Job hunting: What to do when you have no good references?
February 19, 2017 8:53 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking for work but due to Reasons, I don't actually have solid references. What are your suggestions for handling this? I'm looking for advice both from people who've been in my position and those who are hiring managers. How did you handle this? What can I do/say in my interview to reassure you it really was them, not me?

I'm 40 so my working life goes back about 20 years.

I was at my last job for 5 years. My boss was the CEO. I left after reporting him for sexual harrassment of others. A bunch of others then also came forward. There was some scandal and upheaval. They asked him to resign, he did so about a year later. The chairman of the board has agreed to be a referee for me but 1. I didnt work directly with him so he never really saw my work or my interaction with others. I only met him a few times at board meetings. 2. He was very friendly with the CEO. I think they had known each other for years and been golf buddies etc. So I have no idea what he'd say about me or how he feels about me. Only pro is that the chairman is very well known and well respected in my dream industry.

I managed a large team so I have no problem providing references from people who reported to me but don't know what to do or say when a prospective employer wants to speak with someone who was my boss.

Before that, I ran a business with my husband for 7 years. The business is successful and continued without me but it was always my husband's dream, not mine. Once it was up and running, I left for the above job after initially consulting for them. It's my area of expertise, it was my dream job in (what was)a dream organisation in my dream industry. I loved it. In our business, my husband dealt with all the clients and I did all the back of house stuff so asking a client is not feasible in my situation.

Before the business, I worked for Big Org in my drem industry as a temp in between having three kids. My boss there had a terrible reputation in the industry for various reasons but I always got along fine with her. I worked there on three different projects, each one lasting approx 1 year. After my last stint, my manager left in disgrace, accompanied by serious legal proceedings. She's disappeared from the industry, would not be a highly regarded referee, and anyway, it's been nearly 10 years since I last worked there. I have a couple of contacts still there but they did not work with me or supervise me. They were both very senior and well respected and have offered very happily to give me character references.

Before that, we're talking late 90s. I was backpacking and worked in hospitality and a couple of call centres in Europe. No one will want to hear from any of those bosses.

So my main issue is that I have no bosses who can vouch for me.
If you've been me, how have you handled this?
If you've hired me, how was this handled well by your candidate?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (6 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I think that you may be over thinking this. For the hires that I have been involved with, we have wanted proof that the applicant's resume represents their true work history, and that they did good work. The role of the people at the prior organizations who provided this information was not essential.

Think about what you would want each of your references to provide. Then work that reference person as a resource to get them to be able to provide that information. After you have done this, consider having a friendly reference checker contact each of your references to see what they do in fact say.

So for example, regarding your work for the last 5 years, did you participate in any high visibility projects as an individual, team member, or part of the company as a whole? Make a list of these things. Do you have annual review documentation? Go over this paperwork to find documented examples of your great work achievements. Then have a meeting with the chairman of the board to discuss these with him, along with other things that he can confirm about you, such as dates of employment, compensation, and the reason that you left.

Also regarding your job for the last 5 years, what would you like the people you managed to be able to say about you? Think about who can do that. As above, consider a meeting with them to discuss what they can say.

For your 7 years working with your husband, again, think about what you would like him to be able to say about you and then work with him so he can do that.

As to the Big Org, can you use a contact in the HR department to confirm your dates of employment, job title, compensation rate, and reason for leaving? That is a reasonable amount of info for 3 stints of 1 year each about 12 years ago.
posted by PlannedSpontaneity at 9:39 AM on February 19, 2017 [2 favorites]

I have done hiring for a few smallish organizations, so if you are applying somewhere larger or with more formal hiring/reference requirements, this advice may not apply, but...

I have had multiple prospective employees use someone they supervised as a reference. I have always found it useful to hear about what type of skills the person has managing and working with other staff on a team, so don't be afraid to use these people as references! For the last job, have at least one of the people you supervised write a letter of recommendation for you, and also use 1-2 of these people as references. I personally would not use anyone as a reference if I do not have great confidence that they will say positive things about my work. I think it is better to have an unconventional reference who will say great things about you than listing someone who you have concerns about.

If you do choose to list the chairman, try to have 3 other people also listed who you know will say very good things about your work. I have always called references after I've done interviews, so if needed, you will likely have a chance to explain at the interview what happened at the last place and why you are not using the CEO as a reference. I probably would not mention that you think the chairman is friends with the CEO, though. Just saying that you didn't work with him directly so he may not be that familiar with your work but can vouch that you were there for the dates you list is fine.

In terms of the business you ran with your husband- when you were doing the back of the house stuff, did you have an opportunity to interact with any types of vendors or other organizations who could speak to your ability to be organized, communicate well, pay bills on time, etc?
Those would be good folks to use as references in this situation. Also, I think satisfied clients (even if your husband did most of the one-on one with them) are possibilities. After all, you and your husband were a team here, and both of your work made it possible for them to have a good experience as a client.
posted by ezrainch at 9:48 AM on February 19, 2017

If the person or organization you're applying to prides itself on being progressive, you might consider being transparent about the fact that you outed the sexual harassment issue and hence have no managerial reference... at some orgs, this will be seen as a point in your favour.

A pretty well-known person in my industry was recently revealed to have a long history of committing sexual assaults, and the brave people who spoke up about it are absolutely revered by everyone I know. I for one would be thrilled and honoured to hire someone who speaks up about that kind of bullshit.

If that's a possibility, I'd suggest that you only explain it face-to-face; don't put it in your application letter or leave a paper trail, in case people in HR freak out over it from a liability standpoint. But I really think that a good boss with progressive values will respect you for it. And do try to get references from people at that org, who worked at your level or below you in the hierarchy, to prove you're nice to work with in addition to being a crusader.

And... thanks for helping change our entire culture and world for the better.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 10:05 AM on February 19, 2017 [2 favorites]

I'd be glad to talk to someone you managed as a reference. By the time I'm checking your references, I'm already at least partly sold on your skills and abilities. From your references, beyond a basic confirmation that what you said was true, I'm trying to get a sense of what you're like to work with. A person you managed could give me that. I'd also be fine talking to a vendor from your business with whom you routinely handled significant transactions, or like ezrainch said, a satisfied regular customer.
posted by chimpsonfilm at 10:47 AM on February 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

As further reassurance for what pseudostrabismus says, it is a great way to suss out how a potential employer might handle harassment issues. Especially if you interview with places where your CEO was known: they'll have an idea what happened and their own POV on it. Ask yourself honestly: would you want to work in a place that saw your former CEO's behavior as appropriate? If not, you've got a good filter – use wisely of course.

As far as reassurance goes, what pseudostrabismus describes is essentially how [someone I know very well, ahem] got a new job. Upper management had put in place systemic harassment in order to push people out and also keep profits for themselves rather than put towards raises. This was quite well known. Person I know was a project manager and raised alerts (which included proposed solutions) about damaged morale, thus causing them to be targeted by their own management, which was when they realized it was systemic and started looking for a new job. In their business, everyone knows everyone. They were viewed very well when they mentioned raising alerts and talked about the proposed solutions. Otherwise they had references from a co-worker and reports.
posted by fraula at 12:50 PM on February 19, 2017

Are there former peers of yours (fellow managers) that can attest to your managerial competence?
posted by elmay at 3:21 PM on February 19, 2017

« Older Apple Magic Keyboard only somewhat magically...   |   How do I progress at work, when I don't want to... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.