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Long story short, I worked in a small start up company as a developer for 5 years, and by the end of it things went sour. The problem laid mainly with management and the way they were structuring their project - they did not run it in an agile structured way and blamed the developers when anything went wrong. For example sprints and burndown charts were not used for measuring productivity, instead productivity was measured based on subjective opinion which ultimately lead me to getting a disciplinary hearing. I resigned and cut my losses.

I have since moved on and secured a job as a PM at a relatively good company. I am an agile PM, so now have a lot more awareness of what went wrong at the previous company, and do things differently to my ex line manager with a lot more success. My MD is extremely happy with my performance, since I have given the company a strong sense of direction and structure that has improved productivity.

The problem that I have now moving forward is that at some point I may decide to move on and go corporate, and since many corporates ask for 2 references, I am likely to get one really good one and one bad one. After doing some HR, I have seen (from ex employees) that some corporates ask for performance ratings and if the person has been taken to a disciplinary on the reference form.

What is the best thing to do? I would remove my previous company from my CV, but I will then have a 5 year gap.

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  • Anecdotal, I know, but I'm on my 3rd consecutive corporate job where no references were requested (or checked). Instead, a background check was performed. – Laconic Droid Jan 28 '16 at 19:22
  • Don't give references from your old company. When I hire, I ask for references. Here's what I want: I want one reference from a supervisor/manager only 1 or 2 levels up from the candidate. I want to know that the person who was depending on this person to be productive was happy. I'd also like one reference from a peer. I'd want to know that the people who worked side-by-side with the candidate were happy with them, and found them to be a resource. My opinion only. Your mileage may vary. – Wesley Long Jan 28 '16 at 20:58
  • Did you get a compromise agreement when you resigned from the previous company – Pepone Jan 28 '16 at 21:19
  • In an interview I give more weight to the most recent reference. But mileage may vary and I don't give all that much credence to references anyway unless they're really bad. – Kilisi Jan 28 '16 at 22:48
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First, don't remove the work experience from your CV. That will cause actual problems rather than perceived problems.

Do you not have any colleagues from the first job you could use as a reference there? A reference doesn't necessarily have to be a manager or director. The last time I gave references, I used a colleague, a previous manager (who I trusted that if I asked her to be a reference would keep it confidential), and another previous colleague. All from my current company.

References don't have to all be previous management.

Another approach would be to just give references from your current company. This is easier the longer you are at that job, but unless you are explicitly asked for "a reference from each company" there's nothing necessarily wrong with this.

  • I have just started my role, and have been here less than 6 months, I want to be here at the very minimum a year before I move on. A former colleague at the old company will be willing to help me out, but it all depends on whether he is still there at the time I am looking to move on. What should I do if he moves on? – bobo2000 Jan 28 '16 at 12:45
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    @bobo2000 why does your former colleague have to still be employed there? Do you have any way to contact that colleague outside of your previous employer email address (LinkedIn, personal email, etc)? – enderland Jan 28 '16 at 12:46
  • Sure, but I if he leaves and I tell them to send the email with the reference form to his personal email, will it raise alarm bells i.e. why am I not directing them to the director? – bobo2000 Jan 28 '16 at 12:50
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    @bobo2000 I think you are dramatically overestimating how important references are. – enderland Jan 28 '16 at 12:52
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    @bobo2000, virtually none of my previous references still work in the same place as when we worked together,Having a private email is ordinary for references. – HLGEM Jan 28 '16 at 14:54
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There's no rule that you must give references from every company, or the most recent companies you've worked with. In the startup world, it's pretty common for your previous employer to be out of business, and out of touch, anyway.

Work experience is an entirely separate issue. I would never leave a gap on my resume because of a bad employer.

As an agile PM, you have two types of references that are useful--up and down. It's common to give one manager, and one coworker/direct report (in the case of a PM, a scrum master or lead developer in an agile team). This gives a more complete picture anyway.

  • Just a general point; the problem with the company being a start up was that it was a highly political environment because of the team size. There was also no HR. They all turned against me right at the end with the exception of one person, that also happened to be my best friend in the company - who I will have to contract. – bobo2000 Jan 28 '16 at 14:47
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Just tell prospective employers that you had a nasty falling out and that you felt that blame was poured out like champaign on New Years eve.

While you have no problem with them contacting them for employment verification, they should be aware that they may not speak well of you beyond that. Try and make this clear and then also ask that any correspondence from them be shared with you. That way if the new comapny decides not to hire you based on something said in the correspondence you can use it legally in a slander case if the correspondence devolves to that point.

If the old company is smart (although it sounds as if they are not), they won't do anything other than confirm employment and possibly share that there was an unspecified disciplinary note. You should share that in any interview at the appropriate time with either the hiring manager or HR.

The classic 'Tell me about a time when thing didn't go well' question is a great time to roll out this story. Share how you have since learned the benefits both of Agile, but also listening to what agile is telling management, you sound like you have learned a lot since then and are a great PM.

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I think this depends on what kind of job the next one is. For a PM job, your current references are much more important. If you want to get back into programming, you may have some explaining to do. Mainly the next hiring company is going to check your other job experience to make sure you worked there when you said you did and in what role. Unless you ask for a specific reference, most companies in the US will say very little so it doesn't look like they're trying to make you look bad without cause.

Anyone who gives a poor reference to someone they employed for 5 years is suspect to me. I would point-blank ask them if they are this incompetent in their hiring, ability to manage people and have the guts to get rid of people who can't do the job instead of waiting for them to leave.

Use the situation to your advantage. You should explain what it is you learned from becoming a PM and how other situations could have benefited from it. I always what to hear what people would say if asked what would they do if they had to do it over. Just because you had a bad experience as a programmer shouldn't affect your ability to be a PM especially since you were successful at your current job.

  • What you've described in your second and third paragraph is exactly what happened. I remember towards the end I felt disillusioned by the start up I was working in because there was no structure - management was allowed to get away with anything by using the lack of structure to their advantage, and career development was not taken seriously. As a PM I take both seriously and many of the people I have managed have benefited immensely from it. – bobo2000 Jan 29 '16 at 9:54
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If you will only have two prior employers, you may have a hard time providing references without getting someone from the previous employer. Questions will be asked and even if the reference provider is favorable to you, some of the history may come up and you need to be prepared to discuss it.

We all feel like we do a good job and if there are failures, the blame lies elsewhere. The reality is that we can't hide from our own involvement, and while we might not have been the root cause, we still could have done some things differently. Be honest with yourself about your role and be prepared to discuss it. This introspection and being able to talk about it with an interviewer will show that you learned and grew from the failure.

Negative situations aren't the problem, how the negative situations are handled is the indicator of how you will perform if a similar difference of opinion were to arise at the new employer.

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I assume that you have a good relationship with the current employer and therefore can get a good reference from them.

You need two references in the UK. One can be a work reference - you have that.

You need another reference - Just get a personal one. One of your friends can do this.

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