To me, it's no great mystery. I have watched workplaces for 35 years and I have come to understand the mechanism whereby some of the very worst people end up getting glowing reports from previous employers. Here are my thoughts:
- They manage upwards. Often the people who are giving these references have been schmoozed to the maximum level. From where the boss sits, it all looks fine.
- The full extent of the damage has not become apparent. The malignant narcissist can keep a lid on the crap while they are still around. It's only after they have left that the remaining people begin to see a pattern and put the pieces together.
- They look good on paper. Often these most obnoxious people tend to get results according to somebody's key performance indicators. Whether the bosses are deliberately turning a blind eye or just perfectly hoodwinked, the malignant narcissist can appear to be a star.
- They discredit any critiques. There are dozens of people who know the real story about the malignant narcissist however those stories do not get heard. A complex pattern of marginalising their rivals creates a conspiracy of silence.
- They talk a good game. To anybody watching from a distance these people are often engaging and positive. It is really easy to do that when you are standing in front of a meeting or just back-slapping in the hallway.
- Some people remain to fight the rearguard. Whether the rearguard is made up of previous favourites or people who are still scared - there is often somebody left to act as a mole. The conspiracy of silence continues.
- People are happy to see them go. Finally, sometimes the bosses just want the malignant narcissist out of there. They have been a problem for years - a problem they just didn't seem to have a solution. And now here is this same person requesting a reference; a perfect answer. "They are fantastic - their record speaks for itself".
Except "the record" doesn't even begin to tell the story. Still, by that time the malignant narcissist is somebody else's problem.