Dear Boss,

Well, it happened to me: the dreaded rescinded job offer.
Everything was going great with the interview process. I had gotten to the reference stage and provided information for five people who I knew would represent me well. I got a call the following week from the HR manager, and she asked if the hiring manager would be able to speak to my previous boss.
My previous boss had a personal vendetta against me and made my time working for her really difficult. Eventually, I was moved out from under her to a different team within the same department. So when asked, I simply told the HR person that my previous boss and I didn’t have a good relationship, and that I could not rely on her for a reference.
After that conversation, I got a conditional job offer, contingent on a background check, and then a final offer, containing the following clause: “This final confirming offer remains contingent on satisfactory receipt of a reference from your current manager as of this letter date.” I asked the HR manager for the new job what that was about and she told me that I should give my notice at my current job, then follow up with my manager’s contact information.
At this point, it’s a done deal, right? My current manager and I haven’t always seen eye to eye, but I have always been hard-working, professional, and respectful. I gave my notice and asked my manager if she would be able to give me a positive reference, and she agreed she would. She seemed genuinely happy for me that I would be moving on in my career, and it was a positive interaction.
That was last week. This morning, I got a call from the HR manager for the new job to tell me, quite unceremoniously, that the offer had been rescinded. She was also unable to tell me why, as she “didn’t have all of the information,” but she wanted to let me know right away that the offer is off the table.
So now I’m in the awkward position of having to ask for my job back — which of course is in no way guaranteed — or face having to desperately scramble for a new one. My question is, what do I do now? Do I contact HR and demand answers? Do I outright ask my boss if she said anything negative about me? Do I have any legal avenues to pursue? The state I live in is an at-will state, but the new employer basically encouraged me to quit while there was a contingent offer in the works. Finally, what should I have done to protect myself and what should I do in the future to prevent this situation from happening? 

That employer has put you in a terrible position.

The hiring company never should have encouraged you to resign from your current job while the offer was still a contingent one. After all, what is the point of that final reference check if HR was sure it wouldn’t hear anything in it that could change the company’s mind? It had to know there was a chance it would learn something that could make the company pull the offer, so urging you to quit your job in the meantime was extraordinarily thoughtless and irresponsible.

That said … regardless of the hiring company’s enthusiasm, ideally, you would have explained to its HR that you would wait to resign until the offer was final and didn’t have any contingencies attached to it. But I understand why you didn’t; particularly if this is the first time you were dealing with a contingent offer, you might not have realized that they’re truly not final, and certainly the employer’s cavalier attitude about it didn’t help.

As for what happened, it sure does seem like your current manager said something that gave them pause. That doesn’t mean she gave you a negative reference, though. References aren’t passed/fail; they’re nuanced, and it’s possible she said generally positive things but said one thing that alarmed the hiring company (and she might not even have realized it if that’s the case). For example, reference checks nearly always ask about the candidate’s weaker spots, and if the weakness she named happened to be something that’s crucial for the new job, that could torpedo the offer even if the rest of the reference was glowingly enthusiastic.

But it’s also possible that this isn’t about the reference at all. Maybe a stronger candidate emerged at the last minute (which would be an incredibly crappy reason for it to pull your offer after encouraging you to resign, but it’s possible), or maybe the company is reconsidering the role altogether, or maybe someone in the new company gave notice and that person was offered this job to keep them, or who knows what. We can’t know what happened because the employer is refusing to tell you anything.

As a general practice, employers won’t usually tell you if they have a concern about your references (in part because most people who provide references would stop being candid if they knew their feedback might not be kept confidential). But seeing as the company urged you to quit your job, it owes you more of an explanation than “something changed, and we won’t say what.”

Unfortunately, there’s no way to insist it give you one. You can try, though, and it might prompt more disclosure from the company. You could say something like, “You told me to go ahead and resign my job, and I did that at your prompting. That’s left me in a terrible position, where I now don’t have a job at all — despite having had one that was perfectly stable until you told me to give notice. Given that following your instructions have left me unemployed, I’m hoping for more of an explanation of what happened.” If that doesn’t get you anywhere with the HR person, try the hiring manager. Ethically, they should give you an answer — although that doesn’t mean that they will.

You also should talk with your boss. If you’d prefer to stay, tell her that! This is an awkward spot to be in, because she’s going to wonder whether, if she lets you rescind your resignation, you’ll just leave for a different job a few months from now. But she still might prefer to keep you for now rather than have to scramble to find someone new. (I would keep job searching anyway, though, at least until you get a better idea of how things with your boss play out. There’s a risk that even if you stay, you’ll end up at the top of a layoff list if your employer needs to make cuts at some point because it will figure that you’re planning to leave anyway … which is yet one more reason why this situation is awful.)

Whether or not to directly ask your boss if she said something in the reference that led to this is a trickier question, and it really depends on what you know about her. If your sense is that she’s a decent person who would be horrified to hear that this happened, that could even work to your advantage if it makes her feel more obligated to keep you on. But if your sense is that she’s likely to become defensive or take umbrage at the notion that she obstructed the offer, it might not be in your interest to raise the subject.

As for legal recourse, in most states what happened is generally legal unless the employer operated with deliberately fraudulent intent. There is a legal concept called “detrimental reliance,” where you’d argue that you relied on its offer to your detriment. However, those claims historically have been difficult to win, partly because, since employment is usually at will, you could have been fired on your first day without legal recourse (thanks, America) and in this case, the company did tell you upfront that its offer was contingent on the reference. That said, talking to an employment lawyer in your state could be useful.

Frankly, your situation illustrates the big problem with contingent job offers: They’re very risky for the applicant. Even if you hadn’t resigned from your job before the reference check, you would have had to tell your boss you were on the verge of leaving (or she would have figured it out when she got the reference call). So either way, you’d be in a vulnerable position with your security in your current job at risk before your offer was final. I’d like to see employers stop using contingent offers altogether! But as a candidate, one option is to push back on the contingency, explain it could jeopardize your current job, and offer up plentiful other references (although that can be hard if you haven’t had many previous jobs or, as in your case, you’ve already asked the hiring company not to contact a different managerial reference).

I’m sorry this happened, and I hope you’re able to work it out!