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Coronavirus pandemic stress made me ‘ghost’ my boss. What do I do for a reference?

Working from home piled on the stress.


Reader: I screwed up at my last job. We were working from home because of the coronavirus pandemic and I was unable to adjust. Also, I had a mild freakout due to personal issues. In a moment of panic, I quit without giving notice, knowing I was burning a bridge. I was there just shy of one year.

I have always had rave recommendations from employers, but now I cannot give my most recent manager as a reference. I suspect she is mad at me, but I don't know for sure.

I can get stellar references from several people at my previous job, where I was for five years. The company I worked at before then is no longer in existence, and I don't know how to get in touch with the owner.

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What do I do when I am specifically asked for my most recent supervisor as a reference? Is it okay to list colleagues or subordinates? This was my first management job, and some of the jobs I am applying for are leadership roles, so a reference from this most recent job would be relevant.

Karla: Before we get into references, let’s consider which looks more damning on your résumé: a gap in your work history or a job that ends abruptly.

Arguments for omitting the job from your résumé altogether: First, it lasted less than a year. Second, even though you were in a management position, the circumstances of your departure don’t paint a picture of reliable leadership. If an interviewer contacts that supervisor for a reference, the best you can hope for is that she’ll just confirm the dates you worked there. You can list former colleagues or the HR department, of course, but failing to list a supervisor when specifically requested suggests (correctly, in this case) that you are dodging.

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Arguments for including the job: It fills the gap, it shows a career path of increasing responsibility, and it would not be untruthful to say that you left the job because of the pandemic. I don’t know what your personal situation was, but presumably you could have powered through at work if covid-induced changes to your workplace and the world in general hadn’t tilted the floor under you. I’m sure you’re not the only employee for whom covid-19 became the final straw on top of the already staggering burden of daily life.

If you decide to include the job, you have some work to do preparing answers for the inevitable questions your work history will raise. Therapy can help you make sense of what you did and what you’ve learned, plus help you develop healthier coping mechanisms for the future. While some toxic situations may justify cutting ties without explanation, “ghosting” in the employment context has become all too common in recent years, on the employer and employee sides of the job market. And as you’re realizing, when employers have the upper hand, you want to keep as many bridges whole as you can.

You might even gain the perspective to contact the boss you ghosted just to say, “I’m sorry I left you high and dry. A combination of issues from the pandemic and my personal life left me overwhelmed and unable to cope. I am seeking help for those issues, but I wanted to let you know that I regret how I left.” Your former boss may well be mad, and you can’t change that, but an apology is still the right way to go. And while you should make no mention of needing a reference — that ship has sailed, caught fire and sunk — the tone of your boss’s response may indicate whether including that job on your résumé offers more potential risk, or benefit.

In the meantime, light a candle and call on the powers of Google to track down the owner of that former company that shuttered. Unless the owner is in a federal witness protection program, there should be bread crumbs online that you can follow to get back in touch and secure a solid reference.

Next week, I’ll share the struggles of other readers dealing with the emotional fallout from the covid-19 pandemic and its effect on their careers, plus some expert tips on coping.

Has anxiety about the pandemic brought you to the point of quitting or losing your job due to mental or emotional breakdown? Share your story with me and other readers at work.advice.wapo@gmail.com.