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THE QUESTION

I had a good relationship with my past general manager, even though we had different ways of managing people. We did have some issues; I don't think she appreciated my independent and decisive character at times, but I always respected her as my senior manager. After our company folded, we stayed in contact.

One of my customers suggested I apply for a post in their China office, as I am Chinese. As we went through the hiring process, they asked to speak to my former manager. So I forwarded my former manager's information without question. I was certain she would give an honest and sincere comment without any prejudice.

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Then the prospective employer suddenly cooled to me. I think my former manager badmouthed me to them. I wrote to ask her what she had said. She responded that she would never badmouth anyone "but you know no one liked you in your past workplace." That shocked me. Why would she lie?

What can I do? Whenever I apply for a job they're going to want to talk to a past manager, and she's not going to give me a positive review. I'm frustrated because even when an interview goes well, she will sink me when they call her, and that's not fair.

THE FIRST ANSWER

Heather MacKenzie

President, The Integrity Group, Vancouver

I get a mixed message about your past dealings with your former manager: You say that you had a "good relationship" and "always respected her" as your general manager, but add that you each "had different ways of managing people," that the two of you "had some issues," and that she didn't appreciate your "independent and decisive character."

Given that kind of relationship, I would not feel comfortable with her acting as my reference. Recalling how the two of you interacted in the past, it shouldn't come as a complete surprise that she may have given you a less-than-ideal review. I say "may" because it is only your conjecture at this point.

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She may indeed have given "an honest and sincere comment" about you, just not the one you anticipated. This is one of the realities of business life: We ultimately have no control over what our references say about us. It is dangerous to make assumptions about what a reference will say or do, so my advice is to check in with the individual before putting their name forward as a reference. You need to do this to confirm their agreement that it's okay to do so, and to get a sense of what that person will actually say about you. Better to be disappointed early and have time to line up another reference than deal with the fallout later.

THE SECOND ANSWER

Billy Anderson

Founder of the Courage Crusade, Toronto

I would dig deeper with your manager in hopes of improving the story she tells. You could invite her to coffee, explaining that you'd like to learn more about why she feels you were not liked, as it's a chance for you to improve. Tell her you'd like her advice.

If she agrees to meet, then you have a chance to change her story, or at least learn why she thinks what she does about you.

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If it turns out you're simply not going to get a good reference from her, is there another senior person at that company whose reference you could use instead?

If not, you may still have to offer her as a reference but you can include a disclaimer. Something like, "Absolutely you can check with my last manager, but I don't feel she will paint an accurate picture of me. I believe she didn't appreciate my independent and decisive character at times."

Also be ready to state what you learned from the experience and how you might do things differently in future relationships, as this shows a willingness to improve.

That sounds better than not using her as a reference at all, which implies you're hiding something.

Got a burning issue at work? Need help navigating that mine field? Let our Nine To Five experts help solve your dilemma. E-mail your questions to ninetofive@globeandmail.com. Your confidentiality is ensured.

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