Miss A, who graduated six years back,
has air-expressed me an imposing stack
of forms in furtherance of her heart's desire...

 - Robert B. Shaw, Letter of Recommendation
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Gracious reader,

Several years ago, a young guy working in tech wrote a blog post that blew up.  He had been fired, and blogged about his reactions.

I never remember his name.  No problem:  it's always right there on a Duck Duck Go search for the company's name and "fired."  Someone screening resumes would find his post right away.

References have come up in several recent conversations in my community.  What's the right way to give a reference?  And how about the ethics of checking references?

It's complicated.  But one thing is clear:  be wise, and take care with your trail of digital breadcrumbs.  One day, it will be subject to the scrutiny of prospective employers. 

(Also, don't be a jerk.)
Ask and You Shall Receive
  • When requesting a reference, be clear about what you want the reference to say.  "How to Ask for a Reference Letter" suggests that you provide a template, or even write them a draft.  I agree:  make it easy for them to say yes, and to give you a meaningful reference.  (And make sure that they remember who you are!)
  • If someone declines your request for a reference, simply thank them.  You never know what's going on with someone -- divorce, illness, unhappiness at work -- maybe it's not about you.  That said, it would be smart to reflect on your past relationship, and seek advice from a mentor.  Then, you can consider whether it makes sense to mend your fences.

    You're surely better off with solid recommendations from people who happily agree to give them.

  • Don't forget:  always send a thank you note!
Give and Take
  • Your organization probably has a policy on references.  Before you give a reference, check your employee manual.  Also, talk your manager or HR.  You may not be the right person to speak for your organization.  There are many legal considerations in the land of references.  Laws differ from state to state.  Even a well-intentioned reference can create liability for you or your organization.  So, know your boundaries on this one.
  • What if you can't give someone a positive reference?  Say no.  "Have the difficult conversation upfront, but know that your conscience stays intact...It’s one thing to decline endorsing someone; it’s another thing entirely to say yes and then jeopardize their future," says Jodi Glickman in Three Ways to Say No to a Reference Request at HBR. 

    This counts even when the person is, in your experience, a real jerk.  Maybe they'd be a great fit for another culture.  It's not your job to figure that out; declining to offer a reference speaks for itself.
Check It and See
  • If you're called on to check references, here's a good list of questions from UC Berkeley.  However, please don't use the Internet, or this newsletter, as your primary source on checking references.  Legal complexities abound.

    Get approved instructions from an HR or legal pro in your company.  (Startup employees, if your CEO asks you to check references, and you're not experienced with this, ask them if you can run a list of standard questions past an employment attorney.)

  • I've had a couple of recent discussions about "off-list" or "backdoor" references.  And by that I mean, checking out a prospective hire with a mutual contact. 

    On one hand, isn't this how networks work?  Yes, it is.

    It's also how more powerful people in the network can exert their will. 

    Consider Ashley Judd and Mira Sorvino.  "'I recall Miramax telling us they were a nightmare to work with and we should avoid them at all costs," Jackson said...As a direct result, he said, both women fell out of the running for parts in his Lord of the Rings series." 

    This is also how a network functions.

    Best practice, IMO, is to tell candidates that you'd like to call contact people beyond their given references:  request their permission to do so.  "Off-List References" by Jean Dowdall at The Chronicle of Higher Education offers some best practices from academia.  It's excellent food for thought, though from a hiring process that's substantially different than the process at most companies and not-for-profits.  It may not comport with your organization's policy.  Check it.

    We should all recognize that not everyone will be upfront about backdoor references.  My sense is that these conversations are fairly routine, and that we should manage ourselves accordingly.
While I have a loose list of How To Have A Job topics, I haven't been using an editorial calendar.  Instead, I'm picking topics based on your questions and conversations I'm having with co-workers and clients.

A new subscriber asked whether How to Have A Job should be a drip email campaign.  This is definitely something I've been discussing with my advisers and coworkers.  The question is, how to make something that's useful. 

What do you think?  I'd love to know.  About a HTHAJ drip email, or anything else.  It's always a privilege to hear from you, and I respond to every email I receive.


Anne Libby

P.S.  This time, I shared two of Jodi Glickman's HBR articles.  Jodi's Great on the Job (library) (one of my favorite indie bookstores) is an excellent resource.
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