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Why You Should Not Give a Negative Reference About a Former Colleague

Ranting about your former employer usually only achieves one thing: it makes you look foolish.

How should you respond when you receive a call about your former boss, colleague or employee who would make the supervisors in Bad Bosses seem like angels?

One of my favorite stories on this subject was told to me by a friend who works in high level government recruitment in the private sector (code for: she offers people salaries higher than most jury verdicts).

My friend had been searching for a candidate for a position that involved a great deal of discretion, trustworthiness and loyalty among other academics and professionals.

A monster

She contacted the former boss (let’s call her “Sarah”) of one of the candidates (let’s call her “Jane”) and received glowing feedback. Sarah said Jane was a very successful person in the field at issue; that Jane’s job was tough but she handled it with aplomb and was great to work with – even picking up a cup of coffee for her on the way to work every day! Jane sounded like a dream candidate.

My friend then called Jane but the conversation went quite differently. Mistakenly assuming that the job call was in reference to her former boss, Sarah, being considered for a new position, Jane used this opportunity to vent years of frustration. She talked about how hard she had to work because Sarah did not; how unappreciated she was at her job despite being “better” than Sarah and how this “monster” forced her to collect coffee every morning. After listening to Jane talk for about 30 minutes, my friend interrupted her to explain that she, not Sarah, had been the candidate. No job offer was made.

The reality is that unless illegal discrimination or misconduct is involved, ranting about your former employer usually only achieves one thing: it makes you look foolish. Jane completely eradicated a glowing review from a tough boss with a lot of street cred in her profession -- qualities any new employer would take a lot more seriously than office drama. In one phone call, Jane proved that she did not have the discretion, maturity or loyalty to handle this 7-figure salary job – just so she could indulge in a 30-minute rant about her former boss.

No way

I have sat in interviews with candidates that complain about how under-appreciated they are at their job, providing examples of how much smarter they are than their current boss. Only one thought runs through my mind: no way.

I recommend that if you don’t have anything nice to say, do not say it. And there’s no need to say anything unless there is a reason to talk. If it’s simply gossip, avoid it -- the legal community is too small for you to have your name behind needless gossip. What matters is what you learned on the job! We all have horror stories of how we have been “wronged” at our jobs, but telling them just makes us sound bitter and lessons are credibility in any context.

hicago-based attorney, Lyndsay Markley (; Twitter @lyndsaymarkley), has dedicated her legal practice to fighting on behalf of persons who suffered injuries or death as the result of the wrongful or careless conduct of others. Her awards include a 10 Best Under 40 2014 Award from the American Institute of Personal Injury Attorneys, selection to the Top 100 Trial Attorneys in Illinois and a Top 40 Under 40 Trial Attorney for 2012-2014 by the National Association of Trial Lawyers. She has also been acknowledged by her colleagues as an Illinois” Rising Star in 2013 -2014 (SuperLawyers” Magazine) and as a Top Women Lawyer in Illinois in 2014 by Super Lawyers and Chicago Magazine.


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