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When References Are Worrisome

Most people can think of at least one person with whom they have a massive personality conflict.  Unfortunately, that individual is often their boss, college department head, biggest client or volunteer coordinator; in other words, the person they will most likely have to ask for a reference. 

Because they have such a miserable relationship with this individual, they strongly suspect he is eager to sabotage their job search and torpedo their chance for the position they've always wanted.  As they agonize over this irony, losing sleep, worrying, cursing his existence, they engulf themselves in catastrophic expectations about how he will assassinate their character and leave them begging on the street.

If this scenario sounds familiar, don't be embarrassed. You'd be surprised at the number of otherwise rational people who whip themselves into an emotional frenzy obsessing about potential catastrophes, when a little reality testing would put their fears to rest.

If you are concerned that someone will blackball you, ask a friend or executive recruiter to call him for a reference.  In almost every instance, he will either lavish you with praise or pass the call along to personnel.  It is rare for even a really nasty colleague to give negative feedback on people who have left an organization.  Now that you aren't bugging him anymore, he can afford to at least be charitable, if not downright complimentary.  Few people are comfortable destroying a person's reputation, especially if there isn't some reward for them in doing it.

Should your friend hang up the phone and tell you that your worst fears are true, you have three possible courses of action:

  • You can confront the perpetrator with his accusations and threaten him with a lawsuit for libel.  This is not your best choice, because it is time consuming, emotionally draining, and expensive.

  • You can ask another person at the company with whom you have a good rapport to serve as your reference instead.

  • If the organization is large enough, you can resolve the situation with personnel, and tell all potential employers to call human resources for a reference.  While legal policies may restrict HR from giving you a recommendation, they won't destroy your reputation either.

Often, when a person leaves a company under adverse circumstances, he can work out an agreement with management stating exactly what the company will tell a potential employer about the caliber of his work and why he left.  If you have been fired or terminated because of a reorganization or downsizing, ask your boss for this agreement as part of your severance package.  Unless you have done something truly egregious, he will be relieved to corroborate a mutually agreeable account of your leave taking and your benefits to the company, (if legal policies allow him to give more than your name, rank, and serial number).

Letters of Recommendation

Many job seekers think letters of recommendation are the best vehicle for impressing a potential employer.  Generally, this isn't true.  Why?  Because a generic letter of recommendation isn't tailored to speak to the needs of a particular company.  It's similar to the resume or cover letter that tries to be all things to all people, and ends up being not much of anything to anybody. 

And, because it's addressed:  "To Whom it May Concern," it doesn't have the credibility of a person-to-person phone call.  Unless you are going to a foreign country or someone specifically asks you for a letter of recommendation, rely on verbal references.  They are more personal and flexible in focusing on why an individual employer would be fortunate to hire you.

On the other hand, if your leave-taking is particularly gnarly, you may want a written letter of recommendation before you leave a company. If you are truly worried about a promise unkept, a typed letter on company stationery can be a source of comfort.

A Bit of Wit

The Wall Street Journal once ran an tongue-and-cheek article with excerpts from The Lexicon of Intentionally Ambiguous Recommendations (LIAR) by Lehigh University economist Robert Thornton. 

For a candidate with interpersonal problems, he suggests: "I am pleased to say this person is a former colleague of mine."

For the lazy worker:  "In my opinion, you will be very fortunate to get this person to work for you."

The book, published by Meadowbrook Press in Deep Haven, MN, also suggests recommendations for the criminal:  "He's a man of many convictions" and,  "I'm sorry we let her get away." 

For the untrustworthy candidate:  "Her true ability is deceiving."

And for the inept worker:  "I most enthusiastically recommend this person with no qualifications whatsoever."


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