Dear J.T. & Dale: What can a former manager or employer disclose? If I were a hiring manager in the HR department, I’d want to talk to the prospective employee’s manager. I have interviewed, and after a very successful interview, the company simply stops all communication. So whatever occurs after the interview (where I presume references are checked) leads to “Thanks, but no thanks.” — Brice

J.T.: Former employers can say whatever they want about you in a reference check; however, most smart employers have strict policies on this. Why? If someone says something that is inaccurate or subjective and that results in your not getting a job, you could sue the company. So, I would contact your former HR department and ask for the reference policy. They should tell you what they verify, such as payee, dates of employment and whether you are eligible for rehire. Next, have someone you know call HR and pretend to do a reference check to confirm whether they are staying true to the policy.

DALE: Your former HR department is highly unlikely to be chatty with people making inquiries about you — they are busy, and there is nothing in it for them but potential problems. It’s likely that they will provide only dates of employment, nothing more. However, that doesn’t mean your old manager isn’t trash-talking you. He or she might not know the company policy, might feel immune from it or might simply have uncontainable animosities.

J.T.: Checking that possibility will require your friend to make a second phone call. If you discover that your manager is undermining you, you can contact the employer and warn that if it happens again, you will be seeking legal remedies.

DALE: Those two calls, however, are very unlikely to produce anything sinister. They will serve only to provide you with peace of mind and let you focus on becoming a better interviewee. Remember, it is typical for a company to interview five people in order to hire one. Thus, four of five are getting the “No thanks” response. To be the one “Yes,” you must differentiate yourself. It will help if you simply ask, near the end of the interview, “How do I stack up against the other candidates?” This strikes some people as rude, but I’ve never heard of hiring managers taking offense; instead, they appreciate the chance to be candid. The answer will afford you the chance to respond to perceived weaknesses, right then and in your follow-up communications. You are following up, aren’t you?

J.T.: Meanwhile, given your concerns, Brice, it seems unlikely that you are going to get a good reference from your old boss. So make sure that you have other people at the company who are eager to talk positively about you. Bring a list to the interview, with contact information. Make it easier for the hiring manager to talk to your allies than to your enemies.


J.T.: We like to pause occasionally and offer recommendations of useful career resources, usually books or websites. Today we’re doing something a bit different. One of the “stars” of the leadership book Dale and I wrote, “Mandatory Greatness,” is Jim Potts, an owner of the Lewis & Clark sporting goods stores in Arkansas. He recently sent us a copy of his career/business philosophy, and it was so powerful that we want to pass it along:

“With all you do, think and say, convince the person in front of you that they do indeed matter. Become successful in doing that over a period of time, and in turn you will come to believe that your own life matters. When you realize that your life matters, you will discover your purpose and gifts that will be used to serve your fellow man in many different ways.”

DALE: For anyone who has ever wondered, “What’s the secret of success?,” there’s the answer. You can’t fake caring, not from yourself, and if you care, you get better at what you do, and then you get the breaks, whereupon you find yourself riding a spiral of service, and that’s where you find success.

Jeanine “J.T.” Tanner O’Donnell is a professional-development specialist and the founder of the consulting firm JTodonnell. Dale Dauten resolves employment and other business disputes as a mediator with Send questions via email at, or write to them in care of King Features Syndicate, 300 W. 57th St., 15th Floor, New York, NY 10019.