By Donald Smith

Career coaches have repeatedly seen clients fail to follow up on references from their former employer. This happens even though the client has invested years in making a sincere and useful contribution to their employer’s success, and this reference problem can frequently be prevented. The main reasons for a reference problem are lack of a plan, lack of guidance and lack of courage under understandably stressful circumstances.

Most career practitioners know somebody who has had a good career with their employer, had positive relationships with their boss and colleagues and had at least pulled their weight. Then something happened, relationships soured, their reputation slid downhill and the result was resignation in anger or termination under miserable circumstances.

Unfortunately, this happens wherever there are employees, employers, tasks to perform, money to spend and the inevitable political interactions between factions and colleagues with differing interests, values and ambitions.

It is natural for the ex-employee to avoid dealing with references. They may be clouded by feelings of anger, embarrassment, disempowerment and vulnerability. Creating a plan of action is a challenge too great for many people to handle on their own, and frequently they opt to avoid the reference.

If the reference issue can be resolved, it generally follows that managers and former colleagues will be available to support the job search. It is enormously helpful for them to provide networking introductions and career suggestions. But until the references issues are resolved, this support will generally not be provided. Seen from this perspective, arranging references may be of greater value than having an updated resume.

The career transition experience with Murray Axmith & Associates across Canada shows that positive steps can be taken; this is preferable to avoiding the references issue and hoping that everything will be ok. But the coach needs to have a game plan. This includes:

  • Discussing the feelings which pushed the client towards denial or avoidance, and determining if the assertiveness and motive power are there to proceed with references
  • If yes, helping to develop a plan specific to that client and their former management
  • Developing text, which is believed to be discussable by former management and HR

This text includes the individual’s history with the organization (titles, dates responsibilities), core strengths, some examples of work, a weakness, reason for leaving and whether the employer could re-hire. Taken together, this text is the “Suggestions for telephone references”.

Once the client and the career coach have developed this text, they write “Draft for discussion” on it. The client makes a call to the former manager and asks if it is possible to discuss the references issue. If yes, they send the draft with a request that the employer modifies it and then calls back for a discussion. The desired result is to discover a text that describes what the employer will say when asked each of the reference questions.

Many people believe it is impossible to discuss references with the former employer following termination, but it is a useful premise to assume that if the employer does not feel vulnerable, they would prefer to be helpful (or at least not harmful) to the former employee.

A surprising number of reference issues can be resolved to the benefit of both the employer and the individual. After all, the value of congruence between what the individual says and what the former employer says is enormous. Mutually agreed references help to support a shorter and more successful search for appropriate work.


Donald Smith, MSW, CMF is an independent career coach in Toronto. He worked with Murray Axmith & Associates and Right Management Consultants in career transition (outplacement) services in Toronto for years and has published numerous articles, manuals and books. He has the Fellowship (CMF) designation with the Institute of Career Certification International.