Navigating the references stonewall

Having given a prospective new employer contact information for checking their past employment references, my coaching client learned that his last employer, who laid him off, was a stonewall and would provide no answers to any questions that required more than a ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ answer. So no matter how great an employee he was, his was a story that would never be told.

HR professionals work very hard to get that wall up and ensure it isn’t penetrated. I did in my past corporate life and recommend strongly to clients today not to share. Why? To protect against legal challenges caused by some supervisor who took calls and winged it, talking about former employees without written permission, without knowing if questions were legal to answer or giving a reason for termination (where it wasn’t voluntary) that differed from what the employer told the employee when they were terminated. “Oh what a tangle web we weave..” when glowing reports are given on people you wouldn’t let watch your hamster who then get hired by the inquiring new company and that person goes on to commit some unwholesome act at the new company against another employee or customer or vendor. What you do for one you do for all so you can’t clam up about some people (‘damned by feint praise’) while giving wonderful reviews for others. Inconsistency is not your friend.

Unfair? Maybe. Real? Absolutely.

So as companies get better trained (pain of lawsuits actually helps with that) and good stories don’t get told, how can you get your good story told? Here’s four ideas I give clients. Maybe they’ll help you as well.

1. Former associates no longer with the former employer. Who did you work with that has also moved on that could be a credible reference for you? In many cases we work more closely with other people in the company than with our own bosses. Think who these people might be and call them and ask if they would be willing to be a reference for you. Avoid those who departed the company under controversy, right?

2. Suppliers. Who might you have worked with frequently and closely enough that they can provide the prospective employer a sense of how you collaborated, negotiated, your knowledge of product line and needs, your planning ability? Think of training, payroll, IT firms when you think of suppliers, too. Call them. Ask if they would be willing to be a reference for you and it makes sense to try to identify the things for which they will serve as reference (like planning, product design, communications – whatever). Help them to know what you are asking them to speak to. That ensures they come across credibly when that phone rings because they are prepared and don’t wander and try to make things up on the fly.

3. Customers. Right? While many may not have had direct contact with customers, a lot did. Again, if you can give them an idea of what you were thinking they could give witness to you about, share that and be sure you are together on this in advance.

4. Do you hold a membership in any professional organizations? Who might you know that can speak to your knowledge and skill in your profession? (BTW – this is a big reason to belong to professional organizations and be involved in them!)

Now remember all this once you get that job and the phone rings. “Hi. We are interviewing a former employee of yours and we’d like to ask you some questions. Got a minute?”

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