Workplace Solutions: When a Reference Calls
"Steve's" resignation three months ago took me by surprise. He'd always told me how much he loved his job. Then one day he walked in with a resignation letter dated the prior week and said he was leaving by the end of the week because he'd been offered a "dream job." When I asked him why he wasn't giving us two weeks' notice, he said his new employer needed him and he'd given them his word the prior week.
I'd always respected Steve, and he'd told me many times in the eight months he worked for me that I was a great manager. Still, in his last week, he screwed up every assignment, trashed me to his co-workers and voiced a number of made-up grievances. By the time he walked out the door I thought "good riddance."
Fast-forward to this morning when I got a reference call from an employer who was considering Steve for a job. All I can figure out is Steve's dream job didn't work out and he's looking for a new job. I said "no comment" but felt bad about it as Steve had been a good worker before he turned into a jerk. What should I have said?
"No comment" works; however, it undercut Steve's chances for landing a job he wanted and left a bad taste in your mouth. Steve gave you eight months of good work performance. You could have described Steve's strengths to the prospective employer.
If the employer pressed you for Steve's downside or if you wanted to balance the positives with the negative, you could have said "except he flaked out at the end." Like many other departing employees, when Steve secured a new "dream" job, he mentally moved on. Many exiting employees catch short-timer's disease and handle leaving-taking poorly.
It takes energy to end a job well. The exiting employee knows the employer and co-worker relationships will end and wonders whether or not to invest energy in working hard up until the last minute. Many take the easy road out and coast to their final day. Unfortunately, they leave a bad taste in their former employer's mouth -- and you repaid Steve in kind
"Although it's exhausting to end well," says life coach Marcia Templin, "I've always done so. I value the mission and people I've worked for and with and don't want to let them down. It speaks to your integrity to work hard until the end."
Templin adds that Steve may have swallowed issues that bothered him, afraid he'd lose his job or your goodwill if he voiced them. At the end, when your respect no longer mattered, he passive-aggressively aired his views.
According to life coach Jenny Landon, the fact that Steve trashed you to his coworkers "indicates leaving a work relationship with you may have represented past unresolved leave-takings, as for example happens when an employee who felt ripped off by a spouse in a divorce leaves the employ of manager of the opposite sex who 'never paid him what he was worth.' Steve appears to have 'gotten back at you.'"
Lynne Curry, Ph.D., SPHR and owner of the Alaska-based management consulting firm, The Growth Company Inc. consults with companies and individuals to create real solutions to real workplace challenges. Their services include HR On-call (a-la-carte HR), investigations, mediation, management/employee training, executive coaching, 360/employee reviews and organizational strategy services. You can reach Lynne @ www.thegrowthcompany.com, via her workplace 911/411 blog, www.workplacecoachblog.com or @lynnecurry10 on twitter.