We discuss references here periodically — most recently, in We don’t need no stinking references.
While many companies dismiss references as an afterthought, and job hunters think they can get by without them, I believe references are the coin of the realm. Employers shouldn’t hire anyone without checking them (though by “checking them,” I don’t mean that rote telephone query most HR folks make), and job hunters should be suspicious of any company that doesn’t check them.
In the January 18, 2011 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader worries about his last boss torpedoing him.
You’re supposed to say, “I left Company A because I wanted a more professional environment,” when the truth really is, “Company A fired me because we couldn’t deliver a product and because the boss refused to invest in some critical tools and training.”
When a reference says, “We fired him because he wanted some expensive training, and couldn’t learn certain technologies,” that leaves a person who is trying to leave an unprofessional environment in a terrible position. Any advice in dealing with that? Or are people basically doomed if they work for a scum-bag employer who doesn’t treat them like professionals?
Here’s the short version of my advice: (For the entire column, you need to subscribe to the free weekly newsletter. Don’t miss another edition!)
This is where other references come into play. A reference call is about you, but if it is handled deftly, it can also be about your other references.
At least one or two of the references you provide to the new employer should be (other) managers or employees at your old company who know the old boss’s attitude and behavior. Make sure they know the old boss might try to torpedo you.
The reference explains you did a good job, discusses your skills and talents, and endorses you. Then the reference explains how unfortunate it was that the lack of necessary tools and resources made it impossible for you to do the job you were assigned.
“I felt bad for the guy. He used all his skills to work around the lack of resources, but I’ll be frank with you: His boss found it easier to blame him than to buy the tools we needed. I think it’s a shame the company lost a great worker due to poor management. I’m going to miss working with him, but our loss is your gain. If you run a good operation, this candidate will do a phenomenal job for you.”
The reference counteracts the half-a-story that the old boss provides. This is subtle, and you must handle it with care… You cannot count only on your boss to be your reference. You might be surprised at what helpful references your associates can be, if you tell them the whole story.
I’ve used this method when delivering references about my candidates to my clients. I don’t try to hide the bad reference. But I make sure to provide a reference about the bad reference, who in turn casts doubt on the negative comments, and reinforces the candidate’s better qualities.
Put an unavoidable negative reference in context, and help a new employer see you in a positive light.
Sometimes you know that a former boss is going to torpedo you on a reference call.
Should you try to prevent a company from calling your old boss? Sure, but the call might be placed anyway. Your objective should be to counter the bad reference by providing references about your references.
Have you ever done that? Have you cultivated professional associates who would stand up for you in the face of such an attack? If not, start now. How have you prepared to defend against unfair negative references?