Monday, January 21, 2008

Bellerophon's Reference Letter

If you know the myth, or read the Wikipedia entry, you know that Bellerophon got to ride Pegasus and killed some nasty creatures for fame, glory and chicks. But when he offended one rich queen, she supposedly cried foul to her husband. Since Bellerophon probably filled out his armor quite nicely, the husband sent Bellerophon off to the queen's father with a sealed letter that said, Soprano-style, "take good care of this guy". Bellerophon did not know what was in the sealed letter but the father-in-law didn't want to kill a guest, so he sent Bellerophon off to slay the Chimera. Instead of becoming a light snack, Bellerophon went on to even greater glory.

People who keep no Bulfinches' have been known to confuse Perseus and Bellerophon, and they rarely remember the letter that almost sent him to his death. A sneaky letter, where you unknowingly carry information to another about yourself that will lead to hostility, maybe death, is a "bellerophonic letter".

We are seriously out of Chimeras, but something similar can happen in the workplace. Your references aren't saying what you think they say: first, they can be mediocre; second, the reference is telling the employer that they would not hire you again, the kiss of death. You can have literally everything go right until that point, but if your reference says we wouldn't take you back and we know you, you're Chimera-chow.

What can you do about your references? First of all, don't rely on just three. People go on holidays, they get sick, move away, leave the field or they forget who the heck you were. Have at least five that you can count on.

Don't think that a reference letter is enough, or can replace a person. First, the prospective employer will still want to talk to your references. If you have lost touch with them, they aren't a reference anymore and your promises to maintain professional connections sound like empty talk. Second, does the reference letter say that "you showed up, answered questions and kept your desk in order"? If it does, where are the programs you started or maintained? Have you managed to secure any funds or grants for the library and/or the programs that you began? Did you manage any staff and did they like you? Did you write any policy? Do they still use anything you gave them? If not, it's not a reference letter, it's an attendance form, and it may not help you win a new job. Re-read your references: are you stellar or second-rate? You really just need one thing that you are good at or did well. Keeping a seat warm doesn't count.

What if your references are as cowardly as the king or as unreasonable as the queen, and they have not told you the truth about what is in the sealed letter? If you already know that your boss is a backstabber, don't include him/her as a reference. You can also ask that the prospective employer contact four references, or one extra to counteract your boss, to give a full picture of your work habits. You're probably cringing inside: won't they think I am a bad employee if my current boss has nothing nice to say about me? Possibly, but you're leaving your job for a reason, possibly a couple, and, let's not kid ourselves, the boss' office does not come with halo and a harp. And your bad boss is going to try to grind you into processed meat anyway; at least ask the prospective employer to get a detailed picture of your work habits and ability. This is why we ask for three references in the first place.

Remember the ending of our monster-slayer's story? Hubris got him later. The Greeks knew that we are our own worst enemy.

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