Dear Captain Awkward:
Last year, I got divorced. At the time of my divorce, I was offered the legal choice to go back to my maiden name, or to keep my married name. I decided to choose a whole new last name, which was something I had always wanted to do. My new last name is a bit unusual. People comment on it positively, but it’s definitely odd. I like it, so that’s all that matters really. However:
This year, I’m in graduate school. I’m also applying for jobs in my chosen field. I have some previous experience in that field, in addition to my in-progress degree, so I’m hoping to find a position that will give me more current experience.
My previous experience is from five years ago or earlier, and the jobs I’ve held in the interim have been phantom jobs — there’s almost no point in including them on a resume for the positions I’m seeking now. Consequently, the professional references I need to put on my resume are also five years old, although I’ve been in minimal contact with most of the people from time to time, but they’re not people I felt I had to update on my life developments such as divorce or a new last name.
Now we get to the awkward. Practically speaking, if any potential employer contacts my references, they are going to refer to me by name. What is the best, most adult and professional way to tell these people from my past, who only knew me in a work context, that my new last name is [X]? How much information do I give them? Do I need to include mention of the divorce, or just a legal name change?
I’m a pretty private person, and not naturally forthcoming with personal information. The thought of writing to these former employers and explaining my recent life changes makes my introvert skin crawl with misery. What do I do?
Congratulations on your new name!
This is very easy to answer, because if you are using someone as a reference, it is polite to get in touch with them first even if you hadn’t changed your name. Script for an email:
“Dear former colleague,
I hope things are well with you! + some comment about child/hobby/pet/shared interest/link to some article you read that made you think of them.
I am about to finish graduate school, and am interviewing for some jobs in x field. Would it be okay if I listed you as a professional reference?
Many thanks. Oh, incidentally, my last name is ________, now, so if someone calls you asking for Firstname _______, that’s me.
Happy New Year!“
Also consider scouting out what jobs might be available at your old employers first, and apply. Maybe there is something at the old joint for the new, improved you.
Half the people will not say anything about the name change. They’ll assume something changed about your marital status (most likely that you GOT married), but won’t comment on it.
Half the people will ask you about it. “OMG, did you get married? Congratulations!” You can write back and say “Haha, no, I got divorced, actually! Your congratulations are most appreciated.”
Also, if you change it on Facebook, LinkedIn, your email address, etc. enough people will pick up the change and figure it out.
The takeaway here is that most people will take their cue from you about how to handle news of big changes or potentially awkward information. They don’t know (and don’t need to know) all of your history, thought processes, and emotions around changing your name, they just need to know the fact that it has changed. If you treat it like it’s weird and project your anxieties all over them, it will definitely be weird. If you do not, it mostly will not be weird, and when it is weird (you run into someone really nosy, for instance), you’re not the one making it weird.
This holds true for a million aspects of job searching. Prospective employers will ask difficult questions about gaps in employment, changes of field, etc., but often they are doing it because they want to see how you react to the question before they decide if it is an actual issue. They want to make sure that you didn’t lie on your resume. They want to see if you have a coherent reason for whatever it is. And they want to see if you react with grace under pressure, or if you turn into a defensive weirdo.
For example, plenty of people have great experience and are great employees but don’t have college degrees. If an employer is truly hung up on where you went to school, there’s probably nothing you can do. But if they are calling you in for an interview, don’t even bring it up and definitely don’t apologize for it. If they do ask you, tell the truth: “I was lucky enough to start working in my field halfway through school, and I enjoyed the work so much that it made sense to just go for it and stop accumulating more student loans.” “I realized my major wasn’t a good fit, so I took some time off from school to figure out what I am really good at, which is (this job).” “My family’s financial situation meant that I had to readjust my education and career plans.” “There was a medical issue that required immediate attention, and once that was handled, I was more interested in (this field) so I stuck with that.” Nobody has to know that you majored in videogames and crying.
For another example, plenty of people take time out of the workforce to care for kids, go to school, look after aging relatives, etc. and then are in the position of trying to get back into the workforce. If an employer is going to hold your years as a caregiver or student against you in making a hiring decision, that is their bad. Do not apologize! Do not talk about how your skills are “rusty”! If they say “I notice it’s been a few years since you’ve been working in this field, what’s up with that?” say “Yes, I was lucky enough to be able to take some time off to care for my mom at the end of her life,” or “Given the cost of day care, it made sense for one of us to stay home with the kids for a while” or “Yes, it was strange to be a grad student-by-day, bartender-by-night, but my customers were great and I learned a lot from having such a public-oriented position” and then ask a question about the position at hand.
If you get defensive and invite the employer into your personal shame-cycle, you’re doing the work of rejecting yourself for them. If you’re relaxed and confident, it will go a long way toward reassuring them that you know what you’re about. If someone’s taken the trouble to pick your resume out of the stack and call you in, they are interested in what you have to say and hopeful that you will provide the solution to their problems and be a good fit for their team. While it is still an employer’s market, interviewing is too time-consuming to deal with people you have no interest in hiring only to reject them for petty reasons. So be cool. It’s hard enough to find a job you like (or a job you can live on, or, a job, period) without an extra serving of anxiety and insecurity about stuff you shouldn’t have to apologize for.
Also, LW, maybe go ahead and put those “phantom” jobs on your resume, even if you do it as a single line item. “Paid way through graduate school school as a freelance editor, library assistant, and bartender, 2007-2012.” Obviously you want to highlight your most related career experience, but I don’t think people should ever look down on their own work or apologize for what put food on their table, and the skills you took from those passing jobs actually do contribute to who you are professionally.