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How you should approach your job search if you were a bad leaver

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All is not lost, even if you were a bad leaver. But you've got work to do to land your next job.

Everyone wants to be a good leaver, but it doesn’t always work out that way. What if you made a mistake or breached protocol and your previous employer considers you a bad leaver? If there’s bad blood between you, you’re unlikely to get a good reference and your job search will be more challenging – but the challenges won’t typically be insurmountable.

Here’s what should you do to get a new job if you were fired or laid off for a reason other than investment performance, cost-cutting or restructuring.

Do what you can to repair broken professional relationships

If you left your previous firm on less-than-ideal terms, it’s natural to want to stick it to your former employer. Many people have burned bridges, only to regret their behavior later. As big as the industry is, it’s not big enough that you won’t ever come into contact with former bosses and colleagues.

“The first is to begin working on repairing that relationship – even if it takes years, it’s probably possible,” said Laurie Thompson, principal in the global asset management and hedge fund practices at Heidrick & Struggles.

But what if the bad blood isn’t your fault? Regardless, take the high ground and try to leave on the very best terms possible.

“Even given that it has been a bad situation, do whatever you can – don’t be shy about trying to repair that relationship,” Thompson said. “Let a couple months go by and reach out to meet for coffee.

“You’d be surprised,” she said. “There have been some tense situations that I’ve seen repaired over the years.”

You have to explain the reason you’re considered a bad leaver

Be open that you were let go for a non-performance reason because it may help you avoid some of the stigma of being considered a bad leaver.

“If a recruiter was going through your background, and you were let go from Citigroup for a non-performance reason, like a layoff or reorg, then you can still recruit without any issue, unless there is a pattern,” said Reshma Ketkar, director and head of the traditional asset management practice at Glocap. “If you’ve been let go from the past four jobs, it might be a problem, but otherwise it shouldn’t be.”

You have to be honest – even if you made a serious mistake

Don’t lie and say something like “The bonus was disappointing so I quit” if that wasn’t the case. Even if you don’t tell an outright lie, beating around the bush and being evasive is likely to exacerbate the issue, which will probably come to light regardless.

“If you know this former manager may speak unfavorably about you or not give you a glowing recommendation, say, ‘Here are the things that they didn’t like and here are the things I did well,’” said Rebecca Dappen, managing partner of the Denver-based accounting and finance division at Lucas Group. “Be honest – own it, but recognize that some people may not be willing to give you a second chance.

“Still, talk about what you learned in the process, and why you would not do it again,” she said. “If something bad happened that you did, you have to own it, because it’s going to come out eventually, and then you’ll sound suspect, so put it out there yourself.”

If you’re upfront with them and disclose a past indiscretion, misstep or issue, then they are more likely to process it the fuller context of your candidacy, rather than see it as a deal-breaker.

Also, be honest with yourself. Is this a pattern that has cropped up repeatedly during your career?

Ask your ex-employer to agree on the messaging – or craft it yourself

Ideally, you’ll be able to craft the messaging around why you left together with your former employer, working with either the manager who hired you or HR. Even if you’re not on great terms anymore, often the ex-employer will realize that’s in their best interests too.

Whether or not your former employer is willing to be involved in the process, spend some time writing down your key talking points related to your exit and bounce that list off a few people that you trust.

“The key is to communicate a consistent and honest message about why you left,” Thompson said.

It’s OK to say something along the lines of “It wasn’t the right fit – in fact, it was the totally wrong job for me. However, this one is a perfect fit for me, because…”

You have to find good references

An employer will not request references until the end of the recruitment process, when the team has met you and liked you, so you should have been able to generate some goodwill by that point.

When they ask for references, provide the contact information for former colleagues and managers who are likely to give you a positive reference, even if it isn’t your most recent boss, Ketkar said. In general, try to find references that are more senior to you, even if you didn’t report to them directly.

If they specifically ask to speak to your most recent boss, it’s not the end of the world. Most managers don’t want to badmouth former employees.

“They’ll say something like, ‘So-and-so did a good job but a couple of times when they talked too much needed to be told something more than once or whatever … it’s not going to be a slam,” Ketkar said. “If they ask specifically to speak to your most recent boss, you have to tell your soon-to-be employer what happened.

“That said, there has to be somebody who you worked with at that organization who would speak positively about you, so put that person forward as a reference first,” she said.

Rekindle past professional relationships

Making sure your other references are as strong as possible may mean putting in some work. “If you most recent boss won’t give you a good recommendation, getting back in touch with people you may have lost touch with and meeting for coffee is a must,” Thompson said. “Make sure that throughout your career you’re staying in touch and being on good terms with everybody.

“If you can’t remember that person’s name or where they are, that matters,” she said. “It takes work, but it’s definitely a worthwhile investment in your time.”

Don’t dis former bosses 

You don’t want to blame others for the situation or come across as defensive or disparaging, because that’s a huge red flag for hiring managers.

“Even if you’re leaving in a bad way, even if there’s bad blood between you and your previous employer, it’s important to demonstrate introspection and explain what happened in a professional manner – ‘We had a difference of opinion over how to lead the team or investment strategy,” Thompson said. “If it was a personality conflict, say ‘Here’s what I learned, here’s what I would do differently and here’s what I’ll take with me,’ which demonstrates perspective and maturity.

Don’t apologize for past transgressions

While it is important to be honest, you don’t have to reveal every single gory detail of your split with your former employer. And being overly apologetic is more likely to hurt than help you.

“Come clean and say ‘Here’s what I learned,’ rather than say ‘I’m sorry’ or blame them,” Dappen said

Maybe you botched a big deal or lost an important client. What did you learn and how are you going to apply that lesson to your next position?

“Don’t try to dance around the badness, say, ‘Here’s the mistake I made, here’s what happened, which is why I’m out in the marketplace, but if you give me a shot I can assure you it’ll never happen again, and here are the steps that I will take,”” Dappen said.

Next time, try to leave before you get cut

In general, it’s very useful, though not always possible, to try to read the tea leaves and make a preemptive move. However, don’t quit before you have another job just to be able to say you have let voluntarily.

“If there’s a situation where the deck is being shuffled and you get advance notice of looming layoffs, try to preempt that and start the job search before that happens,” Ketkar said.

Before giving notice, consider the right timing and be ready to negotiate with your current and future employers.

Photo credit: BananaStock/Thinkstock

Comments (1)

  1. I struggel to understand why is so negative to be made redundant or to be dismissed. If a candidate is competent and able to do the job, why an employer should not hire that candidate?
    What is the concern of the employer?
    We see more and more cases of dismissal where employees win their lawsuit which proves that dismissal are often ways to hide issues in the organisations or mistakes of more senior managers.
    If we think that pursuing a claim for unfair dismissal is expensive and not all the dismissed employees can afford that, give the risk / reward ratio, we may say that 1 out of 2 dismissal is not sufficiently justified. In addition to that, we may say that even if the dismissal were justified the behaviour that led to the dismissal was `common practice` or part of the `culture` of the company, that needed to find a scapegoat. Usually that may happen in order not to spread an issue that could have been caused due to negligence of many senior managers. Does any recruiter think that if a top manager realizes that 80% of the managers made a big mess, then that 80% of managers is going to be fired? I highly doubt that may happen, because otherwise the business could be ended, therefore a scapegoat is what senior managers need.
    Why recruiters do not keep this in mind when they are screening candidates?
    Do recruiters have enought experience in companies organisation and team management? this is not written in the books… books do not write that… the first thing most of the managers may do, is their own business rather than the company business.
    More important, HR is a very difficult job and has also a very important impact on the company… I wonder how many HR managers have been dismissed over the last year? how many more than employees?
    Before dismissing a manager (in the remote possibility) that manager would make so many damages to the company and his employees, including dismissing people.
    In addition to that, when a company needs to dismiss an employee, that also means a failure from the manager to manager the resources, or to train him/her and also a failure from the HR department. Otherwise the employee might be an idiot, but usually is not the case because if that were the case, that would an even bigger failure of the HR and the manager in the recruitment process.

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