Does your boss (or coworker) have a right to have a say in your career?

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Does your boss (or coworker) have a right to have a say in your career?

Postby Nate W. » Tue May 30, 2017 12:17 am

A reoccurring problem often discussed on this forum is the issue of references from your supervisor (or PIs) and their right (even coworkers) to have a say in your career. My feeling is that you are only accountable to your boss first and then maybe your team. Based on my experiences in the lab, if you are a reasonable employee and have made a significant contribution to the lab, most PIs will write a favorable and helpful reference as a way of saying thank you. It is my belief in dealing with reference requests that one should follow the adage, "if you can't say anything nice, don't say it at all." Further, I believe that the reference should be consistent with one's job performance evaluations and that it is up to the job applicant, not your former supervisor, to convince the prospective supervisor that you are the right person for the job. As someone who has provided references for undergraduates, I try to be accurate and factually in my analysis, never letting my personal feelings about a candidate taint my reference for that person. For example, I honestly believe that I could write a positive reference letter for someone I disliked but who did a good job. If I can't write something positive, I just tell the candidate nicely that I can't provide a reference. Why can't all supervisors accept this simple philosophy? I am dumbfounded to believe that anyone would disagree. Why?

However, there are supervisors, especially PIs, who disagree with this philosophy, and will often act not with the best intentions of the candidate, but with some other motivate in mind. For example, a former supervisor provides a reference that is inaccurate and misleading when compared with your job performance evaluations for the last five years. After discovering this problem, you ask your former supervisor to just stop providing a reference if anyone asked him. If he refuses the request, is he entitled to his opinion? Likewise, in order to protect my reputation and efforts to find work, would I be justified in issuing him a cease and desist letter for defamation and tortious inference to stop him from providing an inaccurate reference? Maybe they can influence your promotion while they are your supervisor, but what right do they have to influence future prospects elsewhere if they are guided by a grudge or hatred to provide misleading information?

Another reference problem that can happen when someone leaves an employer and has an unreasonable supervisor (or coworker) is that this supervisor tries to hold a grudge by interfering with one future employment. This can take the form of a former supervisor calling your new supervisor and provide misleading and inaccurate statements about your work history. In talking with many colleagues and friends about this, I am shocked at how many supervisors feel that these behaviors are acceptable (even among coworkers who feel this way). Another example might be you are working on two job offers and you need to start work for financial reasons. You are equally interested in both positions intially. However, one offer is placed on hold and another is extended with a narrow deadline. Now, you are more interested in the position on hold for career future prospects but they will not make a decision until after the acceptance date on the other offer. So, you accept the first offer and two months later the other offer comes. You quit after two months on the job and start the new position. Before you leave the first job, you tell your supervisor what happened and then you ask him if you can finish out the week. He agrees. Then three months later in your new job, the HR director from your old employer tracks you down and calls your new supervisor with the intention of getting you fired. Was the HR director justified in his actions? Does he have a right to have a say in my career?

Another form of this behavior is the nosey coworker and who tries to spread rumors and misleading information to get you fired because they dislike you.

So why do some people disagree with my beliefs on references? This brings me to the question of does your supervisor or coworker have a right to have a say in your career; your ability to provide for yourself and family. Personally, I would never interfere with anyone's career because I respect a person's right to earn a living and provide for themselves (even If I disliked that person). Perhaps, the important question is what do you do if you have been a victim of this behavior and where do you draw a line.

PS: In the days of the wild west, if a man steals another man's horse, they are hung. Why? Because you are interfering with man's ability to make a living.
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Re: Does your boss (or coworker) have a right to have a say in your career?

Postby D.X. » Tue May 30, 2017 3:10 am

Hi Nate,

I generally have your philosphy, if i can help my fellow man or woman, provided I have had first hand and postiive experience with thier work via a reference or referral, then OK. And that's above how I feel about them personally.

Unfortunately not many are like us in that regard.

Regarding PIs, well some of the examples there are issues of academia. And that's just bad behavior. Unfortunately, academics are not trained or expected to be People Managers in the ways say government or industry employers would expect. C'est la vie. its box of chocolates. You can't expect ALL Supervisors to have the view of proper career guidance within or outside, if they've never been fully trained to be a Mentor or Coach, they are the products of their own training and experience.

Regarding your examples for industry of one Supervisor calling another or HR director calling a company with an interest of getting someone fired, that's a FALSE scenario. It does not happen. There are legal implications of that, in Europe we call it "mobbing" in the country that I am in, so help you if you're caught doing that, you'll be fired and subject to legal action. In the US, HR is even more powerful than Europe, and well, you're setting yourself up for lawsuits. So the scenarios you mention just don't happen.

The other point, seriously, you think someone is going to spend "Their precious time" to go out of thier way to disparage a former employee, long gone? No way. That's not a real world scenerio and that's false. Even it were to happen, here's the truth, that supervior or HR director making that call to the employees new Boss, will be held in negative light and will lose crediblity - maybe even trigger a shock factor of "who's that idiot"? When an employee leaves its over - they have a new Job, they are performing well, that's all that Counts, not what happened in the past.

In the example you provided, a former Supervisor can never ever influence a promotion decision if its about to happen, its based on current employee Performance and crediblity in the team, historical Bull crap form a former supervior or Company plays no role - and even if there were negative elements in an employee's past, you forget...People Grow!

I've had my transgressions where my past Boss from 5 years ago who hated my guts "could" call my current employer and say I was in an HR Intervention program for lack of Cultural Empathy. You think that will have any bearing what so ever today? Where i'm working cross-georgraphy, cross-culture and i've deliverer meaningful Impact to my Company? Seriously you think my current Boss would give a damn if my old Boss complains about an old Off the Boat American??!!! My Boss would laugh his head off, give me pat the back and say "congrats you've grown!" and stop making jokes about People from New Jersey.

So please, in industry, these are false scenarios that just don't happen! Please stop suggesting it does! And regarding that old Boss - we saw each other recently and we greeted each other with a Hug. Past is past.

People can't be bothered with holding grudges and interfering with other peoples' future employment. Best they can do is refuse a reference. Done. And such behavior in reality does not put the employee at risk, rather it puts that complaining Supervisor at risk.

The only ONE time a negative Feedback can hurt is during the hiring process - but you control your references and how that is solicited. Once you're hired...nothing stops that train from rolling, except if they find you have a criminal record or something after the fact.

So this is why some disagree with you and your belief with references, false scenarios.

There are times a Supervisor may not agree with your state of development, maybe you're ready for the next step but the supervisor disagrees - that's another story (recently addressed in another thread).

So in summary, some get the short end of the stick in academia - nothing you can do about it other than get other ones to back you up reference wise.

In industry, what you presented, does not happen.

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Re: Does your boss (or coworker) have a right to have a say in your career?

Postby Nate W. » Tue May 30, 2017 1:26 pm

DX, I suspect the laws in Europe are favorable to the workers. All of these situations are true. With the exception of the HR example, all the examples provided involved a PI at a US research university. The HR director worked at a private industry research foundation. Further, one of the situations has happened to me for the last four years and I can't figure out what went wrong because nobody will talk about it.

You are right about something. Academia is horrible at leadership and management issues. Why? This is not brain surgery even Forest Gump can figure how to lead or motivate other people. Once I had a PI who was jealous about my ability to get others to do things for me and the lab. I never responded because I thought answer was so simple that it would insult him; he never got the concept of being honest, positive, and showing reciprocity.

DX, I think the incidence of a PI holding back a productive employee occurs quite often. The question is when does it cross the line. Let's take the first example. Is ok for a PI to say things in a reference that are inconsistent with one's performance evaluations with the intent of making sure you are not hired? Suppose the PI is trying to be clever about it by distorting the truth by providing misleading opinions. For example, DX's boss says to a prospective employer "DX has no work ethic and doesn't work a full day." <the reality is DX works 55-60 hrs. a week and his performance evaluations show statements by his boss that he does have a strong work ethic. However, the DX's boss real standard is 80 hrs a week but he does not share that with the prospective employer.> I can think of many examples where a PI can distort the true by what is considered a statement of opinion and just completely undermine a person's candidacy. The law states they can't lie about a statement of fact. What do you do in these situations where a supervisor knowing lies or distorts the truth in a reference?

Questions for the forum:

If one knows a PI is providing misleading or inaccurate information in a reference:

Based on your experiences in academia, if your PI was my supervisor and I asked him not to provide a reference, would he honor my request and do you think I should have a right to have a say in what he says or does in regards to a reference (based on the facts of what is in one's performance evaluations provided)?

Is the PI or supervisor entitled to his opinion when providing a reference? Should it be all about the facts and what you accomplished and not about his opinions?

Do I have a right to silence his opinions, especially if they are distortions or lies?

Why don't some PIs recognize it is the candidate's career, not their own?

What actions would you take against someone interfering in your career by providing misleading or inaccurate information?

Nate W.
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Re: Does your boss (or coworker) have a right to have a say in your career?

Postby Dick Woodward » Tue May 30, 2017 3:36 pm


As someone who has hired a number of people, I would not view a lack of a reference from one's immediate previous industrial supervisor to be a problem - after all, it is uncommon to announce that you are looking for a position. I would be a bit concerned if there were not references from supervisors or colleagues from a previous position.

On the other hand, if someone coming to me from academia did not have references from either a PI or, in the case of a graduating PhD, from thesis committee members, this would cause me a great deal of concern. I would specifically be concerned that this person could not "play well with other children", and would probably look at alternative candidates.

As far as DX' comment that company personnel do not go out of their way to sabotage other's careers, that is absolutely true. There is, however, the power of the hiring manager's network - for example (true story), I was interviewing X for a sales position. I also had an trusted acquaintance who had worked with X at another company. I asked about X and how X fit in. The reply - "X is good enough, although not great. However, at trade shows, X is generally found at the hotel pool - especially when there is set-up or tear-down to be done." Guess what - X did not get the job due to questions about work ethic.

As is often stated on this forum, there are many, many applicants for every position. Anything that raises a question about an employee's fitness for the position may be enough to derail an application.

You also suggest the possibility of legal action in certain cases. I am aware of a situation where an applicant actually informed the hiring manager that the applicant had sued a previous supervisor for harassment. According to the manager, based on what the candidate divulged, the supervisor deserved it. However, the hiring manager told me that when she polled all of the other interviewers, words like "brittle", "overly sensitive", "potential for problems" and the like were used. Someone else got the position. If you are in the unfortunate position of taking legal action against a supervisor, the word will get out and it will negatively impact your career.

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Re: Does your boss (or coworker) have a right to have a say in your career?

Postby Dave Jensen » Tue May 30, 2017 4:32 pm

Only the very "old" posters here will remember, but we used to have a very impressive poster on our team who was just terrific with advice. She was a very special person, who cared a great deal for our young scientists, and she was always trying to help someone in a pinch. (I don't want anyone dredging up her name here, please).

She was from Texas, Nate. You'll recall that she had a negative issue develop in her career and she had to take some kind of action against an employer. It appears to have had horrible backlash on her career. It was an absolute travesty.

I would not wish a "legal solution" on anyone where it comes to taking that approach with a hiring manager or a prospective employer.

“There is no such thing as work-life balance. Everything worth fighting for unbalances your life.”- Alain de Botton
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Re: Does your boss (or coworker) have a right to have a say in your career?

Postby PG » Tue May 30, 2017 4:46 pm

I really cant see a purpose for anyone to actively mess with the career of a previous employee and cant imagine that it is something that happens frequently. There is problably rare exceptions to this but I have never seen it and have a hard time seeing why someone would do it.
Importantly I usually ignore written reference letters and always try to actually talk with more than one reference and this will include anyone in my network that knows the candidate regardless if they have been listed as a reference or not (I will avoid talking to current managers and collegues if requested to do so).

When I get asked to provide references I am honest and try to focus on the positives.
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Re: Does your boss (or coworker) have a right to have a say in your career?

Postby Nate W. » Tue May 30, 2017 8:00 pm

To everyone,

I agree with you, DX. This seems to be an academic problem. Rarely have I noticed a problem with references in the private sector. It has been refreshing working in the private sector. Why do academics care so much about references? Frankly who cares: Anyone can get a positive and meaningless letter from a PI who happens to be your best friend also. But not all good employees work for the best supervisors. Good employees can work for bad bosses just as likely as bad employees can work for good bosses. My apologies to the academic crowd on this forum: Academics are terribly naïve and idiotic in this regards when evaluating references. Stick to the accomplishments and facts, not rumors, opinions, or the stature of the PI. Plus, when assessing fit, the comments from your coworkers are more important than what the PI says. Who cares it if the letter is from a Nobel Laureate, if doesn't say anything of substance. Maybe this is just me I don't put much weight on a reference unless it is factual in nature and deals mostly with verifiable accomplishments. Plus, coworkers can speak better to fit than the supervisor.

If I worked extremely hard for a supervisor over many years, why shouldn't I have a say in my own reference rather have it depend on my supervisor's personality, demeanor, or mood that day?

I think this scenario of bad PI behavior often plays out when good employees are leaving academic labs to the private sector because some PIs think the former employee are selling themselves out when they might need them in their own lab at a cheaper wage. It always happens when the budget is tight and the PI is struggling for publications. This is a selfish impulse by the PI not a problem with the candidate. To any PI who thinks this way, you have a problem; you are a selfish idiot with no EQ. But how far should a PI take this grudge or better question is how long should the candidate/or former employee take this behavior by the PI. Most PIs let it go under some gentle pressure but what about the PIs who will not let it go and are dishonest in their references.

I am wondering how others feel about references. Let me answer other comments with a series of rhetorical questions:

Have you ever agreed to give a bad reference w/o telling the candidate? Why?

Have you ever refused to give a reference because you knew it would be bad?

Have you ever let personal "feelings" about someone dictate the quality of a reference?

Could you provide a good reference for an employee who you disliked but who did a good job for you?

Should a former PI be entitled to his private opinion about why you are not qualified for a certain private sector job when it is clear he feels you owe the academic community for your years of training or quite selfishly he wants you to work in his own lab for his career, not yours?

Would you feel insulted if I asked you what you wrote in a reference?

If you caught your supervisor providing inaccurate and misleading information in a reference (that is inconsistent with your performance evaluations over many years), would you demand he change the information?

If then you asked him to stop providing a reference, showing him the contradictions in your performance evaluations, and he replied I am entitled to my opinion and to tell the truth (even though his statements are patently dishonest), what would you think about your former boss now?

Can you think of a reason why a PI or supervisor of many years might act in this way given many positive accomplishments by the employee and assuming no major personality conflicts nor incidences? My only conclusion would be the PI is a "real" jerk and/or has an agenda or holds a grudge?

Would a threat of lawsuit via a cease and desist be enough to justify muzzling a supervisor providing an inaccurate reference? {I would only consider it a legal tool to bluff; to force the other party to change their position given the pending costs, only if they were wrong and unreasonable in their position}

If you were a supervisor issued a cease and desist for providing an inaccurate reference would change your behavior and stop providing a reference or fight the issue?

Why if you were the bad acting PI in this situation, why would you ever let it get to a point where you would never change your view point in light of positive performance evaluations you wrote and were shown; why wouldn't you just stop providing a reference? Why would any supervisor under any circumstance not just let a reference disagreement go; say nothing if you can't tell the truth?

Why not just tell people what you would say in a reference before you agree to provide one? Remember mother's adage.
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Re: Does your boss (or coworker) have a right to have a say in your career?

Postby D.X. » Wed May 31, 2017 2:32 am

Nate W. wrote:
You are right about something. Academia is horrible at leadership and management issues. Why? This is not brain surgery even Forest Gump can figure how to lead or motivate other people.


Hi Nate,

This is a very wrong assumption. Leading and motivating People is an art as much as it can be considered a science. Even those who may have some Level of innate leadership (usually linked to lead by example behaviors) Need development and understanding here on how to have others follow their lead willingly while ensuring high Motivation and performance. And this is why both on the industry side there is alot of Training here, in fact there there is a whole industry here that includes academicians in the world of psychology and Business sciences actively researching and understanding this and even though we think we know alot we continue to learn.

Even in circumstances of authorative leadership by rank as in the miltary or law enforcement there is mandatory people Management training here that, believe it or not, are centered on NON-authoritative leadership styles and approaches (i have received such Training in this Environment as well) if its so easy to do, then why the acknowledgement and Investment?

Not to bash academia the issues have been presented and no one is going to overarchingly solve the Problem System wide - its down to the individual to manage. I wouldnt link academic PI behavior to what you would see on the corporate side, both on the Management side and the employee side. Regarding your example with academic PI with risk of distoring truth, this is why we have other People who can talk to your Performance as a peer such as a post-doc or even committee. Also work-ethic is not defined by number of hours in a lab, it may be one of many serrogates but that can also be viewed as well maybe the Person has a good worth ethic but....well we have some performace issues, why is the Person working 60 to 80 hour weeks? maybe they are poor at time Management?

We had this discussion on another thread so don't want to re-hash so please don't bring it up again.

I wouldn't go in to laws here as Dave mentioned.

The other Point to mention, some of These bad behaviors are in the minority of PIs to be honest - especially today ist more and more common for Folks to be looking externally to academia, ist not a suprise anymore in my opinion and the majority of Folks i've met didn't have such issues so lets just contextualize it. Alot of it is also perception driven - i remember thinking my PI would have never supported me to move out of academia and I resisted talking ot her about it, it was not until I was in my post-doc that I approached - know what I found...a completely supportive Person willing to bat for me whereever I had interest. Wow. What if I approached sooner? That was only because of fear and my persception that I didn't Approach sooner.

Also when you're looking for a Job outside academia during Transition, rare the reference of the PI will be solicited - like we do on the corporate side, they don't expect you to have a reference from your direct current employer so if you treat it like that then go to go. Dick mentioned that.

Follow the advice Dick gave.


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Re: Does your boss (or coworker) have a right to have a say in your career?

Postby Steven Z. » Thu Jun 01, 2017 7:23 am

I agree that one should not give a negative reference unless the subject did something willful and awful like sexually harass someone or sabotage the lab.

Unfortunately there are a lot of sociopaths and sadists out there. This very thing happened at the lab I did my MSc. at. A former coworker had a string of failed interviews and got suspicious and hired a reference checking service. There are a couple out there that will call posing as an employer and document what is said. Anyways, the PI was saying just awful things about her. I hired the service too and though he wasn't as bad about me he was not great either. She thought about suing the university for defamation but settled for writing a publicly visible scathing rebuke on him to prospective grad students and post docs that came up when you googled his name.

Personally, if I got a bad reference about someone I would be very suspicious as to what kind of dirt bag goes out of their way to hurt someone's employment prospects like that and if that reference is telling you more about person giving the reference than the subject. Unfortunately most employers will just silently reject the applicant and the applicant may never find out the problem losing one opportunity after another. Of course anything negative about the company is just a "disgruntled ex-employee."

I've also heard the frequent issue of reference extortion: the PI holding their reference as leverage to force the post-doc or grad student to do something.

I really would encourage people to document and sue PI's who do this if possible. Unfortunately the record of the lawsuit will probably only make things worse.
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Re: Does your boss (or coworker) have a right to have a say in your career?

Postby Steven Z. » Thu Jun 01, 2017 8:54 am

I just wanted to add that in the private sector most companies have policies not to give references at all beyond confirming titles and dates of employment and certainly not give negative ones. There is no benefit to the company for doing that, and they risk legal liability. A cease and desist letter to the former boss and HR will usually force them to back down.

In academia though some of these PI's are not accountable to anyone even HR especially if they are bringing in big grants. So that might not be effective.
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