When Great Job References Screw Up Your Life

I had my own part of bad apples in life, with some jobs from the past I truly prefer not to think about anymore. I will write this down only to share how typical good references – from your prior manager or other people you worked with – can become poisoned pills in your new job.

When Flexibility and Adaptability Are Poisoned Pills

It looked weird to me that in most of the jobs or contract I picked up at some point in life people were starting within the first weeks to play with all kind of “roles” and experimental situations we never talked about in our job interviews. And I worked with plenty of people, around or in the past, who obviously did not have part of such poisoned apples.

I figured out where the problem was only after two different warning flags. When my current manager, and CTO of the company, told me “but I’ve been told you are very flexible”, after he was playing with so many new “roles” assigned to me without asking.

I called one of my references – one of the previous guys I worked for – very concerned he said bad thinks about me.

“No, Chris, it’s rather the exact opposite: he looked very interested to know how tolerant and adaptable you are to changing situations. And I told him how flexible, understanding and professional you behaved when we had so many changes in our own organization”.

I actually hated those unnecessary and experimental disrespectful changes, at the job before. And the job before that. I felt trapped in some of these companies, and couldn’t move out. And all I can say is that, after several years, this “adaptability” and “flexibility” made me rather suffer, as they were qualities people simply took advantage of.

I’ll tell you here below about one job where I used my good reference. To understand why my great flexibility and adaptability didn’t serve me well.

“Leading by Example”

Main difference between a Development Manager and a Development Lead is the last position cannot usually hire or fire people. But a Development Lead is still the “Number One” of the Development Manager, he is the guy empowered with technical supervision over his team. All Development Leads I worked for in the past were actually giving my performance reviews, or played a crucial role in them. Team members were expected to go through the Lead to the Manager, and the Managers were always protective toward their Leads.

By far worst job in my life was few years ago, when I accepted a position of such Development Lead in a dynamic and fast-paced company. I had four people under my supervision, but I knew none of them before being hired. I found out only the first day that another guy on the same position left after only a few weeks on the job. And that one of the girls I had under my supervision actually refused taking over this same role.

I must say also the company had one month a year, before Christmas, when they used to work like crazy, long hours and in very stressful conditions. And I was hired just before that so-called “crunch time“. Without any available time for anything else, I started immediately to fix bugs with the rest of the team and do my best. Nobody ever complained my work was bad.

It’s only that my direct Development Manager, the guy who actually hired me, started to show a very weird understanding on what a Development Lead is. His concept was I should only “lead by example“, which basically translated into I should work more than anyone else around AND be a kind of servant to anyone else from my team.

When at some point my devs decided to take some time off for some demo of one of them, on something that was more appropriate after the “crunch time”, I’ve been treated awful by my manager. His idea was the devs I supervised could simply do whatever they liked around me, I was only there to help them. And this was just the beginning.

In the most discrete and diplomatic way possible, I went at some point to talk with HR. But it became soon clear to me that there was a small group at the top watching each other’s back. And I had zero chance trying to inject anything with some common sense.

Not a Happy Ending…

I’ll not go deeper here, at what I had to endure. I just avoided conflict, tried to do my best with what I had. And even made some friends in the process, as many other people there were butchered and treated the same way. After one month and a half, I remember like yesterday when I had enough. I was calm and just quietly waited until 5. Then I collected all my stuff, went to shake hands and simply tell the friends that I’ll not be back the next day, but it was nice working with them. Most of them looked at me with deep understanding, and I knew they had no choice but to shut up, as they were trapped the same way…

I sent my letter of resignation to HR the next day, explaining in a professional manner why it was impossible to me to come back to work there anymore. I outlined what I brought to the company in the short time there, with the positive feedback from so other many people in the company. And simply said I’ll have no choice but sue the company for misleading me to accept such an inappropriate position, and lose other valid offers in the meantime.

There was no dispute. HR paid me almost immediately thousands of dollars in just a few days, just to keep my mouth shut. I wasn’t surprised when some other Lead I worked with told me on Skype that not long ago he couldn’t come back to work for two full weeks, because of the same guy. And I also found out the company paid before large sums of money to cover up for the exact same person.

The guy was a bully. He was coming from an Eastern European country, like myself.  I must say many countries out there still show some “macho” and “vigorous” approach to many professional issues. But it is still despicable such persons exist in our Western companies, and are obviously protected by the upper management.


Two months after this sad experience I’ve been hired by some CTO in another company. This guy just happened to have been a former CTO in the company I just left. He didn’t know I worked there, as my month and a half was not worth damaging my resume now, I didn’t mention it. At some point, he told me how he was back-stabbed by the guy who was protecting my former bully there. And I told him my story too.

With this new guy I had another weird experience, but I will tell you more about another time…