So you made a mistake or breached protocol and your previous Wall Street employer considers you a bad leaver. If there’s bad blood between you, then you're unlikely to get a good reference and find a new job is not going to be easy. This doesn't mean, however, that it will be impossible. You just need to follow these rules.
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.
“Begin working on repairing that relationship,” said Laurie Thompson, a principal at Heidrick & Struggles. “Let a couple months go by and reach out to meet for coffee."
Be open about the reason you were let go - after all, it will come to light at some stage. If it was just one job, it may not matter. “If you’ve been let go from the past four jobs, it might be a problem, but otherwise it shouldn’t be,” said Reshma Ketkar, a director at Glocap.
Don't lie and say something like "The bonus was disappointing so I quit" if that wasn't the case. 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 at Lucas Group. “Be honest.
“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?
Spend some time writing down your key talking points related to your exit. Then craft the messaging around why you left together with your former line manager or HR. Even if you’re not on great terms anymore, often the ex-employer will realize that’s in their best interests too.
“The key is to communicate a consistent and honest message about why you left,” Thompson said.
It's OK to say, "It was the totally wrong job for me. However, this one is a perfect fit for me, because..."
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 be able to generate some goodwill by that point.
Provide the contact information for former colleagues who are more senior to you and are likely to give you a positive reference. Most managers don’t want to badmouth former employees, Ketkar said.
“If they ask specifically to speak to your most recent boss, it’s probably not going to be a slam, but you have to tell your soon-to-be employer what happened,” Ketkar said. “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.”
You don’t want to blame others for the situation or be disparaging, because that’s a red flag for hiring managers.
“Even 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."
While it is important to be honest, you don’t have to reveal every single gory detail of your split with your former employer. 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. “Don’t try to dance around the badness; say, ‘Here’s the mistake I made, here’s what happened, 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.'”
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