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How to Deal Past Employers Who Won’t Give You a Referral

Work References, Referrals, Hiring...

What is the best time to ask for a referral?  It depends on the employee’s circumstance, and reason for leaving.  For instance, some career coaches and recruiters suggest that an individual acquire a letter of recommendation before they commence a job search.  Others insist that asking for a referral (while still employed with the company) can make the current employer suspicious, and create interpersonal problems.

Some employees who have waited until after they have left a position, find it difficult to leverage goodwill, to get the letter of reference that they deserve.  When they are no longer working for the company, managers may feel little impetus to assist someone who decided to leave prematurely.  This is compounded in situations where the former employee has proven difficult to replace.

What are the general rules and accommodations that employees can expect, when asking for a personal or professional reference?  We share the myths and some tips to bypass obstacles, and to get the commendations you deserve for your work.

Non-Reference Employer Policies

There are many blue-chip companies and organizations who have a policy that prohibits personal or professional referral.  While regional laws vary, most companies are required to confirm dates of employment, salary amount and the title or position of the former employee. However, potential employers want to know far more about performance, aptitudes and interpersonal conflicts.

There are two reasons why employers may adopt a non-reference policy:

1) Legal Liability

What a former employer shares about your performance, no matter how honest it is, can have an impact on future job prospects for an employee.  While many employees believe that it is illegal for a former employer to share negative performance details or aspects of their experience with you, they have the freedom to be honest about your time with them; good or bad.

Some choose to not share the negative aspects of employee history, for fear of civil liability, or bad will.  For instance, if a former manager had a personal grudge with an employee who departed, and provided excessively negative referrals for that employee, he or she may be held liable for defamation.   While few of these cases end up in court, they can.  But rather than saying something ‘bad’ about an employee, isn’t it easier to have a policy where you say nothing at all?

2) Non-Competition

Large corporations like IBM have long held a non-reference policy, for competitive reasons.  Assume you are a brand name, globally recognized organization, with exceptionally large volume personnel needs.  Businesses like IBM invest significantly in training and certification for their staff, but attrition can be high, after acquiring these certifications, which are highly coveted in the I.T. industry.  Are you training staff for the benefit of your competitors?

Large organizations may have refused to provide referrals, to help retain talented staff.  Years of experience at a blue-chip organization can place an employee in great demand; but without a letter of reference, it can be harder to quantify professional achievements.   The idea is that employees will stay longer, but it can have a very negative impact also, on corporate culture.  Do employers owe a good former employee a positive letter of recommendation?  Many businesses feel that departing employees have been disloyal, and do not support career advancement external to the organization.

Ready to Get the Referrals You Deserve?

If you have worked diligently during your tenure with the organization, there are effective ways to seek out referrals that will archive your professional accomplishments, and support new career opportunities.

  • Ask former employers through LinkedIn. Recommendations received through the worlds largest business network can be used on your CV or resume, and managers and supervisors often find them less time consuming to complete a favorable one online.
  • Trade professional referrals with other employees. They may need a letter of reference too, from someone who had extensive experience working with them.   Offer to trade honest and detailed feedback and references with your colleagues, and remember to connect with them and do the same in LinkedIn.
  • Approach former colleagues who are no longer with the company. If they enjoyed working with you, they have a high likelihood of providing top-quality references, based on their team experience.  Also, since they no longer work for the employer, they will not be concerned with non-reference policy compliance, or punitive outcomes for providing you with a great reference.
  • Ask for a phone reference. While many managers and supervisors may feel uncomfortable providing a referral in writing, they may be quite comfortable answering questions from a recruiter or potential employer on the phone.  If they agree, remember to send them an email asking for a convenient time that a recruiter may contact them; schedule it like an appointment that is convenient for the manager, for an excellent telephone review.