Several years ago, a former employee asked Tom Frampton to serve as a reference.
That might sound routine, but there were a couple of complications. First, Frampton had once let the man go, although it was his boss's idea, not his own. "I thought the guy didn't get a fair shake, but I went ahead and fired him," said Frampton, 42, now an account manager for a large software solutions provider in McLean. "And I've been a reference for him ever since."
One more problem: Frampton's former employer, like many other companies, had a policy against giving references. These no-reference rules are born of fear that negative remarks could spur a slew of lawsuits.
It's a challenge for job seekers. Companies that once employed them won't give references beyond verifying job title and dates of employment -- but would-be employers insist on more personalized evaluations. Still, there are ways around the dilemma.
For instance, Frampton observed, many managers he knows have stepped outside of these rules and weren't reprimanded. When asked by former subordinates, they took the chance because they knew that deserving job hunters have run afoul of tight-lipped policies.
Other bosses get around the rules by qualifying that the reference is personal, not on behalf of the company.
Companies that are hiring also have come up with creative ways to get information about past performance. The Johns Hopkins Health System relies heavily on its own interviewing and screening, said Pamela D. Paulk, vice president of human resources. Without references available, though, selecting the best person has become more difficult, she noted in an e-mail interview.
Perhaps that's why more companies are asking whether an ex-worker is eligible for rehire -- a question even companies with no-reference policies will usually answer. "This may be a collegial way of saying 'buyer beware' without giving a bad reference," Paulk said. "A 'not eligible for rehire' answer sends us back to the applicant to probe further why he or she left that job."
Other employers believe in on-site tests; acing such tests can help job seekers when lack of references is a problem. This tells an employer the applicant can think on his feet, said Janet Lenz, president of the Tulsa-based National Career Development Association and an associate director at Florida State University's Career Center in Tallahassee.
"There's not a one-size-fits-all when it comes to references," she said.
Another savior might be a candidate's job performance review. It's an acceptable substitute for one reference from a supervisor, said Maria Sabongan of Contemporary Nursing Solutions Inc., a Springfield-based temporary agency.
"We ask the nurse or clinician for the last performance evaluation," said Sabongan, director of nursing at the firm, which normally requires two references from supervisors. "That's one way we get around it."
References from colleagues or clients might suffice, too, but many companies prefer input from bosses.
"A supervisor clearly understands the strengths and weaknesses of a person on a daily basis," said Jay Scheinberg, regional sales director in the Bethesda office of DC Job Network, a group of Web sites that list local jobs.
In some cases, job seekers can get references from former bosses who themselves may have moved on to other jobs. But sometimes companies will still demand references from a job seeker's current employer. These firms hand out conditional offers contingent on this final step, according to Matt Schwartz, formerly of Hogan & Hartson LLP and now executive director of Mestel & Co., an attorney search firm with offices in the District and elsewhere.
Because of the structure of law firms, this is often easier for lawyers than it might be for others -- most employees have more than one boss at the firm, giving them a choice of whom to approach to put in a good word.
Schwartz said, "I caution all candidates before going on the job market that they should feel comfortable with two people who can give them a reference at their current law firm."
Of course, if a prospective employer goes to someone for a reference, the job seeker hopes for high praise. Yet many people make the mistake of providing a supervisor's name before asking permission -- thus risking that callers will receive a mere acknowledgement of their existence, or worse.
"The most important thing is to never make the assumption that you can simply list an individual as a reference and let it go at that," said David Reile, a psychologist and career counselor at Kensington Consulting in Silver Spring.
"If you simply don't get along with your boss, and you think that they may sabotage your job search if listed as a reference, then you have to find a tactful way of discussing that with a potential employer."