Dear Matthew: My bosses are stopping me leaving

Written by: Matthew Turner
Published on: 1 Jul 2014

BD’s career doctor advises an itchy-footed architect whose boss won’t provide a reference

Question: I have worked at the same company for the past six years and recently resolved to move on. It has taken quite a while to decide this, but now I have, I am keen to. I applied for something and was shortlisted, but at interview it didn’t work out. Unfortunately, they had already contacted my boss for a reference. I am now applying for other jobs but my bosses are refusing to give a reference. It is incredibly unhelpful and nasty.

Answer: You are in a situation most people dread. Having declared your hand, you are now having to continue at work - clearly not something your bosses are liking, and I can’t imagine you are either.

The whole process of moving on is quite a delicate one to manage. While maintaining professionalism it requires a bit of concealment and some tactics.

It seems you have counted your chickens before they hatched. Equally, the firm you went to was not being very helpful, by not paying regard to your pre-acceptance status. It is customary only to pursue references once an offer is made or, if before, with the permission of the candidate. It is for that reason that people sometimes put “references on request” on their CVs.

References are a strange thing. Many people completely rely on them, yet the truth is employers are quite scared of giving bad references in case it comes back on them. That is why some choose only to provide the basic reference stating that you worked there and turned up. This leaves people to read between the lines, and the adage “to be damned with faint praise” kicks in. It is for this reason that prospective employers often pick up the phone for an informal conversation - they need a steer on a candidate.

It may be painful to consider this, but of course it might be that your employers gave you a less-than-shining reference, and that is why you didn’t get the job.

Whatever has gone on you can’t escape one thing: you have no choice but to expect a future employer to give them a ring. After all, you have worked there a number of years and these people are your most recent employers. Somehow you need to manage how that happens. I am not sure how big your practice is, but I guess one strategy would be to identify an ally in your office, even if they are not one of the bosses, and cite them as the go-to person in your applications. Or, if you are confident you are good and your track record in this practice is worth arguing for, confront them and demand the glowing reference you deserve.

If the truth is, as you imply, that they are piqued because you are leaving, then it really is not on to withhold a reference, and you should say that. Of course you do need to bear in mind that by confronting your current bosses, you are risking burning your bridges. But that may be required in order to get what you need.

Architect Matthew Turner of has worked at a range of offices as well as being a client adviser, project manager and competition juror

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