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A reader writes:

My sister was recently chosen for a permanent position at a large organization where she had previously worked as a temp. They performed over three weeks of scrupulous recruitment procedures, and she passed a background check with flying colors. She was asked for a list of her references, which of course included the person she previously worked for at this organization, who she trusted implicitly. They had gotten along very well, he wrote her a very nice reference letter when her temp assignment ended, and he continued to provide stellar reviews of her to other companies she applied to during her work search.

Well, she just found out that she is being rejected due to an unfavorable reference from him. His review of her to the hiring manager was a complete 360 degree turn from the references he gave about her previously to other companies, wherein he praised her skills and work performance. Instead, he "hemmed and hawed" to the hiring manager and said that he thought he could do better, stating that my sister showed little initiative in the job with him. The hiring manager did tell my sister that this person's review completely went against his own impression of her, and her other references checked out very favorably; however, since this person was within the organization, he was giving him the benefit of the doubt.

Needless to say, my sister is gobsmacked. She thinks she might have some legal recourse, as she has copies of the references this person had given to other companies on her behalf, as well as the reference letter this person wrote when her assignment ended. (She also sent copies of these references to the hiring manager.)

She should move on.

Here's why: First, it's not illegal to give a negative reference. It's illegal to knowingly give false information about someone (like saying that you were fired when you weren't, or that you stole money from the company when you didn't). But it's not illegal to give your opinion about someone, even if you can't prove that opinion.

So, that aside, what happened here? Most likely, one of these three possibilities:

1. Your sister's former manager wasn't that thrilled with her work but gave her positive references anyway, because he felt it was a nice thing to do. However, once there was a question of her working within his own organization, he felt more obligated to speak up about the concerns he had. This is very, very common. People often want to help someone get a job, even if they don't think especially highly of their work, and so they say positive things ... until it could impact their own company or their own reputation.

2. Your sister's manager was truthful when he provided positive references for her to other companies, but there were reasons that he felt she wouldn't be the right fit for this particular job. You can do a great job in one role and not be the right fit for a different role -- in fact, that's very common. References aren't just about "yes" or "no"; done right, they're about fit for a particular job, not just any job. It's possible that he really would hire her back as a temp and did she think she did a good job in that role, but genuinely can't recommend her for the other role she was applying for.

3. Something else. He's been secretly planning to undermine her all along? He randomly changed his mind about her one day? He doesn't want her as a coworker? He wants someone else to get the job? Any of these are possible, but it is far more likely that the answer is #1 or #2, as those are logical and common explanations for what happened here.

Ultimately, I think the messages to take away here are that people are often willing to give you positive references without actually being sold enough on you to recommend that their own company hire you ... and even when they do truly think well of you, it does not mean that they think you'd be a good fit for every single job out there.

It's hard to hear sometimes, but true.

Want to submit a question of your own? Send it to alison@askamanager.org.