In our next Ask Victoria column, we tackle reference etiquette:
I have a question regarding reference etiquette. I've been in my position of fund development for 3 years with the same organization. Recently, I've been interested in researching other job opportunities to find out if I'd be a competitive candidate whenever I do decide to leave. My issue is that since all of my development work is tied up in this one role, my reference is my current employer. If I was seriously considering leaving, then I would have an honest conversation with my supervisor, but since I'm wanting to 'test the waters' so to speak, I'm wondering how I can use my employer as a reference while applying for jobs, without straining my relationship with my employer.
Thank you for your question. It’s great that you are thinking ahead so you are prepared when the time comes. While it sounds like you have a pretty good relationship with your manager since you were considering to use them as a reference, you are wise to question whether or not you should.
Even within the best professional relationships, if you are forthright about your desire to leave the organization a question arises, “What happens if I don’t get the job?” How your manager behaves towards you can vary; your manager may fully support your leaving as a “next step” to your professional growth, or they may assume you have a “one foot out the door” mentality and avoid giving you long-term projects or other opportunities for your growth.
Most employers will understand your desire to keep mum about your job search.
It will probably take a few discussions with your manager to get an idea of where they stand and how they will react. You don’t have to blurt out “I’m thinking about leaving,” but have some honest conversations about your career aspirations and ask for your manager for feedback on how they see you achieving them at the organization. Also, pay attention to how other people are treated when they leave. Are they still supported and included? Or shut out completely?
In the meantime, remember that you can keep your job search confidential until you are further into the hiring process. You may have noticed that many organizations do not request that you submit a list of references right away with your application. Most will ask for them later on in the process, and by that time you should have a better idea of where things stand - both in regards to your candidacy and your current employer’s willingness to serve as a reference.
Wait to share your list of references until asked, which is usually after you’ve been interviewed. When filling out a job application, there may be a question on the form that asks “may we contact your current employer?” You can certainly check off “no” and add a note stating you are keeping your job search confidential and will provide current references later in the hiring process. Most employers will understand your desire to keep mum about your job search.
Your previous supervisors can share stories about your work performance that are just as wow-worthy.
While it’s great to have references who can speak about your abilities in a specific job function, don’t discount those who are outside of that area. Even though your current employer is your first reference who can attest to your fundraising and development work, your previous supervisors can share stories about your work performance that are just as wow-worthy. It is perfectly acceptable to list them as your references instead, as they can speak about your transferable skills, the ones that are most related to the development jobs you will be pursuing.
Selecting references takes care, planning, and communication. You want them to be able to share the very best insights about you. Your references should be people who have worked with you at least a full year and have directly supervised you. It’s also a good idea to get the “okay” from your prospective references before disclosing their contact information to an employer. It’s helpful to give them a copy of your current resume and the description of the job you are seeking so they can focus on your skills that most relate to the work. You may even want to schedule a short call with them to give a recap of your experiences and what makes you fit the role. After the hiring process, send a thank you note to your references in appreciation of their efforts and cooperation.
Hope this gave you some clarity and ideas for next steps as you continue with your job search.
By Victoria Crispo