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My employer (3000+ employees) is a large software engineering company. The company is actually doing well (as per our latest financial report), but is canceling and/or delaying promotions/bonuses/etc. for engineers citing "financial hardship due to COVID". A number of our top engineers literally cited "bullshit" during the Q&A period in our quarterly all-hands meeting, and we've been bleeding talent. In order to stem this, rather than make things right, my employer banned any/all personal references for colleagues, even if provided on personal time on a private phone number. My employer is also requiring all employees to sign agreements stating that they will be fired with cause (i.e. no severance) if they provide a reference for a current/former colleague. They even added this clause to our "business ethics" (i.e. no stealing other people's lunch or insider trading policy) rather than our employment agreement form to force this on us, so it doesn't count as constructive dismissal or illegal contract changes or illegal firings.

I'm looking for a new job, but I've worked here 6 years, and don't have any other/older references I can use. One of the remaining "chief engineers" has been secretly encouraging employees to print off PDF copies of all their semi-annual performance reviews, which have input/praise from their boss, plus even a picture of the boss. He then redacts sensitive info from the PDFs, and gives them to use to use as "sealed references" (prints them, stores them in an envelope, signs them himself to prove they're legit reviews and not home-made, and even wax-seals the envelope). He's offered to provide the same service to me, absolutely free, so I don't get screwed by my employer. He even said: "you are allowed to use those reviews in a court of law, and you can use them outside of court too, if they're redacted to not include product names/codenames/etc. Your boss can refute his own words: it's him against himself."

Is it safe/smart to take up this offer? It's the closest I can get to a reference, and I'm in the final rounds of interviews with a few competitors right (some of which require references). 3 former colleauges used these so far, and got new jobs.

I find it odd that this chief engineer would do this, as he's one of the few professional engineers (RPE/PEng) in the company. Maybe he knows the company is doing something illegal/unethical, and he's daring them to fire him? Who knows.

Edit: I've backed up PDF copies of all my performance reviews and awards, just in case.

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I've worked for exactly ONE company who had this approach. There was even a proviso that we couldn't give references even after our employment was over.

I got calls. I handled it as such:

"Company ABC has a policy prohibiting giving references. I cannot tell you how much I valued John Smith's work in my department. I cannot tell you how many great ideas he had that saved us a great deal of time and money. I cannot tell you how much it meant to me to be able to assign John a job and know that it would get done correctly and on time. I cannot tell you that John was pleasant to work with, and how much he helped his colleagues advance in both knowledge and ability.
I can't even tell you that John showed up on time, every day, without fail and was someone who could see a problem coming, head it off, and never let it impact production.

"I really wish I could tell you about all these things, but Company ABC's policy prohibits it. I hope you understand."

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    Assuming that this idea of prohibiting references is legally sound, isn't your approach legally dangerous? – guest Sep 21 '20 at 21:04
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    @guest - When you reach the end of your career, do you want to be safe, or do you want to be right? You can't always be both. – Wesley Long Sep 21 '20 at 23:17
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    @WesleyLong I think the point is doing this is legally no different than simply giving a reference and won't protect you at all. If you want to give a reference despite the rules, by all means do so, but don't kid yourself that this is a clever method to keep you out of trouble. – Kat Sep 22 '20 at 0:29
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    @Kat - Up to you. I'm good with it. – Wesley Long Sep 22 '20 at 1:08
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    Before commenting, ask yourself if you would be using the comment feature for its intended purpose and keep our Be Nice policy in mind. Please don't comment to chastise, vent, share your own opinion, or to answer the question. – Lilienthal Sep 22 '20 at 8:18
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Yes. Take him up on the offer. ASAP. The company may collapse tomorrow. You're already looking to get out, so take the help.

I'd suggest silently not signing the new workplace agreement if at all possible. Say you will read it and sign it, take it, file it away, and ignore it. This technique works wonders on 9/10 Hr departments, especially those which have had budget cuts.

The talents that bled out - try to contact them for references, or if there are any jobs in their new companies. They're already free so they will have nothing to loose in giving you one.

I suspect firing someone for giving a reference is not going to stand up to your local unfair dismissal laws. They probably know that and are bluffing, but a bit of Googling for your local state laws could be very enlightening.

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    It also helps to stall such questions by asking difficult questions back. "Can I have this proposed contract checked by a lawyer? By a union representative? By the State Labor board?". I bet HR will not have a quick answer there - and if they do quicky say no, then you have the follow-up question on how you're supposed to evaluate the fairness of the offer. – MSalters Sep 22 '20 at 7:34
  • As an aside - I enjoy pointing out loopholes in questionable policies like this. Were I working there, I'd ask widely for approval for an exception to the rule so I can get a real estate reference. "It's not for a new job, I just need a reference from my boss so I can move house". When people see an impracticality, their support for such measures drop substantially. You want people to think "Hey this policy has a side effect that may impact me in the future, even if I'm fully loyal, maybe I should stop supporting it!". Just an extra thought for you - follow the main answer for actual advice. – Ash Sep 22 '20 at 8:55
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Of course your company is being unethical by definition as it is not following standards of conduct in the software industry. The standard is that the company doesn't ban private references.

Is it safe/smart to take up this offer?

You're like a passenger on the Titanic asking if it's smart or safe to get into a lifeboat.

Is it safe? Yes. The new employer is not going to call random phone numbers/contacts at your job and rat you out using details from the letter. Just don't give them any contact info at your company except for HR (if they need to verify employment dates).

Is it smart? Yes, since you have no other likely options. If I'm in your shoes I would also be asking co-workers for personal references despite the ban but I wouldn't hold my breath for any of the ones who aren't close to leaving to help.

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I've worked in such places as a senior engineer/manager and I'll admit - I've done the same. Provided references upon request and been willing to suffer the consequences if I had to. I've done so because I really felt that the rule was an unfair hardship to the engineers working in the company as their first job - who largely don't have a bench of references.

The rule is both a protection and a curse - both for the referrer and the company. There are some truly legitimate cases where a person giving a reference could get into real trouble by providing one - particularly if the candidate is taking legal action against the company - it can get really murky when, for example, the company is trying to fire a person for poor performance, but they have managed to get themselves a shining reference from someone within the company who perhaps wasn't as deeply involved in the issues leading to the person being fired. That's all too easy, as people are rarely 100% awful, or fabulous - and so the referrer is only seeing the great stuff.

So - being prohibited from giving a reference can save all parties from this kind of problem - but it's really awful for junior folks like yourself.

Of late, the places I've worked around have had a good, clear loop hole - folks are allowed to give a "personal" reference but the "professional" reference has to be approved/given by the company. That means that the company (and it's lawyers) must answer all calls checking on employment status, timeline of employment, title, etc. But a given individual can talk about experience working with the person on a personal level, which covers the stuff you'd probably want to say - like "could count on this person in a crisis" or "brilliant at finding out of the box solutions" - which are more about personal qualities.

But - failing such a clear dichotomy - some folks are still willing to take the risk and give a reference - mostly on the basis of good karma and paying it back to all the folks that were great reference for us. So many times my opportunity has come from my network and people willing to stand up for me/believe in me - I wouldn't feel right denying it to others.

It IS a risk on his part - theoretically, it violates the terms of his employment and your employer could penalize him for that. But the effort of figuring out, proving it, and also the bad press is likely to make it highly unlikely that they do.

I'd say you're free to take him up on it if you value him giving a reference. It's wise to:

  • Know the difference in what you're being asked for on your job interviews - proof of employment, or reference for professional qualities. Give the faceless company hotline for the former, and actual people for the latter.
  • Get from your reference what contact info to use - probably NOT his corporate email, for example. And if by phone, what hours are good to call.
  • Know how/when/by what means the opportunity will contact your reference, and give your reference the head's up. You should be able to give him a heads up like "Company X will contact you in 1-5 days, I gave them your cell and personal email. They will likely call. Here's a copy of my current resume and the job description for what I'm applying for." - if you don't have this info get it, before giving out his information.
  • Check in and thank him regardless of whether you got the job.
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Is it safe/smart to take up this offer?

Safe perhaps not, that depends on a lot (how stable the company job is, how much other jobs there are in your region and your field etc).

But smart yes. All else aside, simply for the reason that your bosses cannot be allowed to have any success with this. If they learn that they can treat you like their personal slaves, they will keep doing it. This needs to backfire on them. I'd personally simply start looking for a job because they issued this requirements. No pay rises I can understand for a while in a time of uncertainty even if the company is right at that moment still doing fine, being a dick about it is out of the question.

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Go for verbal references

If it's printed off, it's easy for the company to use against people if they choose to. Trying to prove that someone had a conversation with someone else though? That's hard. And you can't be fired for cause based on the suspicion that you might have done it.

Most companies are OK with actually talking to your co-workers for references. In fact the good ones welcome it, because it's more likely to be accurate than whatever you get from HR.

Exchange mobile numbers

The one thing you don't want to do then is tell your new employer to call people on their desk phones! Calling people on their mobile, the company has no way to know who was calling. Your colleagues can sort out whether they're OK to talk or not, the same way as with a personal phone call which they don't want to take in the office. If your new employer can call them after hours so they're not in the office, even better.

And from your side, do the right thing and offer to stand reference for them too if they want.

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