Letters of Recommendation

by Evil HR Lady on January 5, 2010

I was recently laid off from my position at a large company during a first round of lay offs. I was the only official executive person there and did a good job. I was told that they have a “tool” that the manager uses to decide who stays and who goes, but my manager also assured me that the decision was not based on my performance. So, what is on these tools anyway? Also, I asked my manager for a letter of recommendation and was told that because he was a Director, he was not allowed to write one. This sounds strange to me. I have never had a situation where my direct manager could not write letters of recommendation. Is this common place? Am I getting the old song and dance on these issues?

There isn’t a standard tool used for layoffs, but there are definitely tools used and it is very true that the decision is not a reflection of your performance at all. Frequently companies use things such as performance rating, location, years of service, and position to determine who stays and who goes.

Also (and I swear that this is true), high level people are especially vulnerable. Why? Money and power. Let’s talk money first. You’re expensive, as are your peers. One of the expectation of executive level is that you can do amazing things. There is a reason why you get the bigger pay check. However, this also means that your bosses always expect you to be able to do more.

So, when a budget crunch came up and layoffs needed to be done, it makes perfect sense that someone from the executive team would have to go. Furthermore, it makes sense that the big boss looked and said, “Who can we get rid of and who can take on this person’s responsibilities?”

If you were the only executive person at your site, and they truly did this by a “tool,” they probably plugged in sales/productivity/location/experience/performance rating/seniority and things unique to your company and determined that “The Duluth office can fall under the responsibility of the Minneapolis office.” And so, Janet in Duluth gets laid off and Karen in Minneapolis gets extra responsibilities. An entire, expensive, salary is saved.

It’s not personal. Honest. Except when it is, and when it is relates to the second reason: Power.

Now, I was not around when the decision to eliminate your position was made, so I have to assume that it was not personal and it was through a tool (this is VERY common) and everything is on the up and up. But, for the benefit of other people, let’s talk power.

If you an analyst making $45,000 a year and you get a new boss and the new boss finds you annoying–not a bad employee, mind you, just annoying–most companies will not allow him to fire you. Terminating someone is a huge pain and ALWAYS opens up a company to a legal headache. (Lawsuits are headaches regardless of who wins. They take time and money to fight even if the whole premise is completely unfounded.) The new boss will go to his boss and HR and be told, “Suck it up!”

But, if you’re a senior level person and your boss finds you annoying, well then, don’t let the door hit you on the way out. Granted, the exit will be announced as “Janet has left to pursue other options” and Janet will get a severance package tied to a general release.

You might say, “Well, that’s more expensive then whatever possible lawsuit the annoying $45k analyst could bring.” Yes, well, but because the senior person has so much more responsibility it is that much more important for the senior team to work cohesively.

(Of course, none of this is universal. Businesses are like people–endless variation.)

This has to do with power, of course. This is not necessarily a bad thing. When you are in charge, you need the power to get things done and if you don’t get along with your subordinates it can hinder progress. (Yes, I realize this applies at all levels, but the more responsibility you have the more important business feels it is.)

And here’s a helpful Evil HR Lady tip for figuring out if you are on the executive chopping block: Special projects. Being assigned to a special project when you are low level can be a great growth experience and be good for your career. If you are high level and relieved of your other duties so you can head up this “special project,” rest assured that unless you knock it out of the park, you’ve been slated for termination. Oh, termination isn’t tomorrow, but they are thinking about it. You can save yourself, but be aware that once you hand over your regular responsibilities you should probably start taking home your personal items.

This is different then being asked to head up something new. New is permanent. Special projects have an end and when they end, the executive who headed it will have no place to go. (Because she gave up her other responsibilities, remember?)

So, those of you who are still reading are wondering “when in the heck is she going to get to the letters of recommendation part?” Yeah, yeah, I’m getting to it.

First of all, my opinion (and this is just how I feel, I don’t know how others feel), is that letters of recommendation are practically worthless. I also feel that the recommendations on LinkedIn are worthless. Anything that is going to be read by the actual person being discussed is suspect. I don’t feel that people are as honest in those situations.

Therefore, I always wonder what people have to hide when they present letters of recommendation. Why can’t I just call your reference?

And that’s the question you should ask: Can I use you as a reference? If the answer to that is no, then it’s worth it to inquire as to why. “Because I’m a director” is a story unless the company has an official policy of not providing references and because of his position he knows he’d get busted and disciplined. You should know the policy and it’s okay to challenge him back, because what is he going to do? Fire you? (I’m not talking about pitching a fit and burning bridges, I’m talking about pushing back and asking for an explanation.)

If the company will only provide employment verification, then that’s what they’ll do. It stinks, but it is what it is. (For a discussion on this topic, check out this post and comments from Ask A Manager.)

Good luck on the job hunt.


{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Greg January 5, 2010 at 1:43 pm

A policy of "No References" is not unusual. Find executives that are no longer with the company that will give a good reference.

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Anonymous January 5, 2010 at 6:24 pm

A lot of companies require that all references go through HR to keep executives from saying something they shouldn't.

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Natalie January 6, 2010 at 7:40 pm

Thanks for your insight on this. I have not been laid off, but my company has just been bought by a larger corporation and everyone is bracing for the worse. This gives me something to ponder. Thank you!

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Marnie January 7, 2010 at 9:42 pm

I tend to agree that reference letters are nice but not always useful, however, I am an Employment Counselor and I always advise laid off workers to get them. Why? Because usually the reference letter will reference the layoff and say something like "not due to performace but economics" which is much easier for the job seeker to hand over as an explanation rather than try and tackle that topic in their cover letter or resume.

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Anonymous January 8, 2010 at 1:06 pm

I typically don't submit the letters of recommendation with my resume, but I like to have them in case the potential employer asks for them. As it turns out, my company actually hires a company for the potential employer to contact to verify employment. I guess they are taking no chances with recommendations. It just felt pretty awful to leave without recommendations from my superiors. This is something that I have never experienced before. But, this is my first big corporate type of job and things are apparently different in this world.

Thank you for the info about this so called "tool" for lay off decisions. I can only speculate about why I was picked at this point.

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Anonymous January 10, 2010 at 4:51 pm

Great post. I work for a Fortune 10 company and this is pretty much exactly what our process looks like.

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ExConsultant October 23, 2012 at 10:56 pm

I used to work as a consultant and countless times I have prepared spreadsheets of all company employees sorted in descending order by salary — if the company needed to “reduce headcount” the most likely victims were near the top of the list. Other factors played into the downsizing process (like focusing on people hired in the past 0-6 months) but if the mandate is to cut $500K from salaries then it’s simpler and creates less workplace strife overall to cut a couple people earning $200k+bonuses/year vs. finding ten 50K people who are expendable.

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