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Team Think Labs | “Where do we go when we don’t work here anymore?”
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“Where do we go when we don’t work here anymore?”

Preface: This presentation was given not as a response to any one thing, but as a chance to share some insights as to how our actions can have consequences we might not anticipate.

As we’ve seen, working at Seven2 and 14Four is a lot like this:

But sometimes, because we work so closely together and are always up against a bunch of deadlines we can kind of get like this:

And really, that’s fine. Differing opinions can drive creativity, and sometimes we all butt heads and hug it out later. The problem is when people take the office grudges out of the office. My talk is on giving recommendations for ex-employees.

First things first: What’s it like “Out there?”
Nationally, we’re currently at 8.5% unemployment. Statewide, here’s the unemployment picture. It’s a little darker at 8.7, due to a slew of reasons easily explained as recession.  Drilling down, us Tech Campers are generally considered part of the Professional Services Industry. Sometimes, we can get work in the Information sector. Either way, our slice of the pie is only around 14% of the total jobs available in Washington State, even smaller when you consider that a lot of those jobs are outside of what we do.

Zooming into Spokane, it’s a mixed bag but what everyone probably expects. Out of a quarter million people, around 20,000 are looking for work. The problem is that those who are looking for our type of work are having an incredibly hard time. Why? Zero or negative growth as seen over the last 5-6 years. Merry Christmas, you’re fired has been the trend. Pretty rough, huh? We’ve really been fortunate to enjoy the kind of growth we’ve seen at 14Four and Seven2 over these last few years.  So roughly, there are 20,000 “Tech Pro” type jobs in Spokane, a fraction of those are things you and I would want to do to advance, or at least not abandon, our careers. (Note: These numbers end Nov 2011, and so far in Jan 2012 there seems to be an uptick which is great for our community! Reports taken from US Dept of Labor, http://bls.gov)

Say a co-worker gets let go, and you are put in a position to give a reference. Since we don’t have an HR department at either of our companies, we’re kind of empowered to take on whatever.

So you’re in the position of answering some questions a potential employer for that ex-employee, what do you do? Depending on your experiences maybe you’ve got a ton of good or bad things to say. There’s not really a problem sharing positive experiences, unless you lay it on too thick, but sometimes we can get hung up on the bad stuff.

Here’s a made-up example. I just went Google image searching and found this picture, so let’s say this is our totally made up work history. (Note: The joke is Nate’s a co-worker, but I did GIS the image)


I get asked, “Nate is applying to be a Lead Architect, how do you think that’d work out?” People like to ask leading questions too, like “Is there anything else I should know?” but asked as an invitation for dirt.

Except this dirt can be… deadly.



(Note: This joke worked way better in print than in person. )




Maybe I feel pretty strongly about the bad and ugly stuff. But:

  1. Is the problem situational? Meaning, did it depend on specific things to the place, or people involved?  If so, it’s irrelevant. Just because he and I didn’t get along doesn’t mean he won’t be a rock star at the new place.  Looking for work can change your attitude. Either way, suck it up.  I was asked to give a reference for a programmer who honestly didn’t work out so great. They weren’t really made for Advertising. Except, the employer that called was a bank and when I said that the dev would do well in a structured environment where timelines weren’t all over the place and requirements were really rigid you could hear them get all excited.  He got the job and it fit like a glove.
  2. Is the problem a matter of style, or could he have used more supervision? “Nate does a great job as long as you’re up front about what you want or how you want it done.” Maybe this place could care less about style, but it sounds a lot better than “holy crap this guy never commented anything.”  The worst that can happen here is Nate doesn’t live up to their expectations during his 60 days or whatever. That’s nothing for me or you to be concerned about.
  3. If it’s still bad, maybe that’s just how it is.You have the choice of opting out of the answer “I can’t really comment on that” is a completely valid answer or just let it fly.The urban legend is that it’s illegal to give a negative recommendation for someone. Not true, but in reality, that person can sue the company for defamation if they can prove the comment made them unhire-able and the company is unable to prove the comment was true. That’s why so many HR groups will ONLY say the dates that a person was there and not much more.

Why would you opt out of saying something negative?

  1. Do you really believe that you are the arbiter of whether that person deserves to have a job?
  2. Exercise:
    Hold up your hand if you’ve worked with someone else here at a different company.  (Note: Roughly 50% attending raised hands)
    Hold it up again if you’ve worked with more than 1 person.
    (Note: Roughly 33%)

Here’s my take.

Chances are if you get asked for a recommendation, you’re going to have only great things to say. Sometimes, employers go digging and maybe you get asked about a person who you might never want to work with again.  The thing is you might be the last stop between a job and a career change for that person so if it’s negative you should maybe think twice.  More so, since the odds are pretty good that you’ll be working together again.

We don’t all have to be best friends or even good friends, but we should always be professionals.

Thanks for your time.