Care and feeding of professional network. Difficulty level: Fired
April 21, 2021 1:17 PM   Subscribe

I recently lost my job at WidgetCo. Several WidgetCo colleagues have said they would like to be positive references for me, and I’d like advice on how to keep those relationships going as I take some time before a job search. More inside!

The backstory: I was let go for the stated reason of "performance" after getting some negative feedback from NewBoss. Before him, I’d had stellar feedback from multiple people at WidgetCo. Some of those people offered to be positive references.

I’ve done a lot of soul-searching about being let go, and I definitely made some mistakes that I’m working to address, and will focus on at my next job. However, I believe that NewBoss spoke negatively and inaccurately about my work to other people in the company, and I was not given a chance to defend myself or correct those statements. WidgetCo is a small company (<45) and everyone knows one another.

While I’m happy that several former colleagues offered to be references for me, I’m worried that NewBoss "tainted" their opinion of me with inaccurate statements. I’m new to this career field so I don’t have a huge stable of references to pick from. I’m cordial, but not close, with these colleagues. It’s worth adding that I’m a woman in a male-dominated field (tech) and these are all men.

I’m taking some time before beginning a job search, so I’m not going to need any references immediately. How do I keep these professional relationships current, positive, and out of the shadow of WidgetCo? I would like to occasionally meet up with them (one-on-one) to chat, update them on what I’ve been working on, etc. so that when I would ask for a reference it wouldn’t feel so transactional. However… I was fired. Do I directly address the issues with NewBoss the first time we meet, especially since I know NewBoss was talking negatively about my work? Do I ignore it and pretend it didn’t happen? Being fired is new to me so I’d like to hear how you handled this if it happened to you (or your coworkers). Thanks!
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (10 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I have made this offer to people in the past, as a way of saying "you got a raw deal, I am happy to help you out" so I already wouldn't be inclined to be swayed by talk.

I'm not saying that I don't mind a friendly exchange of hellos periodically but I would not need to be groomed. I would be fine with a more frank conversation about the political situation.

Nobody does a perfect job, you really don't have to frame this as "I made mistakes". A healthy organization knows that, like everybody's got stuff they can improve somewhere, that's normal. You had good reviews and then someone wanted to get rid of you for their own reasons so they came up with an excuse. It sucks for you, but you also don't need to make it a facet of your identity.
posted by Lyn Never at 1:24 PM on April 21, 2021 [21 favorites]

No need to bring up New Boss with them; in fact, I would advise dodging that subject. These folks wouldn't have offered to be references if they didn't think the quality of your work warranted it.
posted by Blue Jello Elf at 1:24 PM on April 21, 2021 [10 favorites]

I started out writing a lot more, but it boiled down to: Working to your advantage is the natural human tendency to view the past rosily. Within a couple of years, your former co-workers will have forgotten most of your actual work at WidgetCo, let alone the reason you left. Definitely no one hangs on to gossip that long. Even if your boss did talk shit about you, they probably never cared and almost certainly won't remember any details by the time you ask for a reference. They'll just remember that they liked you, you weren't a complete fuckup, and you sometimes like pictures of their cat on Facebook. That's all you really need to get someone to say a few nice things about you.
posted by kevinbelt at 1:46 PM on April 21, 2021 [4 favorites]

These guys may already have a pretty good idea of what went on and a sense that you were poorly treated by New Boss and WidgetCo. When I have had people offer to do this for me in similar situations the past, it seemed like they were doing it *because* they knew that New Boss (or WidgetCo, or something) had given me a raw deal. So even if New Boss has been saying untrue or inaccurate things about you, these people may very well already know or strongly suspect that that's not the truth - badmouthing often reflects more poorly on the person doing the badmouthing (in this case, New Boss) than on the person being badmouthed.

I think the most you should do is say something like, "I got a weird vibe off New Boss and it felt like he saw my work completely different from Old Boss and other people at WidgetCo - I was really blindsided when I was let go." Even that, though, can be difficult to pull off.

I don't think you need to meet up with these potential references unless that's something you would do anyway. If anything, by trying to "pay them back" for the reference, *you're* the one who's making it transactional. They are your ex-colleagues from WidgetCo. That's your relationship, and that's what you want them to speak to if you need to use them as a reference.
posted by mskyle at 1:46 PM on April 21, 2021 [11 favorites]

Dear [colleague],

Thank you very much for your offer to be a reference for me in my job search after my departure from WidgetCo. I enjoyed working together with you on X project, and I am very grateful for your willingness to vouch for my work.

At the moment I am taking some time to consider my options and be strategic about where I move from here, so it may be a while before I reach out again with a request for a reference. In the meantime, if there is anything I can do to be of support to you, please don’t hesitate to be in touch. My personal email is X and my skype address is Y.

Thank you and all the best,

No mention of NewBoss is necessary, no regular contact is necessary unless you already have a certain level of informal contact or friendship with them. References are transactional, and they are part of the professional world. I routinely give references for people I haven’t spoken to in over a year, and I routinely ask references of people I have not reached out to in a year. The flurry of emails related to asking for a reference usually involves a little bit of catching up on both sides, but dies down quickly after. This is the way things are. I, personally, would be much more annoyed if people kept pinging me just to say hi for no reason, rather than only writing when there is something concrete needed. If you are friends with these colleagues that's a different story, but from what you described it sounds like these are purely professional relationships - it's fine to leave it at that and still ask for references down the road.
posted by philotes at 1:47 PM on April 21, 2021 [17 favorites]

Just friend them on LinkedIn. :)
posted by kschang at 1:50 PM on April 21, 2021 [10 favorites]

You don't need to do as much as you may think. I've been on both sides of this - if they stuck their neck out to offer, you don't have to worry too much about being "tainted."

Now: Send each of them a nice email thanking them (or re-thanking) them for their offer, and say something nice about working with them (ie, "I really learned a lot from you about X on Y project") which shores up the relationship and also reminds them of positive experiences you had together. Let them know you're taking a bit of time to focus on personal projects, but that you will give them a heads up when you begin your search (this is important so they don't think you just fell off the face of the planet). Friend them on LinkedIn or even Facebook if that feels appropriate. Send them occasional articles or memes about something you have in common, again if that feels appropriate.

When you need a reference, send another email letting them know. As someone who's being asked to give a reference, I really like it when the person tells me about the role and what traits/experiences/strengths they'd like me to focus on. ie, "this role has a lot of audience research and it reminded me of that work we did together on designing the user survey so I thought you'd be great for them to talk to."
posted by lunasol at 4:47 PM on April 21, 2021 [3 favorites]

Also, I just want to say: I know this feels terrible (again: been there!) but it happens all the time and how you left is probably not going to be as notable to everyone else as it is to you.
posted by lunasol at 4:48 PM on April 21, 2021

On the part of how to keep them current, I wouldn't worry too much about that. The professional world is full of "oh yes, we worked together 5-10 years ago, it's good to hear from you again." I have a former boss whom I had not spoken to in years and he contacted me out of nowhere asking if I would be a reference. I wasn't bothered by the request after years of silence (by both of us). I was a reference, I gave a great reference, and he was offered the job, which he then turned down because he had a second offer that was better. Point being, don't worry about keeping in constant contact with your former colleagues. It's okay to contact them after a long period of silence and ask for a reference.
posted by Meldanthral at 4:50 PM on April 21, 2021 [3 favorites]

Ask them to write you a LinkedIn reference note now if they're willing. It'll create a record, and it'll solidify in their minds what they like about your work.
posted by slidell at 9:16 PM on April 21, 2021 [1 favorite]

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