When good job references go bad -- and how to fight them

In an interview, past run-ins with office politics may come back to haunt you, but there's a way to hit back first

Dear Bob ...

I've been doing software development professionally for 40 years. I'm nearing retirement. I've never paid much never mind to office gossip, and I'm guessing that is part of my downfall.

[ Also on InfoWorld: If you can't protect yourself, it might be easier to protect your staff from your peers' abuse. | Keep up on career advice with Bob Lewis' Advice Line newsletter. ]

Here's my situation: I was recently laid off when a new head of application development joined the company. He interviewed all the programmers when he started. He made it clear from the start he didn't like the project to which I was assigned, and 10 minutes of discussion didn't change anything. I was gone the next day.

Now the problem: Since then, I've been to a half-dozen interviews where everything seemed to be going very well. The follow-up calls were enthusiastic, and I gave them good references. But in the end, I wasn't a "fit" in any of them.

After six of these, one person was kind enough to explain what really happened. They had their own sources in the company I worked for prior to the last one -- where I actually have my best references. They had other names. They used these "other names," who apparently said I didn't get along with my coworkers and managers.

OK, some more background: Someone there during my first few years at this company behaved toward me in a friendly manner. He was one of the principal programmers, and I considered him a friend. It turned out he was bad-mouthing me to everyone, and nobody let me in on what he was doing. I'd have moved on, but times were tough and opportunities few in the '06-to-'10 time frame. Besides, I was doing my job and making the people I directly worked with seemingly happy.

Then this thing happened. A junior person insisted that I implement something that flat-out would not work. I tried very patiently to explain why it wouldn't. I didn't follow her instructions. Later, the boss got involved and reassigned the task to her. She eventually did some research and found out she had been wrong.

But that didn't matter. They put a written notice in my personnel file. It was followed by an episode where I didn't follow the correct template -- which had never been identified as the formal template and wasn't shown to me until after I'd finished the job assigned to me.

Outcome: I was not doing my job and was fired. No severance. Nothing. Go away. Now, somehow, that has caused me to be blackballed.

Now, what? Seems to me I'm screwed. Have any suggestions?

- Tarred

Dear Tarred ...

This is a tough one. I have no easy, surefire answer that will address the issue.

I can see two possible courses of action, and I'd encourage you to try either one or the other -- but not both -- in every future interview situation. Both fall into the category of pre-emptive strikes.

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