Man About Town

It started with a simple e-mail. The subject line read, “Look out for so-and-so.” The body copy said a former co-worker of mine, who shall remain nameless, was saying “nasty stuff” about me “all over the globe.”

Well. That got my attention. For the record, I don’t have any deep, dark secrets that would cause my career to tumble. But after 20 years working at numerous agencies and forming thousands of relationships, I’ve probably got a small army of people out there who aren’t members of my fan club.

So what? I’ll just take that former co-worker’s name off my Christmas-card list and call it a day, right?

Not so fast.

This episode got me thinking about the nature of business and how what we say about people (some times in jest, sometimes in anger, sometimes out of plain old spite) can have serious repercussions. It occurs to me that we should all be more careful about the words we choose when talking about our peers.

I should point out that I’m no angel. I think about the times when I’ve gone off about someone. Far too many of us participate in what amounts to character assassination on a pretty regular basis.

These days, one’s personal reputation is more important than ever. With talent constantly on the move, what’s said about people can have a major impact on how they’ll be able to perform at their next gig. Or, for that matter, whether they’ll even get the job.

Frankly, a lot of agencies could make better use of the headhunters and recruiters out there. In a business that relies on talent, isn’t this one area that’s more than worth the investment? Many employers don’t bother to check references, but headhunters sure do. Admittedly, sometimes it’s a tricky situation. How do you get a reference from your current boss if you’re trying to change jobs? Well, get one from your next-to-last boss. Or get general positive references from many of your past bosses and clients and keep them in your portfolio. (Yes, account people and others should have portfolios too. Hello!)

U.K. planning consultant Merry Baskin has a host of leadership experience on both sides of the Atlantic and is often asked to give references. “My rule of thumb regarding per sonal references,” she says, “is that if people ask me and I adore them, I write out a paean-eulogy-whatever, praising them to the skies there and then, addressed ‘To whom it may concern,’ and say, ‘Call me for more details’ at the bottom of the letter.

“If I am not that keen on them but don’t think they are utterly useless, then I put my number down and have [the interviewer] call me. Then when someone does call, I am brutally honest about the employee’s pluses and minuses, and the employer is invariably grateful for my candor. Euphemisms and relying on people reading between the lines is not really effective, I find.” (Note: Let’s hope those people she did find to be “useless” don’t use her as a reference!)

Leo Burnett U.K.’s Scott Garrett had a less-than-thrilling time during his U.S. tour. I worked with Scott several years ago and would put his name on any all-star account-management team. Not everyone, it seems, would agree. “I didn’t get a big job at Hill, Holliday because the president/creative director preferred to take two poor references over hun dreds—well, loads, anyway—of great ones,” he says. “The two bad ones were (1) from a Wie den + Ken nedy creative I’d worked with 10 years—10 years!—earlier, and (2) from a creative director at JWT whom I’d had fired.” Oops.

Do we really stop to think about what’s at stake when we assess someone’s performance? Do we use it as an opportunity to settle old scores? Do we get our emotional axes out and grind away at them? Probably. I can think of at least one occasion when I unfairly blamed a low-level employee for the sins of upper management. When asked to give this person a reference years later, I said nasty stuff about her all over the globe. Not nice. Not appropriate. And something I won’t do again.

So what have I learned? To watch my mouth, that’s what. If asked about the former co-worker mentioned in the e-mail, for example, I’ll say, “Yes, indeed, we did once work together.” My grandmother used to call this “damning someone with faint praise.” Works for me. And, for the record, I don’t know for a fact that she said anything about me, so I must treat that “warning” as unsubstantiated rumor and move on.

In any case, I’d rather spend my time championing the talented people I’ve met over the years than worrying about the few folks who don’t count themselves among my fans.