Dear Madame L,
I'm applying for jobs after finishing a two-year training program and internship. I'm having trouble even getting interviewed, and I think maybe my supervisor in my internship is telling lies about me when prospective employers call her. She was supposed to be a mentor, but we didn't have a good relationship, which she probably thinks was all my fault. How can I tell if she's been sandbagging me?
Need a Job
Madame L knows this can be a problem. There are ways to find out what a reference is saying about you, and if you can do so without breaking the law, go for it. But then what will you do with that information? Madame L suggests that it would be more fruitful to spend your time and effort ensuring that references you provide to prospective employers will be positive.
You can do this by maintaining a positive relationship with previous supervisors and checking with them, when you ask their permission to use them as a reference (you did ask their permission, right?), whether they would be able to provide a solid positive reference.
Here are the kinds of questions prospective employers will be asking. As you see, they won't want to know just that you got to work on time every day; they will check that the dates and job titles and every bit of information you put on your resume are accurate. They may even ask your previous employer if he/she would trust you to babysit his/her children, or if they would be willing to take you to dinner at a fancy restaurant.
On the other hand, Madame L would like to reassure you of two things, though she can understand why these might not seem so reassuring to you:
First, in this economy, it's possible that prospective employers aren't even getting to the point of calling your previous employers for references.
Second, you probably don't want to work for someone who takes the word of an antagonistic former employer without checking your other references. (You did provide more than one reference, didn't you?)
Now, Madame L must add that if you didn't have a good relationship with someone who was supposed to be mentoring you, you should have been working harder to make that relationship work. Let's say the mentor or supervisor really was a jerk. This happens, as we all know, all having worked at some time in our lives for a less-than-exemplary boss. Your job, as an intern or trainee or any kind of employee, is to do the best you can in that situation to make it work. If all else fails, Madame L has even known an interns who talked with the mentor's supervisor and asked, without blaming or casting aspersions, to be transferred to work with another person.
Madame L knows all these things are not possible to do every time, and Madame L knows many people whom she would provide glowing references for who just couldn't make it work with a boss or supervisor, no matter how hard they tried, ending up with less-than-glowing results in their job search.
Madame L is positive that you are precisely one of these people and, therefore, that you will succeed in your job search. As the Count of Monte Cristo advised his young protege Maximilian Morrel, "Wait and hope!" (And keep sending out those applications and resumes!)