Tech & Work

A workaround for nonexistent references

A unique--and unpleasant--resignation experience left one tech director without a direct reference for his previous job. Career expert Molly Joss outlines how to handle this issue when it comes to interviewing.


Question
I was a director of a start-up company, working up to 16-hour days and traveling/staying away from home a lot. I got engaged and the other director took this badly, stating that it would hurt the company. We were a democratic company with the other director acting as CEO, giving him two votes to my one at meetings. From the day I got engaged, undue pressure was placed on me until I felt I had no option left but to resign as a director and move on.

Shortly after this, the company folded and the remaining director said my resignation was the reason the company failed. Obviously, I cannot use my previous fellow director as a reference due to the bad feeling between us over this situation. It is also difficult to explain the reason for leaving on the resume.

At present, I use the former company secretary as a reference and explain that I left because we had to downsize (which is true, because we were planning on going to a skeleton staff to enhance the survival chances). But is there a better way to explain the situation, especially when it comes to my resume?

Answer
The company was on its last legs and probably would have folded anyway, taking your job along with it. So, as to your resume, you don't have to explain anything relating to how you resigned. You should list the title, dates of your employment, and briefly describe work and responsibilities. Don't list your references on your resume, and don't state that references are available upon request.

Where you'll have to do the explaining is in interviews. When the subject comes up, briefly explain that you left the company because budgets were very tight and working conditions had deteriorated to the point where you could no longer be an effective director. That's true, and that's all the information they need. You don't have to go into the details of what happened, how the other director felt about your engagement, and so on.

Now, if they don't ask why you left, then don't volunteer an explanation. They may not care why you left because they assume it wasn't for a good reason but don't care to know the details. Rarely do people leave companies for a good reason, even if they say it was to take a job that was too good to pass up. That's true a small fraction of the time, but, most of the time, people leave companies because they are unhappy about something.

If the hiring process gets to the point where they ask for references, then feel free to give them the phone number of anyone who will give you a good report. Don't worry if it's not the other director. Because the resume doesn't provide company hierarchy details, and because you aren't describing the situation in full, they don't even know that the other director exists or that he made such a wacky accusation.

Your dilemma is actually very common and is an active topic on the TechRepublic discussion boards. In researching feedback to your question, I found two relevant comments in a discussion about how to handle tricky situations on resumes, such as when the company you worked for no longer exists. A recent column of mine hit upon this topic as well.

In these rocky economic times, troubled companies either go out of business or get swallowed up by other companies. So, it's not unusual for a company or two to disappear in a resume that stretches back a few years. TechRepublic member Info noted that looking back on his 20-plus years in this business, he realized that only two companies he worked for are still in business and that one of those two had been acquired.

Jim Phelps suggested making it difficult for prospective employers to turn up damaging information about you by giving as little contact information as possible. "I don't want to make it easy for someone to get a negative report on me," Jim said. I agree with him—no one is capable of making everyone happy with the work they do. Somebody is going to be unhappy, and you don't need to lead the prospective employer directly to that person.

Remember that when companies call your references, they are looking for two different types of information. First, they want to verify the information on the resume so they can find out if you lied. Second, they want to get an idea of what kind of person you are and if you can do the work. If they want this information, they usually try to talk to people you didn't recommend rather than the people you did. They may even go so far as to do background and credit reports on you. You have no control over their external resources for this information; so, in this case, it doesn't do you any good to worry about who they talk with and what they might find out.

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