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Long story short. I was in a company for around a year, and I decided to pursue an alternative career path. Upon leaving, in large advance, I gave notice to my boss (I did not have any issues with him) and I kindly asked if he could write me a recommendation letter. He agreed. After the first day of unemployment, he sent me a reference letter.

I was caught by sadness and surprise, because it:

  • is completely different from the format of the recommendation letter, as he provided a pseudo-report of my professional yield under both his supervision and his managers that worked with me. As a result, his letter is biased, I had toxic relationship with one manager under him, and he could have told her exaggerated stories of my bad behavior.
  • only contains allegations of misconduct, and makes no mention of any positive aspect, and in the sense of very specific instances of bad behavior masked as follows, "his behavior looks as if he believes he is a-know-it-all", and "he judges the work of his senior peers", and ultimately that my boss (whom I had not interacted frequently, as day-to-day basis) even stated that I was not welcome in the team (of less than 3 people, me included). I personally can assure that these allegations are unsubstantiated, because for the life of me I never ever dared to judge anyone, and I firmly believe that the latter expression is a blatant lie.
  • is not a recommendation, because there are no other mentions of any positive output from my work, which has spanned also through the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. My work output has been negatively impacted by personal problems related to the illness and grief in my family, but no mention of this was brought to give context to my work output, worse, it was completely ignored.

I believe that my boss did a borderline defamation and shown unethical behavior, and I would like to take action by speaking directly to him. I do not know how to tell him that he did not write a recommendation letter, and secondly that what he wrote is biased and omitted context that ultimately leaves me no choice but to leave this letter in a folder. Moreover, I am not sure that I want to contact him again.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Neo Aug 14 at 13:07
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    Please tag country. This may depend on laws. In germany, i.e. this is called Arbeitszeugnis and you have a legal right to it as well as a right not to contain negatives. In this regard, he would be liable for not only the court costs but also some serious damages possibly depending on your job search. The country is relevant here. – TomTom Aug 17 at 19:33
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    You need to understand the meaning of 'move on' – Sara Aug 17 at 19:37
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    @TheVal I asked for TAGGING, not putting the country somewhere hidden in the really large text. I will not even bother reading the text again just because you can not be bothered to change the tags. – TomTom Aug 17 at 19:37
  • When you requested the letter, did the boss agree to that the first time you asked, or did you have to ask many times before they agreed? – Daniel R. Collins Aug 18 at 3:07
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I believe that my boss did a borderline defamation and shown unethical behavior

Unless you have very deep pockets and want to engage an attorney, this is a 'so what'.

Moreover, I am not sure that I want to contact him again.

So, don't contact him again.

You now know exactly what your ex-manger thinks of you. Move on, and don't use him as a reference. When future employers ask for a reference, give them the details of the HR department, not of your manager. For legal reasons, most companies do not let managers give references , so directing them to the HR department (who will confirm dates of service and your position in the company) is accepted practise.

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    Move on. Even if you win a discussion with him, you won't change his mind. The very fact that he committed his thoughts to paper shows how strongly he holds his beliefs. – PeteCon Aug 13 at 15:30
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    @TheVal Move on. You're an ex-employee. Your ex-manager is not beholden to you for anything, and any effort to change an opinion is wasted. You won't benefit from expending the energy. – T.J.L. Aug 13 at 15:30
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    @TheVal Evidently, you did have problems with your ex-boss. Or at least you do now. – Kaz Aug 14 at 8:50
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    @TheVal Sure, it shouldn't happen. But it does. All the time. The important point is that it did happen. And you have to decide what to do about it now, given that it has. – Kaz Aug 14 at 11:23
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    dude you quit they don't like you move on. None of what you're saying is anything that you are entitled to— the letter in the first place—not entitled, "highly unprofessional and serves only to detriment my career" — you ain't entitled to anyone acting professional and helping your career. I'm surprised he even WROTE it in the first place, he probably felt it was PRESUMPTOUS of you to even ask and the negative stuff was basically passive-aggressive. If you think it's defamation you can go to a lawyer, but likely they will tell you it's not b/c A) you solicited it, and B) it was private. – Jason FB Aug 15 at 1:25
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I believe that my boss did a borderline defamation and shown unethical behavior, and I would like to take action by speaking directly to him.

So do it. Don't use the term "defamation" unless you first talk with a lawyer and intend to sue. Expect the conversation to shut down quickly if you do.

I do not know how to tell him that he did not write a recommendation letter, and secondly that what he wrote is biased and omitted context that ultimately leaves me no choice but to leave this letter in a folder.

If he agrees to talk with you, you might be better served to express your surprise at the tone of the letter, then see how he responds. Just jumping directly into "did not write a recommendation letter" and "biased" will likely end the conversation.

Moreover, I am not sure that I want to contact him again.

That's your choice of course. I don't see how you can speak directly to him while also not contacting him.

It's not clear what you expect to get out of speaking to him other than venting. Think it over first, and decide what you want before asking to talk.

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  • I think that venting is out of the question if I want to try and rebuild some trust. Nonetheless, I want to externalise my surprise when I read the letter, as I trusted my ex-boss and I always was honest to him – anon Aug 13 at 15:09
  • Because venting may not be directed towards an agreement or understanding. Or, at least I see venting as just pouring out outrage and surprise without being constructive. I would like to have a constructive chat with my ex-boss, explaining my reasons to make him write a recomm letter, should he have anything positive to say – anon Aug 13 at 15:12
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Your biggest obstacle is you think there's some kind of misunderstanding about what kind of letter you wanted. There's not. He knows the letter he wrote you is completely useless. You compared it to asking for a wedding invitation and being given a note to not go to the wedding. If you ask someone for a wedding invitation and that's their response, they're telling you they don't want you at their wedding. It's a rude way of saying it, and it may come as a shock if you thought you were best friends, but the message is crystal clear. Same thing here, your boss is saying he doesn't want to give you a recommendation letter, so telling him "you didn't give me a recommendation letter" isn't going to change anything. He knows that.

I don't think you are very likely to get a better letter, regardless of what you do. However if you would like an explanation of why he wrote such a letter and maybe have a chance at him rewriting it, you must completely drop your anger, resentment, and feeling of entitlement. When a person's opinion is attacked, their instinct is to double down on it. If you try to tell him he's wrong or explain why he should only write nice things about you, he will only become more steadfast in his current stance, even if you have solid arguments to the contrary It doesn't matter if you're right, it matters if he feels like writing you a nicer letter. Let me repeat this. He does not owe you a recommendation letter, so your only option is to get him to want to write you one. You needing him to do it means nothing.

Instead of directly trying to get a new letter, speak to him face-to-face with the intention of gaining an understanding. Tell him you respect him and felt you had a good relationship, and you're surprised that the letter he wrote for you is so negative. Admit that some of the negative things he wrote are accurate, but that you felt you did a good job overall and that you thought he felt that way too and would support you. Then ask if you've drastically misunderstood his position. Does he really feel the way he wrote? Do not ask about a new letter or suggest he is wrong in any way. Then listen to his response. You must understand what is preventing him from writing you the letter before you can change it, and I promise the reason is not because he doesn't know what a recommendation letter is.

There are two main possibilities. One is he actually does despise you, feels it's obvious, and wrote a negative letter to spite you. If that's the case, you aren't going to get a better letter by playing a semantics game. Maybe you should try to figure out why you had no idea he felt that way so you can avoid this situation in the future, but you should look elsewhere for the letter.

The other possibility is he does have a good opinion of your work but was mad about you leaving or some other thing caused him to write a negative letter. If you can avoid antagonizing him, he may offer to write you a new letter with his true, positive opinions. Make sure you really listen to and understand the reasons he gave for writing a negative letter, and demonstrate that understanding. Do not contradict him or say it's an invalid reason for what he did. If the reason really is silly and he does view you favorably, talking about the situation will likely lead him to that conclusion on his own.

Don't assume this will end favourably for you. People don't typically write negative letters for people they like and respect. You should be prepared for the very real possibility that the letter reflected his true opinions of you. And frankly, based on your reaction to it, I think you've probably missed lots of signs that there were problems. But if you stay calm and nonconfrontational, it isn't likely to cause any damage except to your ego, so it might be worth a shot. If you think you will lose your composure, if you can't come at it with an attitude of assuming you're in the wrong and wanting to understand why, then just let it go. Chastising someone for their negative opinion of you isn't likely to improve it.

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  • Good point. Though, I would like to communicate (politely) that his letter is objectively wrong, regardless of his motivations to write what he wrote. I will use this analogy: "I told you to write a wedding invitation, and you wrote 'you aren't welcome' in the invite". This is because a recomm letter should not contain such bad comments, but only focus on the positive things. If there are no positives, he is perfectly welcome to not write anything new, and I will not use his letter and move on. The tone of my question is more of bewilderment than rage tbh – anon Aug 14 at 10:06
  • I may want to specify that the context of his letter is objectively wrong, it is out of scope of what I intend for a recomm letter. This does not mean that what he wrote (the contents) are wrong, using this choice of words I can omit what I think, and only leave the implication. – anon Aug 14 at 10:08
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    @TheVal You need to decide if you want to feel good, or try to have a recommendation letter. They don't owe you a thing, so if you want a useful recommendation letter you'll probably have to drop any self-righteousness. I'm guessing you pestered them into writing a letter, they did to get you off their back. – Gregory Currie Aug 15 at 2:21
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    @TheVal any sort of criticism will make him defensive, which will make him resist changing his mind. Plus I'm sure he realized he was writing a letter which wasn't helpful to you, so "explaining" that he didn't give you what you wanted isn't going to help you. – Kat Aug 16 at 15:25
  • @Kat This means that there is no possibility for me to make him change his mind. I believe, that is understandable. However, am I to understand that even asking him to rewrite a different letter, to avoid any negative comment, will go on deaf ears or make the situation worse? After all, I am not asking him to change his mind... – anon Aug 16 at 15:32
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You should definitely talk to your boss and clarify the situation. Prior bosses are known to write bad references based on certain experiences with the employees, so it is best to talk to him and ask for a truce. Make sure you are not angry when you are talking to him, and talk to him as you would to a friend. Ask why he thought this way and if he could change his opinions/words in the letter. IF he is unwilling to compromise, it may be better to cut your losses and move on to another reference.

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  • Do you have any specific "wording" on how I may approach my ex-boss, so as not to sound full of pity or full of rage, but calm and firm? – anon Aug 13 at 15:05
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    Reach out to him to see if you can come in and talk to him. When you go into his office, be calm and tell him that his letter is making it difficult to find a new job. E.g. "Hi Mr. ___, I am here because I wanted to talk about the recommendation letter you have written for me. I know that we had some confrontations in the past, but I liked working here and I looked forward to you writing a letter for me as I looked up to you as a former boss. I am just wondering why you felt this way about me and if you can lower the criticism in the letter." – wilkvolk Aug 13 at 15:19
  • @wilkvolk - It's clear based on the description of the letter that was written, the author of said letter does not like the individual they wrote about, so contacting them won't change that. The tone of that letter was likely deliberate. – Donald Aug 17 at 18:07

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