Career Advice Tuesday -”Unfavorable Reference Hindering My Job Search”

February 23, 2010

Dear Infosecleaders:

I am hoping for some advice on how to deal with a situation that has been hindering my current job search. 

From before, I had a ‘career incident’ in 2008.  Last week, I got shut out of an excellent Security Architect position because my former agency’s HR head is the only person in the agency who can give a reference for me – none of my former supervisors can, because of the terms of the settlement I signed.

In essence, her ‘neutral’ comments and the fact that the hiring manager was referred to HR when he called, amounted to a red flag, as he told me and the proverbial ‘kiss of death’.

If I’d known the import of signing-away my rights on this, I never would have settled and my attorney sure didn’t help me!

Since hiring managers can’t directly talk to any internal people except the head of HR, how can I get around this roadblock?  I’m going to ask HR for a copy of my personnel file so I can have access to all my stellar performance evaluations to present to hiring managers in lieu of direct contact with former supervisors.

It seems my former agency is being malicious because of the settlement and they want to ‘pay me back’.

Thanks for your thoughts!


“If you do not have nice things to say ……”

Dear “If you do not have nice things to say”:

Before I begin with your individual advice, I would like to make a point about “termination settlements”.  When people leave companies under adverse situations, it is traditional for employers to ask their former employees to sign a release in exchange for a sum of money and a quiet exit.  

To be clear, signing this document is to the long term benefit of the employer not the employee. 

When you sign this document what you are doing is forfeiting all of your future rights in exchange for a short term payout and benefits.  Granted when you are terminated, any monies or additional compensation may help in the short term, but generally speaking this is not a wise decision.  

To all those that face this decision, here are two pieces of advice:

1) Seek an attorney that specializes in employment law, so that they can help  you understand fully what you are consenting to.

2) Use this opportunity to attach your own contingencies to the agreement that you will be signing.  They may or may not do it.  But, you never know what your company will agree to, unless you ask them.

Now lets address your current situation:

The first thing that I would do is recognize that you had a problem with your past employer and realize that this can be an issue as you pursue future employment.  It appears to me that by asking the question, that you have done this and understand the issue at hand, whatever it may be.

There are two ways to handle this situation that I think can work out to your benefit.   The first suggestion that I would make would be to compile a list of references from other employers, peers, and customers that you have worked with in the past.   This list of references should include people with significant seniority (CIO, CISO), people who can speak to your character (an industry association, a charitable organization that you have been involved with, clergy) and if possible, in your case,  a human resources professional from another employer (since that is the source of your problem).   By compiling this list, and presenting it to your future employer, it should show a pattern of professionalism, ethics, and solid work performance.  By demonstrating this pattern, you may overpower any one potential ”negative reference” that can surface, and a future employer may treat it as an anomaly.   If three (3) is the standard number of references that most people ask for,  you may want to provide up to six (6) but not more.

The next piece of advice that I can give you is to be candid with your future employer toward the end of the interview process, and discuss the situation with them.   If you decide to do this, I would make sure that you accept accountability for your actions and demonstrate how you have grown since the “incident”.   You have learned that they are not going to hear the entire account when they call your past employer, so by proactively explaining this, you will have taken the mystery out of the situation.  Your future employer can now make a more informed decision about how to treat your candidacy.

I have found that as a rule, that employers are much more understanding when an employee proactively addresses  a potential “red flag” in their background or work history, as opposed to having it discovered through another channel.

Let me caution you by saying that these actions will be helpful but they may not be fool proof.  In today’s economic conditions, hiring managers are being extra careful about the risks that they are taking in hiring new employees,since bad judgment could lead to their own career incident!  In a competitive situation where you possess similar skills and experiences as other candidates, this situation may be a “deal killer”.

Hopefully,  your future employer will make their decision based on your entire body of work, not just one isolated incident.

Hope this helps,

Lee and Mike

Posted by lee | Filed Under Advice, Career Advice Tuesday 


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