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How to Explain a Messy Departure and Plan Your References

Dear Coach Joan,

I left my last position voluntarily, but not happily, as I really did not respect or get along with the organization’s new executive director. I had enjoyed my position at the non profit  for eight  years and built up many supportive relationships both in the agency and  with vendors, partners and supporters. I am now actively job seeking and want to know how to anticipate setting up references to support me in my job campaign. And do I need to explain why I left the agency and my opinion of the new director?



Dear Len,

First let me say I am sorry that a productive eight year run at your last position ended negatively, and I am sure you have heard that it’s better to leave a job after you have a new one lined up. But I know that isn’t always possible and sometimes it is just TIME to move forward and that’s what you did.

It also sounds like you have two questions. One is about how to explain your departure from the agency, and the other is about how to set up a good group of references to support you in finding new employment.

First let’s consider how to explain your departure.  You have several choices and a lot to think through.

Whenever my clients are in a gap period of being without an employer, I always suggest that they find one. And I don’t necessarily mean a new, ideal employer right away. What I mean is something new to add to the resume so that you are doing something productive that can be written down. It could be a volunteer position with your local school board, food bank, local elected representative, local hospital. The point is, it’s important to have a new and current affiliation. It shows that you are getting out, being productive and participating in the world, even if you are doing it on a voluntary basis. For several years I was a speaker at Congresswoman Jackie Speier’s ‘Job Hunters Bootcamps’ and we addressed hundreds of unemployed people during the recession. We always recommended that every person in the room find a volunteer position in their community and Congresswoman Speier always offered her office as a place to volunteer, and she would substantiate their participation if they actually came in to work at least two times a week! By having a new affiliation, more recent than the  last employer, it  minimizes the idea  and stigma of being unemployed and it actually gives you something positive to talk about. And interestingly, in subsequent Bootcamps, Congresswoman Speier and I always noticed that the people who came back to present their successful employment stories often were the ones who volunteered in her office or elsewhere in the community.

And now let’s explore how you can best position and explain your departure from the agency. Here are some approaches:

1.‘I enjoyed my tenure very much and my key accomplishments include this, this and that (you fill those in). And I very much respected the leadership of ________ ____________(the name of the exec dir you enjoyed) and we worked together for five years. In fact, she is a key reference of mine and we both saw the agency priorities in just the same way. When she decided to leave and the new executive director arrived, I realized that the agency was going in a completely new direction, one that I didn’t fully agree with and I felt it would be best to explore new options.’

2. “My position was eliminated when the agency brought in new leadership which changed the strategic direction.” Sometimes when you leave an organization you can agree to have the official explanation of departure be that the position, as you knew it, came to an end and you agreed to amicably part ways.

3. “My priorities changed. I very much was committed to the non profit for 8 strong years. But once my own children began school I realized that education/high tech/health care..(for example) were my new priorities and I wanted to explore finding a position where my new priorities were reflected.”

What you are not seeing is any bad-mouthing of the new executive director. One never does that in a professional setting.

You make it about you and your interests/priorities and where you can best apply your skills and talents.

Now, about the references.

I suggest that you first compile a list of 3-5 people including people from  your agency that you really got along well with and who you knew and appreciated your work. It is often good to have at least one person who supervised or managed you, a peer and a subordinate if you were in a managerial or supervisory role. You can also have one or two people who you worked with who are vendors, partners or supporters of your organization.

Call or meet for coffee or lunch with each of them; try to make it more personal that just a phone call. Remind them of the work you did together and what you appreciated about them and the process of working with them. Remind them of the key skills and capabilities you brought to the work and ask how they perceived you, and if they’d be willing to serve as a reference. If the answer is yes, then ask if they can write a linkedin recommendation about you and if they can send you a paragraph with key strengths and skills you demonstrated.

Some people will willingly agree to do both. Some might need to you help them write the recommendations. Be sensitive to determine if they want help with you writing a first draft. And remind them of how important recommendations are in the hiring process and that you will contact them in advance when a potential employer will be contacting them.

Make sure to let them know exactly what your new job will be and the skills they should emphasize that are important to the success of that position. You want to make sure your references are well-supporting your candidacy.

Good luck, Len, and really leverage those eight strong years and focus only on the productive, positive good times and good people!

Coach Joan

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