, the employer can legally only verify job title and dates of service. They have the option to decline to answer the questions concerning eligibility for re-employment, verification of duties and others. Because this is a law firm, I suspect they are providing references by the book. What may be a challenge for you is that they have a tone in their voice or are unwilling to give enough information to make the employer feel comfortable about hiring you.

As you already know, it is difficult for you to get a truthful answer about what is being said. However, you can hire someone to verify your references. There are professional agencies such as Allison and Taylor that can check your references. For instance, if you learn that the employer only answers questions about job title and dates of service in a very brief manner, you can alert your prospective employer that this is their policy so it will not be construed as a bad reference. If you learn that the employer has a particular tone (signifying displeasure) while answering the questions, this information may be admissible in court. Is there one peer (at the law firm) that would serve as a personal reference? You could provide a cell number or home phone and instruct the prospective employer that she can discuss your relationship but it is best to reach him/her after work hours. Make sure to speak with this reference about how you would like them to address your departure as well as those relevant skills. Did you do any volunteer work during this period or have another part-time job? Perhaps this avenue can provide a positive and talkative reference who can speak about your relevant skills.

Always handle things in a professional manner no matter what. When you are speaking to a prospective employer do not bad mouth the prior employer. It is always received as a bad sign, always. Don’t blame, don’t bad mouth, don’t appear to be the victim. You should tell them the truth of why you left but in a non-blaming fashion. It may be presented something like, ”I resigned from that position because they needed someone to support them after-hours and I was unable to do that with a new born baby...” Keep it brief, professional and never bad mouth the employer.

For the future, it is important to put things in writing. For instance, when you begin to feel you were being mislead about the hours and what was communicated, putting it in writing (via email) to your supervisor lets them know you are serious about that concern. The correspondence also helps to legally protect you. If you decide to correspond via email simply turn on the read-receipt option (via Outlook). Make sure you print out the email and file for your records. Any kind of abuse, especially verbal, should be documented to someone above you to alert them about what is going on. If all else fails, you have a paper trail if you need to file a law suit or proof to ensure you secure unemployment.

You may still have some recourse for receiving vacation pay. Some states require that employers pay remaining vacation time. Check these sites for rules and regulations about SC Labor and Employment Laws Link 1 and Link 2. Save your existing pay stubs and policy manual for documentation. Research to find a lawyer or someone familiar with employment laws to provide their professional opinion as to whether you have a case.

You can obtain a job after experiencing a challenging time with an employer. Commitment to finding a new job, resolve to not settle for unemployment, research to determine your rights and best practices will all help you eventually land another job. Best of luck!


Ask a Manager said...

It is NOT true that employers may legally only verify dates of employment, etc. Employers are legally able to comment on quality of performance and many other issues as well. The law only prevents them from giving false info. But if they have unflattering info that happens to be true, there is nothing illegal about them giving them out. So therefore, it's definitely a good idea to find out from them how they plan to handle reference calls. You may be able to reach an agreement with them about what they will say.

Additionally, when you told your manager you were looking for another job, you had essentially given notice whether you called it that formally or not. You can't say "I'm planning to leave but I'm not giving notice." Once you announce your intentions, they're out there. So that probably explains why they responded the way they did.

Susan Ireland said...

Thank you, Ask a Manager, for the correction. I should add that Garla Smith's response was not intended to offer legal advice for job seekers.

Ask the Manager has lots more good info. Check it out!

Garla Smith said...

Ask a manager, thanks for the clarification. You are correct. My research (including, employment and EEOC laws sites) does not reference any law that requires the employer to answer any questions regarding the employees work history, etc. “The only requirement of the employer is that if they decide to provide a letter of recommendation or reference, the employer will tell the complete truth regarding the worker especially those that affect the misconduct of a worker that could endanger others”. They are not required to confirm dates of service, job title, etc. They can simply say “It is our company policy to….”. Many keep it very simple to not get into issues of defamation. There are states that may require employers to provide letters concerning past employment services to former employees upon their request. Based on my research, it does not seem that South Carolina is one of these states.

Your feedback is valuable and is important to gain an understanding of what the employer is thinking. I am not sure if any laws were broken but an employment attorney could confirm this.
Please note, that I am not a lawyer nor do I profess to be an expert on employment laws. I encourage all to check with a labor or employment attorney to provide clear direction.

Garla Smith

Ask a Manager said...

Thanks, Susan!

Garla, that's exactly right -- the law doesn't prevent an employer from giving OR refusing to give a detailed reference (in most cases). So different employers have different policies on what they will or won't say. I suspect this letter-writer may be able to call her former employer and ask them to agree to only confirm title, dates, etc. ... or she may even be able to get them to agree to give a positive reference, if she reaches someone sympathetic!

grace said...

we cannot believe that corporate america is still using references from FORMER employers/sheeple. of course there will be resentment, jealousy, biased, colored, etc....just interview the applicants and ask tough questions, put them on a trial period. references are a joke for the massess and the stupid/intellectually bankrupt. you either like the candidate or not. of course the applicant left the job b/c it sucked--otherwise, they would be still working in the office cubicle setting chock filled with 30ring binders, and corporate speak manuals for dolts of society---boomers, terry nickell dimers.