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At a past job I had a manager who was difficult to deal with. He was very rude, threatening and confusing. I reported the problem to HR but I don’t think they did anything (or if they did they did not keep me in the loop). Anyway I ended up quitting this job. Other people in the office knew about my boss’s demeanor and one woman (let’s call her Jane) told me I could use her as a reference instead of him. I think the exact words she used were “have them contact me as your manager gets confused easy”.

So I have applied to a job recently and they're doing a reference check. I got an email from Jane saying

Hello. I got questions from your new manager Joe, for a reference check. I have not answered yet, but question one has me a bit worried as you did not really work with me, but for part of the group I was in. Should Joe have worded this differently? Let me know how I should word this with your thoughts.

I’m not sure how to proceed. I think the next step is to ask Jane for a copy of the questions my new manager has asked. Would that be illegal or immoral? The new job did say they needed references from me, and I don't consider this to exclusively mean my direct manager.

I don't think it's a good idea, but it is an option to explain to my new manager about the situation with my old boss and why I'm using someone who isn't him as my reference. In the particular position I had, I worked solo and didn't directly work with anyone aside from my boss.

I intend to handle this as honestly as possible, and I think Jane feels the same way.

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    I would have her answer the questions honestly. If she didn't work closely enough with you to answer some of them she should say so. She can also give answers like, "I did not work directly with YesCoffee on this project but from status meetings it was clear that her responsibilities were X,Y, and Z. The project manager was happy with her performance and she always had valuable input during project meetings." -- but only if these statements are true! – Charles Addis Nov 17 '16 at 23:15
  • @CharlesAddis I agree. But I think Jane already knows to answer honestly so I think something else is up. I guess I need to ask what the question is she's having trouble with? – YesCoffee Nov 17 '16 at 23:21
  • Perhaps it's the unspoken question? 'How much is this worth to you?' – Kilisi Nov 17 '16 at 23:29
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    Apparently one of Joe's questions gave the impression that he thought she was your manager. Her response may be an elliptical way of saying "Hey! Did you tell Joe that I was your boss?". If you did, then you have a mess on your hands. If you didn't, you can tell her that it's just a misunderstanding or a misstatement on Joe's part, and that she should feel free to make your working relationship clear. It may just be a matter of boilerplate text in a reference request. – Charles E. Grant Nov 17 '16 at 23:36
  • “[H]ave them contact me as your manager” from someone who is not your manager is an offer to lie for you. Did you already tell Joe that Jane was your boss? If so, you need to immediately get it straight between you and Jane whether she is still willing to lie or needs to renege on the offer. – A. I. Breveleri Nov 17 '16 at 23:41
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I intend to handle this as honestly as possible, and I think Jane feels the same way.

My initial impression is you're overthinking this. You understandably want the best information about you to be available to your new employer, but you can only expect your references to answer based on their professional interactions with you.

It doesn't sound like your new employer has specifically asked for your previous manager to be a reference (as you mention), so there's no reason your reference has to pretend to be your manager.

I’m not sure how to proceed. I think the next step is to ask Jane for a copy of the questions my new manager has asked. Would that be illegal or immoral?

If your reference has a question, it's not unethical for you to ask for clarification and provide guidance. Many times references will ask for a personal statement or draft letter in your own words to help them answer.

At the same time, it's important for you to encourage your reference to answer only those questions that are relevant and make sense in the context of your relationship. For anything else, "I was not in a position to observe" is a fine response.

  • Turned out she had misread a question. – YesCoffee Nov 21 '16 at 8:00
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As long as Jane knows that you performed well and she is willing to back you up on that assessment, you shouldn't worry that she was not your manager - and make sure to tell her so. What's important is that she knows enough about you and about your performance to be willing to back you up as a reliable, responsible, capable professional.

Jane also knows your boss to be difficult to deal with, and if someone has to tell on him, it's better that she be the one to tell it to your prospective employer than you. Mainly because as a third party, she has more credibility as an objective person than you - it's kind of unfair to you because I myself can be quite objective about bosses that I hated but it is what it is.

Walk her on what she would be comfortable saying on your behalf and ask her when you finish walking her what questions your prospective employer is asking that she is still unable to answer. And work with her to come up with answers that she is comfortable giving.

Make sure to thank her for her efforts on your behalf.

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