on February 16th, 2010

Dear Colleagues

How many times have you changed jobs? Sadly, in today’s world, nothing goes on for ever, including your ‘spot’ in a company. Apparently, in the course of his/her career, the average employee can change jobs up to ten times. I would argue that currently this understates the situation. In the case of an engineering contractor this is even more profound. As I have mentioned before, when I started engineering in the seventies I used to think of a lifetime career in engineering with a particular employer. That aspiration was rudely shattered when I ended up in a dead end job with a multinational company that hit the wall (I might add that it boomed many years after I left – presumably not because of my departure! Sadly it has again hit the skids).

If you do leave a company it is important never to “burn your bridges”. Even if it is very tempting, do not malign either the company or your colleagues – no matter the degree of ineptitude. Bite your tongue and when asked why you are leaving simply remark that another opportunity has come up. I have had technicians (unable to hide their frustration with the companies and employees) give chapter and verse descriptions of the failures as they see them. The results are blotted reference copybooks. People never forget (or forgive) personal attacks.

At some point, you are probably going to be asked to write a reference for one of your colleagues, or indeed ask for one yourself. The personal recommendation is absolutely critical. Often this is given over the phone rather than in the written format -after all, how can you check someone’s bona fides without talking to a colleague or supervisor who is familiar with his /her work? A CV is helpful, but is only partially useful in determining whether a person will fit a particular job.

Without a doubt, when asked for a reference, you should feel honoured that your opinion is deemed important. But as a professional you have a duty to be completely honest and to serve the engineering fraternity with unbiased feedback on an individual – a completely honest and a solid description of this person’s skills and expertise. If you have had problems with the person, it is best to decline the request for a reference without providing reasons. It is best to walk away without making nasty remarks.

With regards to your own reference – no matter how secure your current job is – actively build onto it. This sounds quite mercenary, but it is important to look after yourself. For example, a mentor, a colleague or simply a client may be delighted with your work and professionalism. This feedback should be retained You may just be moving within the company and someone internally wants to check on your background. Or you may need a reference for a potential client before he engages your company in a project. Remember, the more references you have – particularly from a variety of perspectives – are very powerful. They need not only be from a former employer. Keep in touch with your referees – they might be moving around industry and may have further useful contacts for you. In turn they may depend on you for a reference.

Don’t do what many reference candidates suggest – simply sign a reference letter which has already been written. This is unprofessional and highly risky as your name is attached to it – you may be held responsible for misleading information down the track.

When a reference seeker speaks to you; spend some time understanding what his/her proposed job entails. Use your professional judgment to give a reasonable assessment based on this. There is absolutely no point ‘upselling’ a person – this can actually do him/her a disservice. Providing an inaccurate reference may result in the person getting a job he/she is wholly unsuited to and placing him/her in a difficult situation – potentially setting him/her up for failure. Potential employers, of any worth, do not expect perfect candidates. They want solid descriptions and to gain some understanding of real people who are likely to fit their jobs. Don’t let the reference seeker drive you and put words into your mouth. You must decide what to say and how you say it. I have found that reference seekers from HR backgrounds may need some help with the assessment of an actual job, from an engineering perspective. You may need to provide guidance here.

Most crucial, I believe, is attitude to the job; then social interaction – does she like working in a team; is she positive, enthusiastic, constructive, how does she handle negative situations or stress. Then, what are her communication skills like – written and verbal; is she technically competent, can she self manage and achieve deadlines? And finally – does she get real results when working with limited resources?
From the employee’s perspective, whether successful or not in obtaining the position required, always express your gratitude to those who supported you.

Providing an employment job reference recommendation is a vital professional responsibility. Doing it right should give you a warm and fuzzy feeling that you are contributing to a colleague in his or her career. Above all, remember that someday you may need a reference.

And as far as truthful references are concerned remember the comment from Greg Evans:

Anger at lies lasts forever. Anger at truth can’t last.

Yours in engineering learning


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