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My past employer might hire me back, but can I use them as a reference now?

The Question:

I am a recent MBA graduate, currently looking for a career opportunity. I have been doing a good amount of networking and have also approached my previous employer for a full-time position. They have responded favourably and have already started the process to hire me back. I am in correspondence with them regularly and know that the process will be long; as a result they are uncertain as to when an offer will be ready for me and what it will entail.

While I would love to go back to this employer, I have continued my job hunt in order to have a back-up plan in case things do not work out with this company. Recently, I had an interview with another company for a role that is a good match with my skills and career goals and seems interesting. They have asked me to provide them with my references.

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Since several aspects of this job are similar to what I did for my previous employer, they naturally expect to speak to my reference at this company, as well as my references from other areas of my career. I am happy to provide them with my references, but worry that if I reach out to my old employer for a reference, that it might get awkward considering that they are also in the process of considering me for employment.

I have been honest with my previous employer; they are aware that I am interviewing for other roles and by no means expect me to turn down other opportunities or wait for them. But I am not sure if it will be appropriate for me to reach out to them for a reference, given the situation I am in. What do you suggest I do?

The Answer:

Congratulations on completing your MBA and for having two prospective job opportunities.

You are wise to have continued your job search even if your old employer has indicated that they would like to have you back. You should not be concerned about asking your old employer for a reference even if they are considering you for employment. You have been honest with your previous employer that you are continuing to look for other employment. As you indicate your old employer does not expect you to wait for them to make you an offer or to turn down other opportunities.

Take some time to get clear on what you want for your career. Develop a career vision and plan. Consider which of the two job opportunities best fit with your career plan – for example, which one gives you the best development opportunities and experience as well as matches your career interests and core values?

If you are clear that a job with your previous employer is your No. 1 priority then arrange a meeting with your previous employer to discuss your job prospects. Tell them that you want to work with them. Ask them where things stand with respect to creating a position or hiring you at this point. If your previous employer answers "yes" and can guarantee that they will hire you within a reasonable time, then you have your answer. Ask for specifics such as salary and benefits details. Also ask for an offer letter, a position description, who you will be reporting to and a definitive start date.

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If your previous employer is not able to offer you a definite position and commit to hire you or if the opportunity with the other company is your first choice then you will want to share with your previous employer that you have been interviewed by another company. Indicate that they would like to check your references. Ask your previous employer if they will be able to give you a positive reference. If your previous employer, enthusiastically, says yes then you have what you want. You also have information that they are relieved and likely did not have a spot for you in their company. Thank your previous employer for providing a positive reference. You can even suggest some of the things that you would like them to highlight in the reference check. Also thank them for the experience you gained in working with them and that you would like to use them as a reference in the future.

Continue to look for other appropriate job opportunities until you get and accept a job from one of the two companies you are considering or from another company of your choice. Firm written job offers speak louder than vague promises of a potential job somewhere in the future.

Bruce Sandy is principal of and Pathfinder Coaching & Consulting in Vancouver.

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