When References Are Worrisome
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.
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
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:
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
You can ask another person at
the company with whom you have a good rapport to serve as your
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
a candidate with interpersonal problems, he suggests: "I am pleased
to say this person is a former colleague of mine."
the lazy worker: "In my opinion, you will be very fortunate to get
this person to work for you."
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."
the untrustworthy candidate: "Her true ability is deceiving."
for the inept worker: "I most enthusiastically recommend this
person with no qualifications whatsoever."