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Reference etiquette

Q. Could you give me some advice regarding a past (and last) employer of
eight months, (six of which she was on maternity leave) who will not give
references to any of my potential employers (hence, preventing any sort of
employment possibilities)?

A. Lacking a reference from a supervisor for a job of less than a year, even if it is your last job, will not prevent you from finding successful re-employment. Let me offer some strategies for doing an “end run” around the missing reference and then discuss general reference etiquette.

I can understand why an employer who has supervised you for only two months would be unwilling to provide a reference for you. It is unfortunate, but not fatal, that this is your most recent employer. Here are some possible ways to help solve your immediate problem:

1. Check with human resources in the company. Many companies now have a policy of only verifying dates of employment and prohibit supervisors from providing references. If that’s company policy, you’re off the hook. When asked for a reference, simply state company policy and provide the interviewer with a name and telephone number in human resources.

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2. Explain the situation in an interview by telling the truth, that you are unable to get a reference from your last supervisor as she was on maternity leave for six out of the eight months of your employment.

3. Ask someone else at the company - your boss’ boss, the interim supervisor, a colleague and/or a customer - to provide a reference for you.

Try not to get too hung up on this one reference. What counts is that your references present a well-rounded profile of you. The best way to do this is to ask former supervisors, colleagues, and/or customers to serve as references. Employers are looking for new hires who will fit in well with their corporate culture, who are team players, who have an exemplary work ethic and habits and who get along well with others.

Always ask permission of anyone whom you include as a reference. If possible, prepare your references and provide them with an outline of what would be helpful for them to discuss when they talk with prospective employers.

Develop a separate reference sheet, with current contact information for each reference. For consistency, use the same format at the top of your reference sheet that you use on your resume for your name, phone number and home and e-mail addresses. Unless instructed to, don’t attach your reference sheet to your initial cover letter and resume. Do bring your reference sheet to the interview, along with any written references you may have (most employers will still pick up the phone even with a written reference).

Wait until you are asked for references before giving the interviewer your reference sheet. The timing of when an employer asks for references can vary widely. Academic positions usually ask for references upfront, before the interview; some businesses ask for references during the interview process; others request them just prior to making an offer.

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