Business

Friendly advice: In cover letter, don’t boast about stealing clients from a past employer

Q: A friend asked me to review his cover letter for a job he really wants. The letter mentions he has an extensive client contact list that he could bring to the new firm from his old firm. That makes my friend seem sneaky and underhanded. Wouldn’t a prospective employer wonder what future clients my friend might steal from them? Or is this business as usual in the corporate world?

A: Your friend didn’t explain his contact list in the most professional or effective way, and the reaction you had is the reaction most people would have. Hiring companies will think that if he’s expressing his client situation this way now, he’ll be saying the same thing whenever he leaves their organization. They’ll also have concerns about noncompete agreements. Depending on the industry and state, your friend is likely subject to a noncompete or nonsolicitation agreement — which is something he needs to review before going forward in his job search.

Using contacts you’ve developed over the years is “business as usual” to an extent, but in the job search, it has to be treated professionally and subtly. Having an extensive contact list is a big benefit in a lot of industries. But saying that contact list comes from a former employer will put in question the applicant’s professionalism and ethics.

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Instead of boasting about stealing clients from his past employer, your friend needs to focus on emphasizing the value he brings as an individual. He can even leverage LinkedIn to showcase the professional relationships that might make him an attractive candidate for an organization — he should populate his network with high-value contacts, comment on other people’s posts, and tag people in his own posts. This way, he’s signaling his connections and getting the same kind of attention that he wants without coming across as unethical.

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Your friend’s instincts are at least trending the right way. Prospective employers want new connections that can grow their business, but they also are highly aware of noncompete and nonsolicitation agreements. They don’t want the risk of hiring someone who seems to be indicating that he wouldn’t honor these types of agreements.

You should tell your friend he chose the right editor and not to represent himself this way. He knows that his professional relationships will be an attractive component for future employers, and the way he frames them matters. He needs to simultaneously demonstrate the value and business he can bring to an organization, while observing professional ethics and honoring all agreements with his current employer. Subtlety and professionalism are key here.

Elaine Varelas is managing partner at Keystone Partners, a career management firm in Boston, and serves on the board of Career Partners International.