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Asking a Current Employer for a Reference

Q. I got an offer – almost. I have been interviewing with this company and they made me an offer contingent on my current boss giving me a good reference. Even though I wasn’t happy about that, I did it. My current boss gave me a good reference I guess, but she is not happy. I haven’t received the offer in writing; this seems wrong and unfair. I haven’t given notice, my colleagues don’t know what is going on, and they’ve started preparing for my departure.

A. You really are in a very difficult situation and your pending new employer put you there. I have seen this process done before, and I’m sure it will happen again with a more unskilled recruiter. Yes it is unfair, and there are ways for them to have achieved what they needed while leaving you in a better position.

When you are asked to do something in any employment situation that doesn’t feel fair, make sure to try and talk it through. This is the initial point in all negotiating. Understand what they need, and what you need. They needed some kind of reference from your current employer, but you didn’t have a written offer; you had not given notice and this reference from your boss put you at risk. You might have asked them if another senior person, or a colleague reference would suffice.

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If not, you could have also said that before you jeopardized your current job, you’d need to see the complete offer in writing first, have the background check completed, and have a start date negotiated. Your boss could have fired you on the spot, which would have left you with no job, no clear start date for a new job and no source of income. These points of negotiation are not unreasonable. Often when people want an offer badly, they put themselves in a difficult spot, which is what happened here.

At this point, you need to have a conversation with the recruiter to encourage the completion of this offer in a timely fashion so that you can have a more complete conversation with your boss. With the written offer in hand and a start date, thank him for his support by way of the reference, and the opportunity to work for him. This bridge may be burned, but try to rebuild it. You may need it in the future. Talk to him about what else you can do to support an effective transition, which may include working with your colleagues. Don’t worry about explaining the details to them. You can do that after you leave.
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-Elaine Varelas, Managing Partner, Keystone Partners

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