I work in an environment that is not conducive to open lines of communication between employees and management. In light of this I want to either switch careers or leverage another offer to find a better position at my current company. I am wary of how such job hunting may be received at my place of work, especially if I don't get another job. I don't trust that my employer would be professional enough to give me a fair reference. As important as references from current employers are, how do I avoid providing one without coming off as if I have a skeleton in my closet?
THE FIRST ANSWER
President, BlueSky Personnel Solutions, Toronto
In submitting references, you actually don't need one from your current employer. Most hiring managers recognize that it is generally not feasible to be open about your job search at work. So ask a previous employer to provide a reference instead. Just make sure it is from a past manager to whom you reported directly, because that is what companies want most.
Also, always ask for permission before giving out a name for a reference and remind your contact about it before an employer calls. You'd be surprised how many times we find people caught off guard, saying, "I'm sorry, who is this for?" That is not a good sign for a job seeker.
Now, you mentioned you want to leverage another offer into a better position with your current employer. Does this mean you are looking for a counter offer? This strategy doesn't necessarily give people what they are looking for, most often because it does not remove the pain points that prompted a job search in the first place. It can also break trust with your employer, where management may feel like you haven't been loyal.
If you want to stay with your employer, show your ambition and ask to develop a growth plan. Most organizations appreciate that kind of drive. Ultimately, if this company isn't right for you, then take the plunge and look for another job wholeheartedly.
THE SECOND ANSWER
President and CEO, Spectrum Organizational Development, Toronto
Considering the nature of your current employer, my first piece of advice is to pursue employment outside, as opposed to inside. It always fascinates me that there has been so much talk of the importance of leadership in great organizations, and that there are still many companies out there who fail to pursue it, to their own detriment.
A leader's role is to develop their employees, and their true worth is in how many leaders they end up "producing." If you have a decent relationship with your manager, I suggest coming at the question from another direction – namely, asking them how they see your career progressing. This will give you a clear indication of their willingness to develop you for another role. If they want you to grow, they will likely be more than willing to provide a reference. If you fail to achieve your next step, they can work with you to understand why the move did not happen, and provide you with opportunities to close these gaps.
If your conversation with your boss leads to a dead end, there are other alternatives. I recommend pursuing volunteer roles in addition to your day job. This alone will help your résumé, and it will give you access to people who can serve as current references.