Q: A friend asked me to review his cover letter for a job he really wants. His letter mentions he has an extensive client contact list that he could bring to the new firm from his old firm. This rubbed me the wrong way! I think it makes my friend seem sneaky and underhanded. Wouldn’t a prospective employer wonder what future clients my friend might steal from them? Or is this business as usual in the corporate world?
A: Your friend didn’t explain his contact list in the most professional or effective way, and the reaction you had is the reaction most people would have, including prospective employers. Hiring companies will absolutely think that if he’s expressing his client situation this way now, he’ll be saying the same thing whenever he leaves their organization. They’ll also have concerns about non-compete agreements. Depending on the industry and state, your friend is likely subject to a non-compete or non-solicitation agreement—which is something he really needs to review before going forward in his job search.
Utilizing the contacts you’ve developed over the years is “business as usual” to an extent—but in the job search, it has to be treated professionally and subtly. Having an extensive contact list is a big benefit in a lot of industries. But identifying that contact list as from an old firm will put an individual’s professionalism and ethics in question. It will certainly look underhanded to a prospective employer. Instead of boasting about stealing clients from his past employer, your friend needs to focus on emphasizing the value he brings as an individual. He can even leverage LinkedIn to showcase the professional relationships that might make him an attractive candidate for an organization—he should populate his network with high-value contacts (who he genuinely knows and interacts with), comment on others’ posts, and tag people in his own posts. This way, he’s signaling his connections and getting the same kind of attention that he wants without coming across as unethical or indiscreet.
Your friend’s instincts are at least trending the right way—prospective employers do want new connections that can grow their business, but they are also highly aware of non-compete and non-solicitation agreements. They don’t want the risk of hiring someone who seems to be indicating that he wouldn’t honor these types of agreements. Different industries and states vary in their use of non-compete agreements—they are often considered questionable and have been outlawed so they can no longer prevent people from making a living. Regardless of the official agreements in place, it’s unwise for your friend to display his connections as something he is taking from his previous firm; instead, it needs to be presented as something he has developed through his career in his own right. He can mention an “extensive network” or “strong professional relationships.” That is the difference.
You should tell your friend he chose the right editor and not to represent himself this way—it’s not professional and could potentially be harmful to his search. He knows that his professional relationships will be an attractive component for future employers, and the way he frames it matters. He needs to simultaneously demonstrate the value and business he can bring to the organization, while observing professional ethics and honoring all agreements with his current employer. Subtlety and professionalism are key here.