Your Office Coach: Make sure to get the reference you’re looking for

Marie G. McIntyre
Marie G. McIntyre Tribune News Service

Q: For six years, I worked in a small law office with a woman who clearly did not like me at all. “Gladys” was the attorney’s secretary, and I was a paralegal. Three years ago, I left the office on good terms after receiving an offer from a much larger firm.

My new job worked out well until the firm lost its largest client. I was laid off, along with many other employees, and given a glowing reference letter. I was also provided with outplacement services.

When the outplacement counselor called my former employer for a reference, Gladys answered the phone. She said the attorney was unavailable and offered to answer any questions. She described me as a “legal assistant,” not a paralegal, and apparently had a rather negative attitude.

Now I’m concerned about what Gladys may say to potential employers. I know the attorney would give me a favorable reference, but she might not allow anyone to talk with him. I have considered calling him myself, but I’m not sure what to say.

A: The good news is that interviewers almost always give the greatest weight to your most recent work experience. Some may not even bother to contact your previous employer. However, anyone who does check needs accurate information, so circumventing Gladys would be a wise move.

Explain to the attorney that you would appreciate a personal reference because he is so familiar with your work. If he will agree to write a letter, that may satisfy some employers and reduce the number of inquiries. For phone calls, see if he can provide a direct number that goes to voice mail.

You might mention that Gladys was confused about your position and request that “paralegal” be specifically stated in the reference letter. But discussing her crabby personality could risk retaliation, so there’s nothing to be gained by bringing that up.

Q: While I was out sick, my manager called to see if I would be available for my on-call shift that weekend. Since my doctor’s note specified returning to work on Monday, I told her no. The next day, she called to say that she would handle Saturday herself and that a co-worker had offered to cover Sunday.

She then indicated that I would be expected to take my co-worker’s shift the following Saturday as a “courtesy.” I think this was completely bogus and extremely rude. How can my boss dictate what I should do with my weekend?

A: Let me get this straight. Because you were sick, a colleague volunteered to handle your Sunday shift, and now you’re angry about having to repay him. Returning such a favor is a common practice, so I find your reaction completely baffling.

Your irritation with your boss is also puzzling, given that she’s covering one day herself. Presumably, you won’t even have to make that one up. Not knowing your company’s policy on shift coverage, I can’t say whether this decision was appropriate. But I can say that your attitude seems more than a little self-centered.

Marie G. McIntyre is a workplace coach and the author of “Secrets to Winning at Office Politics.” Send in questions and get free coaching tips at, or follow her on Twitter @officecoach.