Will My “Attitude Problems” Hurt My References?

Dear Work Coach,

I came across your blog this morning and have spent the last hour reading the various posts and your comments.  I have found some interesting reader queries, and thought that I would see if you could offer any suggestions, from your experiences, regarding my dilemma about my boss and any possible future references.

Since I graduated University six years ago, I have worked for a large healthcare organization in several different roles.  Shortly after I started the job that I am currently in, I experienced several major upheavals in my life during a very short time frame.  I am not using these events as an excuse, but merely to illustrate the progression of events to present day.

As the months have gone by I have become increasingly depressed and resentful, in part due to these events, and in part due to complete job dissatisfaction and unhappiness.  The field I am in, that of an administrative assistant, is not one that I ever wanted to be in, and is one that I sort of fell into in the first place.  Not that there is anything wrong with this type of job, but I have a University degree and it was never my intention to spend my working life making coffee and recording minutes, which is all I do now (there is more to this, but not the point of my email, so I will not elaborate further).

Recently, the department I am in experienced a massive internal reorganization, and I was re-assigned to a new area in the same department, as were several other staff.  All of the above combined has resulted in a severe impact in my mood, and it has unfortunately started to come across in my behavior.  I do not bring my home life to work, but there are days when it is impossible to just switch off and not think about anything other than my job, and so as a result I am not as “smiley” and happy as I once was.

I am good at what I do; I am efficient, highly organized, responsible, and a hard worker.  All of these traits and qualities are ones that have been recognized in prior performance reviews or have even been said directly to me; I am not just trying to make myself sound good.  However, I smile very infrequently now, since I am not happy.  I am polite – it is not in me to be rude, but I am not happy, and it is quite apparent.  I am also very shy and introverted.  I have a feeling that rather than understanding that I am just a quiet person by nature, that people are perceiving me as arrogant.  This is just my assumption, but I feel like I have to force myself to be more of an extrovert or risk being labeled as arrogant, when in reality I am just a very quiet, shy person.  I think all of this combined as lead me to where I am right now.

My dilemma is this: I am looking for another job, closer to home, in a different field, and one that I am hoping will make me feel more engaged and fulfilled.  Shortly after the internal reorganization, my new supervisor (who I haven’t worked with before, and who I only started working for a couple of months ago) came to me and indicated that while I do good work, people have come to him expressing concerns about my attitude.  As I indicated earlier, I am polite, but I am also shy.  I complete my work on time or early, efficiently, and correctly.  But it seems that because I am not as willing to join people for lunch anymore, or to smile as much, that this is being held against me.  I was told repeatedly during the conversation that I needed to change my attitude.  This too I confess I started to resent, because I understood what my supervisor was saying the first time, and did not feel that he needed to reiterate the same point an additional four times.

Putting aside all the other questions I have, my main concern at this point is what kind of a reference I am going to get.  In point of fact, I do not want to list anyone I currently work with as a reference, as I am concerned that they will highlight my short-term unhappiness to the detriment of mentioning all the good qualities that I possess.  I have had experience working in human resources, and first-hand experience in interviewing people and performing reference checks, and yet I do not know how to handle the situation I am in.  I know that by not putting my current supervisor on my list of references that that can raise a red flag.  In addition, I do not want my current employer to know that I am looking, since if he is called and I do not get an offer, I then have to continue working for someone who now knows that I am looking for other work.

I do have other references from previous jobs, but the most recent of those is getting on for two years old, and most prospective employers want to speak with someone who has had more recent knowledge of my skills and abilities.  Likewise, I cannot give the names of colleagues, as again most prospective employers want to talk with someone in a supervisory capacity, not a colleague.

I have been doing some research about what employers can and cannot say about past employees, and frankly I am worried that because of the above circumstances, and my work colleague’s interpretation of my attitude, that it is going to negatively impact my chances of getting a new job.  I know employers cannot say anything that comes across as specifically malicious, but I feel that there is a very fine line between what a prospective employer needs to know, and what is just unnecessarily malicious.  I know that there are companies that can pose as prospective employers to find out what past employers are saying, but that goes back to my not wanting anyone to know I am looking, so I cannot use this route (at least at the moment).

Any suggestions that you have would be most appreciated, as I am feeling very conflicted.  The job environment I am in right now is not one where I can thrive, and I am more and more worried that my chances of getting a job which would allow me to be happier will not be possible, all because of a few months that are now being held against me as my overall “attitude.”


Conflicted and Wanting Out


Dear Conflicted and Wanting Out,

I am sorry for all that you’ve gone through and are still experiencing. Stuff like this eats at us until we almost don’t recognize ourselves. Before I answer your question about references, please allow me a few thoughts.

You words “I am hoping (a new job) will make me feel more engaged and fulfilled.” While often going to a new job can make a big difference, it’s not the job itself that makes it different; it’s the the feeling of hope and the attitude we bring to it. And yes…I used the A word! 🙂

Just because a person is shy doesn’t automatically make people think they have an attitude. I’ve worked with plenty of shy people that are perceived as having good attitudes.

But you are miserable and have had major things to deal with, and as much as we like to think that a smile will cover all that, people can feel the energy we put out. I am so sorry you are feeling this way. And I know it feels awful to think others don’t understand and appreciate who we really are. We all deserve that. But I can’t help think that a lot of what you feel (and what you are putting out) is because you feel you let yourself down most of all by not being “more”. (Please read Zen and the Art of Being a Receptionist (and Other Under-Appreciated Jobs) on that point.)

And just one more thought…please take time to think about what you really want and how you might get there. Maybe an extra class or some other creative approach can jump start you career in a direction you would feel really good about. (See post: 12 Ways to Jump Start that “Impossible” Job Search.)

You said you used to work with Human Resources issues…any interest in taking a professional certificate in that field? Not only would you feel energized by taking charge of your own life, but when you go back to school and if you do it with open eyes, you can find networking contacts to help open new doors.

And even if you are shy (I was and often still am), if you truly believe inside that you deserve better, then you can go out and get it for yourself. And others love to help a person who takes responsibility for where they are and where they are going! I’ve seen this so many times. But often people who are shy think it would be bothering people. No. Most people want to help.

But since you didn’t really ask me about any of that…here’s my take on your references situation. You will have a much better chance with a current reference – if at all possible. If you’re worried about your boss, isn’t there some manager in your company who would give you a good reference?

If this is impossible, then your best hope is to interview while still working and say you don’t want them to know you’re looking – and then give former employers who will give you a good reference. The fact that you want a job closer to home is ample reason for looking – and so is wanting a job that challenges you more1

But if you really want out, I would approach it strategically and first muster all my courage and strength to sit down with your boss and explain that you’ve thought a lot about what s/he said and you very much want to do better at the job and feel terrible that people think you’re shy. Ask for guidance and a little coaching. This lets your boss know you respect him/her. Then do your best to show some improvement. You might be surprised at how your boss responds. And at least, s/he might see you in a different light.

Then when you are ready to look, you can either feel good about listing your boss down as a reference (s/he might actually give you a good reference) OR you can go with the “I prefer NOT to let my boss know I’m looking” option. This way you at least give yourself a feeling of a little more power in your own life. You don’t want be scurrying away with your tail between your legs. If you leave, you can leave with your head held high knowing inside that you gave it your all. Approaching things this way also changes the energy you put out when you interview, helping increase your chances for a job you might really like!

But the most important thing to remember is…wherever you go, there you are! By starting now to build your own feeling of personal strength, you can enter a new job with the kind of energy that creates good energy for yourself. Each moment is a chance to start again. So if you want things to be better, make the commitment to yourself NOW. You have good skills and a lot to give the world. Major events that plunge us into lows often help us find the strength to reach new heights.

Be positive. Have faith that things will come to you when you need them once you put out determined positive energy. And most of all…have faith in YOURSELF!

I wish you much luck, Conflicted and Wanting Out! PLEASE let us know what you decide and how it turns out.

Ronnie Ann


About the author…

Ronnie Ann, founder of Work Coach Cafe, bases her real-world advice on her many years as an organizational consultant where she helped interview and hire people, added to a certificate from NYU in Career Planning & Development and her own adventures as a serial job seeker. She can also be found on her new blog, and on Google+.


  1. I’m in almost the exact situation you’re in. What has helped me is really this wonderful website we’re in now. There are many others in even worse situations that we’re in now. It’s all about how you look at your situation. Look at it as just a temporary spot before you move on to something bigger and better. It’s all about perspective, if you chose to take the negative path, everything will feel and look bad. The negativity will end up spilling into your other non-work activities.

    Also as Ronnie Ann suggested, read the “Zen and the art of being a receptionist” post. It’s probably one of my favorite reads ever.

    So start the job hunt, it’s much easier to look for a job while you actually have one. (eventhough I’d love to just walk away from this one 😛 )

  2. Gee Mr. X…have I sent you your check this week? 🙂

    I’m so touched by your kind words about my blog as well as the support you give to others. I am a big fan of YOURS, in case you didn’t know. Can’t wait to celebrate the day you find a new job that feels right for you!

    I wish you and Conflicted and Wanting Out all the best. In the meantime, I feel lucky to cyber-know you…all of you. Sorry to be gushing, but I really do have the best readers.

    Ronnie Ann

  3. I’m the one who should owe you a check! This blog has been a big help in keeping my sanity 😛

  4. This is a mutual admiration society, Mr. X.

    Hoping to hear the magic words from you soon telling me you got a great new job!

    Ronnie Ann

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