Vouch or Ouch?

Among the frequent discussions I have with clients is the topic of references and prospective employers’ attempt to confirm what job seekers claim on their resumes, applications and in interviews.  You’d be amazed at the number of people who voice serious concerns about what others will say about them.  And they should be concerned.  But with some honesty, a little preparation, and some open communication with those who may be contacted, you should have very little to worry about.
Let’s start with the honesty part of equation.  Many people stretch the truth on their resumes and applications to make themselves look good to prospective employers!  Some lie outright!  Neither lying nor stretching the truth is recommended!  You can’t be guaranteed that your former/current employers and/or coworkers will see your efforts in the same light that you do.
Certainly one way to describe your current or previous job responsibilities would be to reference your last “formal” job description.  You know, the one your employer used to describe what was expected of you when you first got hired?  It’s something you should be able to easily procure and distribute.  That way you and your current/former coworkers can use similar language to describe what you did.  No one should be reading directly from this document!  You just want all to have a consistent picture of what you’ve done.
Another approach is to encourage your associates – if they might be contacted by someone you’ve interviewed with – to focus their remarks on specific aspects of your work or skills, such as “polite, professional customer interaction”; “effective data base management”; “ability to maintain accurate records”;  “respects confidentiality”; “inspires creativity in our graphics department”, “excellent programming skills”, etc.  Asking your contacts to focus on particular traits helps them to understand how they can best speak in your favor.  Be honest and objective with the way you describe your accomplishments so your contacts know what you need them to say.
The other thing you might try to do is ask your contacts what they might say about you, without prompting them to cover certain skills, strengths, or accomplishments.  In this way you get a real picture of how others see you and the work you’ve done.  By informing your contacts about the type of work you’re applying for (if you’re comfortable revealing this information!) gives them perspective on how what you’ve done in the past relates to what you hope to be doing on the new job.
I know it’s not always easy asking for this kind of help from (former) coworkers.  But frequently managements’ hands are tied because of corporate policies that prevent them from providing information to outside parties.  In some cases this prevents some employers from providing any formal references.  Many employers have policies that limit references to confirming the dates you worked, and maybe providing a title.  Sadly because of the litigious nature of our society, more and more companies are taking an “I’m sorry, we don’t provide this information” approach to providing references because they fear being sued for saying the wrong thing.  Employers don’t want to put themselves in a position of possible litigation for providing details of your work to another employer.
Of course not everyone’s employment history is free of conflict, misunderstanding, or worse.  And despite your best efforts to steer prospective employers away from asking them questions, there’s little you can do to prevent a potential employer from calling on your former bosses to ask questions.   Again, open and honest communication is the way to go.  Talk to your former boss/supervisor and say, “I know things weren’t great between us, but I’m in the process of trying to score a new position.  Please understand that I’ve tried to improve myself so those old issues won’t be a hindrance on my next job, and I hope that if you are contacted and asked, please find something nice to say.”  All you can do is ask!
And don’t forget that before you provide any details for your references to a prospective employer, make sure you ask their permission first!  Not everyone is comfortable having their contact information spread around, and others are not comfortable providing references.  Get their permission first!
Just remember that you can’t control a prospective employer’s attempts to validate your claims, and you can’t control what your former employers might say.  So do your best to make certain past mistakes don’t come back to bite you in the butt and hurt your efforts to get your next job.   Hopefully your references will vouch for you and your application’s claims.  A little forethought and planning will keep the vouch from being an ouch!
Want more tips about resumes, cover letters, references, job search and career development issues? Please search this blog and visit:  hanklondon.com