Your departure from the company was ignominious, at best. They escorted you to the door and UPSed your belongings home. This is such an old story of firings and layoffs it wouldn’t be worth telling except for one thing: Outplacement firms report that getting a reference other than dates of employment and salary (sometimes not that) is all but impossible. We cynics believe that headhunters have extra-ordinary ways of finding out who-did-what-to-whom. On further search, we find that middle and top-level managers are being threatened with mayhem — not to mention financial or job loss — if they reply “informally” to reference inquiries. To write a letter of reference against company policy is to risk a quick exit.
The good news: Most big companies won’t tell that they fired you. The bad news: They won’t say you were a star either. Fear of lawsuits — particular from aging Baby Boomers — is a powerful deterrent. So what’s a job hunter to do? If that job hunter has samples of non-confidential documents and has kept any records of what he or she has done over the past five years, convincing data to support your good work can be assembled.
Get written testimonies from people you worked with in other organizations, including volunteer jobs if they’re related. Gather samples of your best work. Clients make great references as they owe you, and your employer, nothing. Anyone can refuse but many will write a testimonial if asked. To get the most persuasive references include the big three:
1. What you did and why it mattered.
2. Outcomes. Deliver us from a two-year project with no outcome. Isn’t that a blatant waste of time/money? Every thing on your resume, as well as in a reference letter, should have an outcome.
3. Follow-on. Two years later they are still using the work you did, the media campaign,or the program you developed. They still save money with techniques you developed. Nothing beats longevity which means client satisfaction.
There are only two things to do with money — anywhere: Save it or make it. Who would attest to your skill at either or both? An e-mail works. Don’t expect the people willing to help to do a letter. (What is a letter? If you’re asked for a testimonial be a Mensch and write a real letter and mail it in a real envelope. Everyone will remember you — positively.)
Depending how much is known about your former company’s culture — their penchant for torturing, firing, or laying off employees — you may find hirers less interested in references. I know company cultures so toxic and abusive they have to recruit out-of-town. The locals know better. Just for fun why don’t you ask some headhunters or other HR people what your former employer’s rep is and how they treat people who’ve worked there as job applicants?
The Spanish say, “Living well is the best revenge.” Getting a better job is both more satisfying and more lucrative. You can always exact revenge on your former company by warning the stars away (stick to the facts) and talking about the company’s virtues (every organization has some) to all the litigeous lunkheads you know.
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