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My mentor’s negative reference cost me a prospective job. Should I confront her?

“A Bintel Brief,” the Forward’s signature advice column, is now a podcast hosted by Ginna Green and Lynn Harris. Listen to the latest episode here (or wherever you get your podcasts), and click here to sign up for a weekly newsletter with backstories from the hosts. Need advice? Email bintel@forward.com, or leave a voicemail at (201-) 540-9728.


Dear Bintel,

I asked someone who was a mentor for my past job to be a reference. I found out afterward that her reference was the main reason I did not get the position. She is a very powerful person in my field and across multiple industries.

I don’t know what specific feedback was provided and was dismayed to hear that someone who I thought was an advocate gave me a negative reference. Should I reach out to her to seek clarification or try to move on? How do I avoid using her as a reference in the future?

Signed,

Qualified Applicant


Dear Qualified Applicant,

Oh, man. That’s got to hurt. This is some sort of middle school, high school, almost breakup-level feels here. It’s like, “we just had that romantic dinner, I thought everything was OK….” But whereas in middle school, the fallout is somewhat limited, in this case, there are real consequences.

Let’s talk about expectations surrounding references. If someone asks for a reference, the expectation is often that the reference-writer will write a good reference. That’s kind of the tacit agreement from the perspective of the person asking for a reference. But in reality, there’s a wide range of what is offered and received in reference-world.

Some people might decide they don’t want to say anything beyond that you worked here, and this was your title, and these were the principal responsibilities of your role — or they might even just say, “I know person X, they worked here from this date to that date.”

Neither of these options constitutes a negative reference; they’re more of a non-reference. And they might be intended to reflect negatively on the candidate, but they also might simply be how the person writes recommendations regardless of the quality of the work.

There’s also a lot wrapped up in what a former employer is allowed and willing to share. Some people might choose to only disclose certain information about the position an applicant previously held. Given all these factors, there’s a high risk that the prospective employer could misinterpret the reference — either in an overly-positive or overly-negative way. So that’s certainly something to consider.

A Bintel Brief, the podcast.

By The Forward

Frankly, there’s a broader conversation to be had about hiring norms and our reliance on references. That’s a whole system that you could argue is made of a variety of privileges. Is this system of references helpful? Does it replicate something not helpful? How does this ritual of asking for a reference — which can be meaningful and also ceremonial — help us or hurt us?

But those are larger questions than the one you’ve asked. To the matter at hand: you should get all your ducks in a row — figure out as much information as you can about what your former employer said, and then make sure you’re ready to talk — and reach out in good faith.

You could start with an email that just said, “Hey. We haven’t been in touch for a minute. I want to connect,” and not necessarily disclose that you know that you didn’t get a role because of a reference from her. You could add that you’re in the middle of a job search and you’re hoping to talk about next steps.

Good luck! Bintel

To hear more of our advice to Qualified Applicant, including a conversation with Morra Aarons-Mele, host of “The Anxious Achiever,” download the latest episode of “A Bintel Brief: The Jewish advice podcast” here or on any podcast platform. Send your dilemmas about Jewish-American life, identity, culture, politics or your personal hopes and dreams to bintel@forward.com, or leave a voicemail at (201-) 540-9728.

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