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Frame of Reference

If you’re really bad at your job, that’s OK. People who are really bad at their jobs can enjoy wildly successful careers. If you doubt me, take a look at your management team. What’s really bad about being bad at your job is when someone notices just how bad you are. And what’s even worse is when that someone is called upon to provide you with a good reference.

That’s not only bad; that’s super-bad.

Of course, you may take comfort in the fact that most companies have a policy of not giving personal references. Afraid of a lawsuit from you, the ex-employee, all the reference-provider person is supposed to do is confirm your title and affirm that you worked at the company between a certain set of dates. Unfortunately, even companies that do embrace this policy may find other ways to communicate your cosmic lameness. In fact, according to the staff at Allison & Taylor Reference Checking of Rochester, Mich., “almost 50 percent offer lukewarm or downright negative feedback.”

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These naysayers have subtle ways to give you a slap in the resume. For example, when asked when you worked at the company, a shrewdly sadistic HR android could say, “Well, she was here between January 2009 and March 2011, but if you want to know when she worked I’d have to say, two weeks in 2009 and a half-day in 2010.”

You may know that you’ve got a hater hiding in your work history, or you may think that everyone loves you, when that’s not at all the case. “Many people are completely blindsided by a bad reference — they never realized there was an issue,” revealed Jeff Shane vice president of Allison & Taylor. “Bad references can put a sudden halt to a candidate’s search for that great new job.”

A visit to www.AllisonTaylor.com will provide you with an entertaining and totally frightening cornucopia of slyly negative comments. Like the former supervisor who is unable to rank you when compared to other employees, not because the company does allow sharing such subjective info, but because “they could not do anything correctly in the position they held with us.”

“Would you rehire this person?” is another typical reference-seeking question, but a clever former manager can scuttle your employment chances by simply answering, “He is not. I’m really not supposed to say anything, but he was unreliable and sick a lot.”

This is highly unfair. It’s not your fault that you’re allergic to work!

And what about the reference provider who provides a real knockout punch when asked to rate your strengths and weaknesses by responding, “I cannot think of any strengths, only weaknesses?” Or the former manager who reluctantly refuses to explain why you left your former company with “Hold on, let me get the legal file to see what I am allowed to say.”

Fortunately, the friendly folks at Allison ” Taylor have some tips for repairing or avoiding a job reference ding. One sensible idea is to simply delete the toxic company from your resume entirely. This could be difficult, as your potential new employer may not understand why there is a fifteen-year gap in your work history. (You could explain you were working undercover during that period, but you’d better check first to see if the CIA has forgiven you for that kerfuffle in Kazakhstan.)

Alternately, you can substitute a reference more likely to provide a positive reference. You might say, “I have forgotten the name of my former employer, but here is the phone number for my mother.” (Just make sure Mom has forgiven you for that kerfuffle in Kazakhstan.)

Allison & Taylor suggest a proactive attack as another technique for defusing a potentially negative reference. “Mr. Smith is my former supervisor, but we don’t share the same perspective on key issues,” you could say. I do think you may need to add some detail to flesh out the story, as in “See, Mr. Smith thinks I’m paranoid, when the real trouble is that he has organized a whole task force of invisible people to hid in my cubical and harass me.”

It’s unlikely that you will ever be free of a bad reference, which leaves you with two choices. You can either start doing a really good job, or you can continue being a completely rotten employee and stay where you are. I say — stay rotten. It could be the secret of your success.

Bob Goldman was an advertising executive at a Fortune 500 company, but he finally wised up and opened Bob Goldman Financial Planning in Sausalito, California. He offers a virtual shoulder to cry on at bob@funnybusiness.com.

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