How to get a job (ASAP) with a resume gap, no network, and no references?
September 15, 2008 5:56 AM   Subscribe

I was recently passed over for an interview for a great job because of (I strongly believe) my lack of references (which the ad requested, but I submitted without anyway because my other qualifications were strong). I don’t have any references. Not professional. Not personal. I’m dependable (to a fault!), hardworking, and stable (years-long resume gap notwithstanding), but I have no way of proving this. I suffered from crippling depression and anxiety for years...

as well as spent several years in an abusive relationship. I haven’t worked since college (aside from a tiny bit of freelancing/odd jobs at home). I’ve been trying to get my life back ever since I left the bastard and after much struggle, recovered last year.

Unfortunately, all those years left me a virtual shut-in, breaking most of my relationships. I’m also somewhat estranged from much of my family. Almost nobody in my family is aware of what I was going through and they all simply think I’m a lazy fuckup who doesn't care. Of course, they won’t say it to my face, but it’s gotten back to me.

I contacted my supervisor from my only job (at college) and he refused to give me a reference. His explanation was along the lines of “we were really impressed with your skill and abilities, but there were personality conflicts”. Because of my illnesses, I admit being a bit shy and distant, but I was a damn good employee, so I was shocked. When others would go off and take 45 minute “breaks”, I didn’t sit around and wait for work to come to me. They even entrusted me with sensitive data, and other higher-level tasks that they didn’t give other students.

Since I don’t really know anyone (not even online friends I'm close to), I don’t have a network. At all. Networking just seems so vital that it’s a frustratingly tough, steep climb. It gets overwhelming, and I've yet to break out of all my 'depressive' habits (I'm doing well, but some things linger).

I realized recently that I keep most people at arm’s length because I’m so ashamed of my life and what it’s become. I’m ashamed of myself and my wasted potential, but that’s something I’m trying to work through.

I don’t even know how to network. I’m not actually socially awkward though. I’m talkative and sociable. But I do have trouble maintaining relationships.

I've attended networking events, but didn't actually get anywhere. I don’t want to come off too desperate, like I want something, but I want to be able to make contacts, so I do go there with a goal in mind. I need contacts now (!), so it always feels urgent.

Is there a better way to interact at these events? I generally go alone, so breaking the ice is difficult, especially because the ‘networking’ events in the field I’m trying to crack tend to be attended by packs of people who already know each other.

I will try temp agencies again. But I’d call them religiously for weeks and never get sent on any assignments. This happened with more than one agency. I figured they would be more likely to take applicants like me without references, and I could earn some through them, but I’ve been basically told I’m “not ready” by one agency, and just kind of given the brush off by the others. One took all my info, told me they’d call, and when I called back, through a secretary's slip, found out that my assigned counselor hadn’t even invited me to come in and interview or test (in other words, she didn’t take me seriously at all and had absolutely no plans to send me on anything. This was one of the largest agencies around. Couldn’t they just be honest?)

Please give me advice on how I can improve my position. I'm pretty sure my stumbling blocks are my giant resume gap and my lack of references. Though when I actually do manage to get an interview, I generally feel like it goes well and then I hear crickets.

If someone does ask for references, what sort of explanation should I give? What options do I have?

I realize that this is a tough market right now for anyone. I am close to NYC and applying there (with plans to move in). I’m quite desperate because I am going to need to rent an apartment of my own very soon (a few months' time), but I obviously need an income first.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (25 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Start volunteering. Do the boring office work, be dependable, and offer regular hours if you can (like 9-12 on Wed and Fri). Try to work in the same department, for the same people. After a couple of months, someone there will be happy to write you a recommendation. Further, there may be jobs that you are qualified for at that org, and as a volunteer, you can get the inside track, and well as have an advantage over others. And you may also be able to network with other volunteers.
posted by kimdog at 6:06 AM on September 15, 2008 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: Is there a specific reason you need to live in New York City? As you probably know, the cost of living and rent there is very high, and if you don't have a job or have a shaky job history going there might be a bad idea.

You may have to bite the bullet and get a crappy job waitering or at a coffee shop or fast food place, then work your ass off there for a few months so your boss can serve as a reference.

Another alternative is trying to get a job with AmeriCorps. You'd have a job for a year, low pay but they help you out with food and often housing assistance. If you stick it out for a year it's great on the resume. And the qualifications are not at all as high as with Peace Corps--just-graduated high school students can get jobs with them.
posted by Anonymous at 6:06 AM on September 15, 2008

First, congratulations on getting out of the abusive relationship. It's excellent that you did that and proves you're a very strong person - far too many people aren't able to do what you did.

Many jobs that I've had in the past haven't bothered to check references. I'd say over half, and I'm talking about professional office jobs. It's not impossible to find a job with no references. The lack of experience is probably more difficult to get around, I'd say. You did do some freelancing though - would you say you had your own business? Can you market yourself around that?

You mention you have a college degree. What about trying for a job teaching English abroad? You could do a TEFL certificate in about a month and then find something that offered accomodation as part of the package. If you taught somewhere you also stood a good chance of learning the language relatively quickly (i.e. somewhere Spanish-speaking rather than, say, Japanese) you'd come back in a year or two with a several new skills and references.
posted by hazyjane at 6:33 AM on September 15, 2008

You will get passed over for a lot of interviews for shit you really wanted. Sometimes when you get an interview, they will never call you back. It happens.

I think the advice to get volunteer gigs are nice; you can also continue freelancing and ask big clients if they would serve as a reference. I am sure many of them would be happy to oblige (and it's true--lots of jobs never even check your references if they like you, although I'm sure it is helpful to have them available.).
posted by shownomercy at 6:36 AM on September 15, 2008

Seems to me that without references or any working experience since college, you shouldn't be applying for great jobs that require references. Instead you ought to be looking for an entry-level position. It may not be great but isn't it where we all start?
posted by splice at 6:45 AM on September 15, 2008

how big of a gap are we talking? several years? if it's that long of a gap and your college people won't give you a reference, maybe you need to start from the complete bottom again. get a job that traditionally hires high school kids. i know it's not what you went to college for, but you have to start somewhere.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 6:49 AM on September 15, 2008

Mental health agencies or your counselor chould have some resources for you?
posted by By The Grace of God at 6:55 AM on September 15, 2008

What about getting a retail job? They are pretty easy to get and after you're there for a few months you can build up enough of a relationship with a manager to get a nice reference. And turnover is so quick in retail that they probably wouldn't care if you only worked there for a few months.
posted by sutel at 7:12 AM on September 15, 2008

I second volunteering.
- It will give you practise and experience in 'having a job'
- Since you are a conscientious and reliable worker that will soon show and someone will be happy to write you a reference.
- Serving others and doing a good job are both great ways to get out of feeling ashamed of yourself.

Employment agencies want to make money. They may be nice people but they are not really interested in people who don't quite fit the mould, or who are unproven, and thus a risk. So getting in at the very bottom of an organisation and having your abilities, reliability etc recognised, and thus being promoted internally will probably work better.
posted by alicegoldie at 7:41 AM on September 15, 2008

Most of these answers aren't very helpful. Obviously if you need a job, you don't have time to just go volunteer somewhere. It sounds like you need money.

Retail is also a bad idea. Retail jobs often require (and check) a few references because most inventory shrinkage is due to thieving employees, not customers.

I'm not sure how it works in New York, but here, their are government agencies that help people become employable. Call the city and enquire.
posted by sunshinesky at 8:20 AM on September 15, 2008 [2 favorites]

New York City is a really really tough market, so don't sweat it if you don't get a job right away. Food service places here are always looking for people, but it would be difficult to support yourself on those wages.

I would suggest getting a part-time job anywhere--call center, Starbucks, WholeFoods, whatever. In your spare time, I would volunteer on a regular schedule.

Yes, those places will ask for references. Give the name and number of someone for whom you did an odd job, or a professor you haven't spoken with in years. Just put something down there, and apply to a lot of different places. Chances are, one of them will not check your references and you'll be ok.

For the future, you need to un-break your relationships. That means you need to find those old friends whom you lost contact with and ask how they're doing. I suspect that some of them will be happy to hear from you again, and want to know how you're doing.

Same with your family. They don't know what you've been through because you haven't told them. So, you heard it through the grapevine that they think you're a failure? I call bullshit. The only people who would say something like that "your parents think you suck" is a drama mongering asshole. There's also the good chance that you took a well-meaning statement like "your parents are worried about how you're holding up, and think you might have a hard time finding work" and put it through the negativity-filter of anxiety and depression and heard something completely different.

Isolation is key to maintaining abusive relationships, and abusers love to say things like "they all hate you" or "they'll never trust you now" or "they think you're an idiot". Those things are, for the most part, not true.

Please, please reach out to the people who have known you and probably still love you.

Good luck.
posted by sondrialiac at 9:01 AM on September 15, 2008 [2 favorites]

There are organizations for domestic-abuse survivors that may be able to help you.

And you may have to do some very low-level work until you accumulate references. Nursing homes are almost always hiring, for instance.

What you may need to do is to take a job like waiting tables or working in a nursing home to earn enough money to live, AND volunteer one day a week in a line of work that's closer to what you want to do in the long run.

That's going to be exhausting, I know. But it's really the only way that you can get back into the workforce at a professional level, unless you can get some kind of help through a government or non-profit organization.

After six months or so of changing bedpans five days a week and filing grant applications one day a week, you'll have two references at least. And that will change your employability picture tremendously.
posted by Sidhedevil at 9:01 AM on September 15, 2008

*I left out that you should get a job and build up some references in your local area before you try to move to NYC, as any old job doesn't cut it here when it comes to supporting yourself.

You also need savings before you move into the city.

If you want to talk more, please let me know via mefimail. I have had a similar experience (spotty resume due to mental health issues) and have some experience with making it work here. Oh, and sometimes NOT making it work here.

You can do it. We're all cheering for you.
posted by sondrialiac at 9:06 AM on September 15, 2008

I would second sondrialic's advice. Please reach out to your family and old friends. I know that if I friend I'd lost contact with called me up and asked me to get dinner, I'd be thrilled.

As for your family, reach out to anyone who you think may be supportive. Don't rely on second-hand information to decide who to reach out to: pick any family member who has shown you kindness at some point. Let them know what you have been going through. Even one helpful family member can give you a lot of support and help.

Basically, I agree with you that it's hard to get out of such a situation alone, but you don't need to be alone.
posted by lunasol at 9:33 AM on September 15, 2008

Anon, if you'd like to chat, I'm recently out of an abusive relationship and (still!) fighting depression and anxiety and rebuilding my career as a mostly-shut-in :) Please feel free to memail if you'd like - I understand what you're going through! I've have my own resume gaps, and can suggest what has worked for me in presenting my skillsets and strengths in the best possible light.
posted by grippycat at 10:05 AM on September 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

Most of these answers aren't very helpful. Obviously if you need a job, you don't have time to just go volunteer somewhere. It sounds like you need money.

Retail is also a bad idea. Retail jobs often require (and check) a few references because most inventory shrinkage is due to thieving employees, not customers.

I agree. I have the same problem as the OP, but replace the abusive relationship part with having to take care of my grandma during my "prime working years".

It took me THREE years before someone would hire me as a volunteer/intern, they wanted people with experiece and good references too. And, when I was hired, my supervisor was really pissed that I didn't the proper skills (how was I supposed to have them with no experience?), I HIGHLY doubt I will get a positive reference from her.

That gap and lack of references matters in retail and restaurant work, also...
posted by sixcolors at 10:08 AM on September 15, 2008

Sorry, I dont really have any information about getting a job, but I just wanted to say congratulations overcoming your past situation. I think thats great. Good luck and stay strong.
posted by MiggySawdust at 10:14 AM on September 15, 2008

It took me THREE years before someone would hire me as a volunteer/intern

Interning and volunteering aren't always the same thing. I work for a large organization, and we have volunteers of all levels of experience, from high school students to retirees. We also distinguish between interns and volunteers. Interns are a much more formalized process with interviews and a "hiring" process. Volunteers are people who have time to come in and help out on an as needed basis. They do go through a basic screening process for sure, but nothing requiring reference checks.

Last week I was struggling to get people in to help me with a 600 piece mailing (stuffing and sticking labels on envelopes). And with regards to the two people who helped... I had no idea what their skill level was. I was happy to sit down and explain the project (and lest you think there was no room for error, one of my volunteers was new to the country, and had never seen labels before. She thought I wanted her to hand address every envelope at first).

Today, I would kill to have someone seal and stamp 200 invitations, and help me box and move a bunch of catalogs into the mail room. And once a volunteer comes in and proves reliable, we talk about other skills, and there are any number of higher levels tasks I could give that person.

I understand the OP might be struggling with the need for immediate cash, but I think a great reference from an organization related to her interests might go further than the floor manager at a diner in the long run.

Heck... to the OP, if you could get to mid-town NYC in the next hour, you could start volunteering for me today. Send me a mefi mail.
posted by kimdog at 11:12 AM on September 15, 2008 [2 favorites]

For the future, you need to un-break your relationships. That means you need to find those old friends whom you lost contact with and ask how they're doing. I suspect that some of them will be happy to hear from you again, and want to know how you're doing.

I suspect the reason you haven't yet done this is because you think it's hopeless and you fear rejection. It's worth it to try. You don't have to tell anyone the gory details of your abuse, etc. It's enough to say "I went through some really rough times in 2006 and I'm sorry I didn't keep in touch with you. I'd like to go out for lunch and catch up on old times." Be genuine; don't just do this because you need references. Be honest about your life; you're looking for a job, you're planning to move to NYC, you're getting back on your feet after your rough time.

There are some people who will still judge you, but you're assuming they're already judging you, so you're not losing anything at all by reaching out.

Almost nobody in my family is aware of what I was going through and they all simply think I’m a lazy fuckup who doesn't care.

This sentence really struck me. For years, I didn't tell my father about my problems with anxiety and depression because I feared he'd think I was a fuckup. I told him this year. He cried and said how he's been waiting to have this conversation for a decade. You simply cannot predict how people will react. At the very least, you reconnect with some people in your life.
posted by desjardins at 11:51 AM on September 15, 2008

follow-up from the OP
For those who’ve said volunteer for a few months – I honestly don’t have the time (or money for transit) to do so. I will have to move soon (as it stands now). Retail asks for references, as I’ve found out having applied, and the hours seem to be spotty – not always reliable enough to make sure the rent gets paid. I’ve accepted the possibility of two jobs. And yes, New York is a must, as my goal industry is based there.

As for family – what others have said were repeated by my mother, who I am close to and in touch with, though she is unaware of what I went through. It isn’t something you just bring up in regular conversation. “Hey Mom, guess what happened to me.” Those other family members have said things like, “she’s lazy, she doesn’t want to work”, and worse.

As far as freelancing goes, I’ve only had a handful of things in the past few years, some from people I no longer am in contact with because they were associates of the ex. One of my volunteer experiences, which I do list on my resume, was as a co-admin at a website/online group started by the ex. So the ex would be my reference there and that won’t work.

As far as employment agencies go – they do send out “unproven” people as they hire lots of people with degrees and no experience.

Also – any advice on how to make networking events work for me? There are two events very soon (one this week) and advice on that aspect would be appreciated.

I’m going to mefi mail a few of you. And I’m thinking of one old friend who I might try emailing. Thank you all.
posted by jessamyn at 1:40 PM on September 15, 2008

It isn’t something you just bring up in regular conversation. “Hey Mom, guess what happened to me.”

Um, yeah, it is. She's your mother. She gave birth to you. Presumably, she spent the better part of 18 years raising you. She loves you. How can you be close to her and not share what happened? All you need to say is "Hey, remember when [I wasn't returning your phone calls/I got all freaked out about X/I was really tired/other symptom of anxiety or depression]? I'm sorry I was so distant. I was going through a really rough time with [asshole]. I don't want to go over the gory details, but it was really hard for me and I thought you should know. I'm doing better now! I'm seeing a therapist [you are, right?!] and I'm looking for a job in NYC. I really want an open and honest relationship with you and I need your emotional support right now as I make this transition in my life."

I can't offer you much advice on the job/networking front, but job-hunting can really wear you down, and you NEED people who are there for you, especially since your self-confidence doesn't sound so high in the first place. The best place to find these people is usually close to home.
posted by desjardins at 1:59 PM on September 15, 2008

There was one mention of college people above. I think even if it's less than ideal, try using a professor or a college advisor as a reference. Instead of networking events, take a short weekend or night course, or even a workshop, taught by a professional in your field. After 3-4 Saturdays spent covering material in your field and participating in classes, you may very well have someone (your instructor) who can serve as a reference. Also, if you've ever done work that was informal and unpaid - a job to help out a neighbor or a friend of a family member, maybe that person could serve as one of the references.
posted by PY at 4:23 PM on September 15, 2008

Anon, I just want to first say that I am so proud of you for getting away. I got out of my abusive relationship so I know...

"I’ve been trying to get my life back"

I'm just feeling you so much. You can do this.

As far as the immediate problem of having no references, if you don't feel as if you can ask anyone in your life to do this, I would have absolutely no qualms whatsoever about giving you a fabulous reference. I will either say that you worked for me for ten years or whatever, you were a great employee, and I would definitely hire you back or I could give you a personal reference. How would they know that you didn't used to live in such-and-such a state and that you didn't work in my boarding/group/nursing home?

Sometimes you have to do what you have to do, right?

Feel free to mail me and I wish you the very best of luck.
posted by Grlnxtdr at 5:54 PM on September 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

Something about your description makes me think about a friend of mine who has absolutely no charisma. He's fantastic, smart, reliable, integrity till forever, but no charisma. And that kills.

I think whatever else you do, you need to work on your charisma/social skills. I've heard some positive things about the Carnegie Institute. (I think that's what it's called). You need to find someone who will be brutally honest with you and you need to be ready to hear it. Acting lessons, maybe?
posted by Salamandrous at 7:08 PM on September 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

For those who’ve said volunteer for a few months – I honestly don’t have the time (or money for transit) to do so.

I swear, I'm not being snarky, but what's taking up all your time? Is it possible that's resume/reference-worthy? As for money for transit, surely there is some nonprofit organization in your town? Could you write pieces for your local paper? Walk dogs at the nearby animal shelter? Teach Sunday School? Babysit for neighbors? Get involved with your local community association?
posted by lunasol at 2:25 PM on September 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

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