Let’s say you recently completed a project that was nothing short of a disaster. You have to list it on your resume, but you hope never to have to discuss it with a hiring manager because you have no reference to provide. It’s a scenario that many consultants face when they handle lots of projects—and become the scapegoat when things go awry.

I went to the experts to get insight and advice on how you can handle this situation without coming away from an interview looking like someone with whom it is hard to work or communicate.

Be up front when no reference is handy
Jon Elliott, an independent consultant who works with small companies that want to get into government business, offered two approaches—one in which the candidate notes the lack of reference and reasons and a second in which a candidate simply relates that there isn’t any reference available.

“A lot of projects fail in spite of the skill of the consultant. Sometimes external factors like insufficient funding, poor estimating, change at the top of the client company, loss of project sponsorship, or change in strategic direction can be key contributors to project failure,” explained Elliott, who has had one or two project failures related to external factors.

Yet no matter how horrible the project outcome, a consultant shouldn’t take leave from a job site without the name of at least one person who can serve as a reference, he stressed.

“Unless the consultant is really a idiot, he or she is always working at developing good relationships. This is as important for future business as it is for future references,” he explained, adding that he’s never left a job without a name and contact number in hand.

He highly recommended the first approach because it can never backfire on you.

“Be right up front that the project failed because of a number of external factors and a lot of your potential references got burned by the political fallout,” he said.

The second option, a cop-out approach in which you tell the hiring CIO that there is no longer a reference available at the former project site, can sometimes backfire; the CIO may learn about the project from another source and find out why you really didn’t provide any reference.

Realize the wide range of references available
Howard Bruck, principal consultant with the Attain Group in Bedford, NY, explained that consultants and IT professionals often erroneously think a reference has to be the team or project leader or immediate supervisor.

“If you have really done a good job, and you are a nice person, then there must be someone on the project team who will have something good to say about you. You may not be able to give the name of the project manager or senior level functional person, but you should be able to find someone you worked with who can provide positive feedback,” he said.

For instance, if your best reference is a company employee who is also a working member on the project, you can ask them to be a reference. You can explain to the hiring manager that you were playing a very specific niche role on the project and didn’t have much interaction at the project-wide levels.

Most consultants should be able to find someone who can vouch for a specific deliverable or module that they delivered on time and on spec.

Additional insight for avoiding the scenario
I think that the experts are on target about the need to search out references and make sure that there’s always someone from a project who can vouch for the quality of the work you did and the effort you made.

Every IT professional, from the CIO to the consultant, should strive to make things right while in their respective role, even if they were the cause of the project trouble or issues. The bottom line for a consultant is that you are a merchant of sorts and the client is the customer—and as the saying goes, the customer is always right.

If you do everything reasonable within your power to make things right before leaving, it will stand out and create the goodwill needed for a reference. Keep in mind that this could mean offering additional services for free or giving a partial refund of your fee.

I know what you’re thinking—that’s crazy. But before you ignore my advice completely, I assure you that I have had experience in this. On one occasion, I placed a director-level person with a client. His references all checked out and his skills made him seem perfect for the client. The client put him through a series of interviews and even performed their own personnel checks. Yet, within 90 days the consultant had dropped the ball in terms of fulfilling the needed work and the client released him.

I had to refund the entire placement fee, which was a significant figure. It was painful, especially since I believed the candidate’s failure really wasn’t my firm’s fault. On paper, we had done our job very well. But giving the refund was the right thing to do from a business perspective.

On another occasion, I placed a software engineer with a client. One week into the assignment, the engineer called to tell me that she was pregnant and would be returning to her home state because the doctor was putting her on total bed rest. Again, it was quite painful, but we had agreed in advance not to charge the client for anyone who stayed a week or less. We had to swallow the cost of her wages, because we still had to pay her for a week of service. It wasn’t our fault, but it was the right thing to do.

Approach the interview confidently
Be honest about the circumstances of the last contract. Without putting anyone down, explain about conflicting interests within the organization or that the objectives kept shifting. Keep in mind that you’re interviewing with a senior-level technical professional who’s likely been in the situation. It’s much better to be up front than to make excuses and have the project manager do some checking and find out you were lying.

Come prepared to the interview, with references in hand from other clients who sing your praises. These references might be enough to satisfy the project manager that you’re the right person for the job. At a minimum, they’ll help inoculate you against the effects of your last project. Don’t just come to the interview with a list of numbers. You’re much better off with two or three signed letters explaining your expertise and accomplishments.

By following the experts’ advice and these tips, you can clear any interview hurdles when explaining a past project you’re not eager to expound on. In being forthright, you’re clearly indicating that you’re an honest person, and if you’re a good consultant, that will come through in your other achievements.