references and the importance of giving notice

It makes me very happy when other people do my work for me, as a reader named Ayan just did, with the comment she left on an earlier post I did on references. She writes:

We recently interviewed a woman who wanted to leave the university system and work in the private sector (for us). Since she was teaching in another state, we asked when she planned to move; she said she was contracted to teach through the current semester and would move to our state at the end of the month. ??

She did great in the interview so we began the reference-checking process. Interestingly, she had *not* given a reference for the job previous to her current one. But since that institution was listed on the job application, we called and spoke to that former department chair. He gave a good reference – until we asked how she had left the job. It turns out her version of “two weeks notice” was to call and leave a message on the department head’s machine over the Christmas break. This was technically two weeks, but since it was the vacation period between semesters, no one got the message; they had to scramble to find a substitute teacher when class started.??

Following a hunch, we looked up the online class schedule at her present university – and sure enough, she was enrolled to teach a class for the upcoming semester. If we’d hired her, she would again be walking out on a fully scheduled course one week before it was due to start. ?

That seemed to indicate both a certain “rules lawyering” mentality and a willingness to drop a job without regard to their need for her. We didn’t hire her. She was FURIOUS that we’d called the supervisor who was not provided as a “reference,” but the form she signed clearly stated that we could and would contact *any* organization she listed in her job history. ??

So the lessons to take away here are: 1. Carefully read the forms a potential employer has you sign; chances are you’re giving them the right to contact anyone on your history, not just your stated references. 2. Give an ethical period of notice, if at all possible. 3. If you’ve screwed over a boss in the past, you’re likely to be viewed as a risky hire – unless you own up to your past behavior and present a compelling justification for it.

I have not a thing to add.

Okay, yes I do. I like other people doing my work for me, but I still need to put in my two cents, whether it’s needed or not. (Side story: My father was a newspaper editor and one his reporters once referred to him as “a dog who has to pee on every tree.” That’s me too. It’s genetic.)

So here’s my addition to Ayan’s three brilliant points: Even if you don’t sign a form consenting to have any of your former employers contacted, reference-checkers may still call any of the companies listed on your resume. In fact, a smart reference-checker will often specifically hunt down additional references beyond the ones you provide — because the list you hand over is of course the people likely to present you in the best light. Really, the only thing off-limits in reference-checking is your current employer, so assume everything else is all fair game.

Thank you, Ayan!

{ 7 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymous*

    Can I put in a little different perspective? If the teacher in question was a part-time instructor, I can’t find too much fault in her leaving on short notice for a full-time job. PT instructors typically have no benefits, are paid a fraction of their full-time counterparts for teaching the same class, and have little guarantee that they will be offered classes in the following semester (or that their classes won’t be canceled or given to a FT instructor who loses a class). In my job, I’m the one who has to do the scrambling to replace instructors, and it’s not that rare for someone to give very short notice when they’ve gotten a FT job–I’ve had people leave in the middle of a semester, even. (One guy had been offered a job at $100K/year, and we were paying him $5000 to teach one class. I would have done the same thing.) Given the situation for PTers, I personally wouldn’t hold it against them or give a bad reference, assuming there’s some acknowledgment of the hassle it causes. There’s a lot of turnover in PT instructors and last-minute assignments are very common.

    For a PTer offered a FT job, There are really only two choices: either give your dean short notice or ask the new employer to wait up to six months for the semester to be over (which I assume is unlikely). As an academic administrator, I’m acutely aware of how little obligation we have to our PT instructors and I don’t expect them to put the department’s needs above their career paths, especially if they are leaving academia.

    My purpose here isn’t to disagree with any of your points about giving notice in the private sector (or to excuse her having a hissy about the reference check), but just to suggest that the academic calendar makes things a little different. And I do make a mental note when someone bails on a class last-minute for what appears to be a frivolous reason–especially when she still wants to teach for us!

    Thanks for an entertaining and useful blog. Though I’m not in HR, my job involves quite a bit of personnel stuff and I’m always learning from your posts.

  2. Ang.*

    The previous commenter has really hit it on the head here. I’m a part-time adjunct instructor at a state university, and even though we’re treated very well in my department, I know this isn’t the case at many (perhaps most) schools. I personally love my school and my department, but then again, I really wanted to teach part-time. A lot of part-time instructors are looking for full-time positions, and almost all of them have second or third jobs, and they frequently get the short end from their schools. (I make only slightly more now than I did when I was teaching 101-level classes as a grad student.) I think that most schools have a pool of available instructors that can take over if there’s an emergency, anyway, though that doesn’t mean that notice should not be given. Again, though, this is not to excuse this applicant’s behavior–it was definitely unprofessional, and she probably does need to leave academia if this is her attitude toward her department and her work–but just to add my relevant experiences.

  3. caroline*

    As a part-time instructor who just got a full time job, I completely agree with the other two posters. I think that the rules in academia are different than those in other areas.

  4. ayan*

    Caroline, ang. and anonymous, I really appreciate your insights.

    In this case we called the previous employer because she’d worked at University A for a few years and University B (the current one) for six months. That was a big chunk of her recent job history with no references given for either, which is a red flag.

    She was a FT computer science instructor with a master’s. She gave the two week’s notice at University A when she was already contracted for the next semester; her department head was clear on that. Would he have been a little more blase’ if the way she left was just part of normal instructor turnaround (a genuine question, not rhetorical)? We did sit around and debate whether her leaving the job that way was acceptable and even got an outside opinion since it’s not our area of expertise.

    I think my points were valid – employers can check any reference, etc. – but all of you made a great fourth point: that private industry can have a verrrry different cultural perspective than academia. So if you’re switching to private industry, you might want to make it clear to us non-academic types that job-hopping in no way represents unwillingness to commit to the *current* job.

    What really sent the deal down to a watery grave to sleep with the fishes, Caroline, was that we did offer her the chance to contract and work remotely on a single project until her teaching job was up. Without batting an eyelash she said her contract was ending with the current semester. After confirming with University B that she was enrolled for summer classes as an instructor, we (correctly or not, from an academic perspective) interpreted that statement as lying in an interview.

  5. ayan*

    Askamanager, aw gee *blush.* Thank you. (I’m a technical writer; I can make tidy numbered talking points all day long.)

    I appreciate the answer to my previous question regarding references.

  6. Anonymous*

    Ayan, if she was a FT instructor
    on a tenure track, then nothing I said above applies to her. While I wouldn’t hold leaving on short notice against a PT instructor, I would absolutely have a problem with a FT instructor who left right before or during a semester for another job. When someone has gone through the hiring and tenure process, the school has made a major commitment to that person and is counting on her to be a productive member of the department. Leaving on short notice (aside from for health reasons or something unavoidable like that) is a bad, bad move.

    And agree with your interpretation of her statement as a lie. It’s possible that she was on a one-year contract that ended in Spring, making her statement technically true, but since she would have already signed another contract for summer and one for the following year, it’s disingenuous at best. It sounds like she blew a great opporutnity by not owning up to her obligations to her current employer–and she probably could have explained it all to your satisfaction, so the mistake is doubly bad.

  7. Rachel - Employment File*

    I’m totally not going to comment on the whole teacher thing.

    I do think it’s a great point for people to recognize that just because you give a few references does not mean HR is going to stick to those references. About the only time I won’t call is if it’s been more than 3 years or if it’s a current supervisor that applicant has asked not be called.

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