can you ask a reference what they said about you?

A reader writes:

I am currently in the middle of the hiring process for a job I very much want. There are an extremely limited number of positions available in this area and I am fortunate enough to have moved past the first round of interviews with the top company in this niche. I received an email two weeks ago letting me know I would be informed of next steps within two weeks. I was unsure what that meant — whether there would be a second interview, I would be contacted for references, or I would be called with an offer (I know I should have asked but was unsure how to respond to what was clearly an automated message; hindsight is 20:20).

Last night at a professional event, one of my former managers (who had offered to be a reference in the past and is on my reference list that I have not yet provided to the company) informed me she had been called for a reference by the company and that she said I was “the best.” I wanted to ask for more details, but everyone had been drinking and we were surrounded by others, including colleagues who wanted to interview for this position but were not given consideration. Would it be unprofessional to email that manager today and ask her who called (hiring manager, HR, etc.) and what was asked and what she said?

If it makes a difference, we are on very good terms, and I am encouraged by the fact that she already revealed she spoke highly of my performance. I would also like to ask her if she knows if another manager I worked under in the same company was also contacted, as I fear this other manager would not be able to give me as glowing of a reference (although I suspect you will recommend I contact this manager directly). Is any of this okay? Or should I just let it go and be grateful to have gotten some intel on what’s going on behind the scenes in this hiring process?

I totally understand the impulse to ask what she said about you, but you should resist it. References are supposed to be confidential, and you’re potentially putting her in an awkward position by asking her for details about the conversation. Even if she spoke glowingly you of you, a good reference-checker will try to get her to talk about weaker spots, and you shouldn’t put her in a position where it feels like you’re asking her to share that with you. (And if she chooses not to share everything, she may feel uncomfortable that she’s not being fully transparent with you, and that’s not fair to do to her.) And really, even if she said nothing but fantastic things, it’s still awkward to be asked to share the conversation.

Not everyone feels this way, of course. Some people would be fine with it, especially if you have a closer relationship. But enough would feel awkward, or even a little unethical, that you shouldn’t do it. Really, if she’s willing to share, let her volunteer it.

I also wouldn’t ask her about whether she knows if the other manager was contacted. You’re not really going to get anything actionable from her answer; it sounds like it’s more about you being curious about what’s happening behind the scenes. And while curiosity is understandable, it doesn’t really warrant asking her questions about the process.

She gave you a good reference! Let that be all you ask of her for now.

{ 31 comments… read them below or add one }

  1. Jesca

    I have those references that always call me afterwards to let me know what they said. I also have references who never say anything. I would not ask though. I am not sure I would absolutely trust what they told me anyway. They are giving a reference in an objective manner, and I always just assume that people never really want to discuss any answers to questions like “what do you think she struggled with the most?”

    Reply
  2. MK

    OP, don’t do this. The reference already gave up her time to talk about you, calling to take up even more time to conduct a post-mortem about her reference is an imposition. It would be one think if you were able to continue the conversation when she mentioned it, as you had a natural opening and she could have disengaged tactfully if she wanted to, but calling to have a specific conversation would put her on the spot.

    And frankly I don’t think there is much valuable information to glean from this, at least none that you can act on.

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    1. Falling Diphthong

      At least none that you can act on.

      I think this is the key point. It’s not like knowing which person called for the reference is going to give you a key insight into your next step.

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  3. Jen S. 2.0

    We all want to be a fly on the wall during hiring for a job we want (who else is interviewing? how did I do by comparison? what did she say to that question? what did that reference say? are there internal candidates? are my chances a 92.76% or an 88.34%? can I find ANY ace in the hole?????), because we feel like it will help us know in advance whether we’ll get the job, but unfortunately you don’t get to know the outcome of the race before the horses run.

    Knowing what that person said isn’t going to tell you whether you will get the job, and worse yet, you run the risk of having a person who currently is a good reference think less well of you in the future because your anxiety got the best of you now.

    Smile and thank them for being a reference, and then move on.

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  4. Jeff

    I think it partially depends on your relationship with the reference, but I agree that if you need to ask, you probably shouldn’t. I have some references who are more like professional mentors for me, so if I put them down for a reference, I know pretty well that a) it will be positive and b) when they talk about my weaknesses, those will be things I already know about myself because they have already pointed them out to me. So I don’t really expect anything to come up in those references calls with them that I wouldn’t already know. For other references – where it’s people I worked with years ago or don’t have a close relationship – I still know the reference will be positive, but that’s where it’s more inappropriate to ask for specifics. It’s also a relationship where going into those details probably isn’t that helpful anyway.

    So my question is are you asking because you want to know where you should improve or because you want to pry into what the hiring manager asked? If it’s the former, finding a mentor is going to be more useful than asking a reference, especially one you haven’t interacted with recently. If it’s the latter, I think it’s pretty clear that that’s more of a breach of trust. My two cents on it.

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  5. The Supreme Troll

    OP, I hope that, by some chance, you are lucky enough to get called out of the blue by your former manager and be given a little bit more pointed info (“unsolicitedly”) of what she told your prospective employer. But barring that, you should not reach out to her and ask her what she said about you. Not only for everything that Alison said above, but your former manager could also feel that she might have deal with you being defensive or debate things (OP, not saying you would, but just something that I have seen in my personal experience).

    Given what she told you at the social event – and your knowledge of her opinion of your work in the past, I would take her saying that you were the best at face value for now. You do not want to burn any bridges with enthusiastic, positive references.

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  6. alanna

    I understand this is so anxiety-inducing, but don’t do it don’t do it don’t do it!!! It sounds like she gave you a glowing reference, and that’s all you really need to know.

    (I also think you probably shouldn’t ask for clarification on what “next steps” means; sometimes they use terms that vague because the next step is different depending on the candidate. For example, many of our candidates are local but some are not. The local candidates generally get called into the office right away, whereas the farther-flung candidates might do a second phone interview to talk more about relocation and make sure they want to take the time and we want to spend the money to fly them in.)

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    1. fposte

      Yeah, I think in general OP just is on tenterhooks, but the focus on “intel on what’s going on behind the scenes” really isn’t all that useful for her. It’s common for job-seekers to feel like it is, but it’s actually better for you *not* to try to peek behind the curtain; all it does is rev you up.

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      1. Not So NewReader

        I love this point. It’s so easy to convince ourselves that we need X or Y information and the real truth is that we don’t.
        I had a boss that I got along great with and he acted as a reference for me. Well, it ended up that I had to track him down for HR at the New Place because he had moved inside my former company. By the time I found him, HR had already located him. Unfortunately, HR had contacted him before I made first contact. So I just said, “And you told them what a rotten person I am and how I was miserable to work with?” He said, “Yep, sure did.” I knew he was joking.
        HR was the one who spilled the beans, they told me exactly what he said. They were quite happy and I was privately thrilled, also.
        Sometimes, OP, we find out what references have said in unexpected ways. In my setting there was NO way I could have anticipated the questions they would ask my reference. And there was no way I could have coached my reference in how to respond. It was sheer happenstance that he could give an example to answer each of their questions to their satisfaction.

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  7. phedre

    I wouldn’t ask for more details – if she wanted to tell you more she would. You know she gave you a great reference, what more do you need?

    There’s only been one time in my career I knew specifically what a reference said about me. My boss at the time took a reference call for me in front of me (he knew I was looking and encouraged me to move on to further my career). We shared an office and he told me I could stay during the call. It was really nice/kinda weird to hear all of the great things he said about me – and I got the job!

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  8. My Name Is Bob

    Would it make sense for OP to email the person to say something like, “Thanks for giving me the heads up that you’d been contacted by (company), and thanks for being in my corner.” Or should she just drop it entirely?

    I guess this partly depends on whether you said “thank you” as such at the party, OP. If I were your former manager who’d been called and who’d talked you up, a thanks wouldn’t go amiss.

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    1. Callalily

      My current interviewer reached out to my former supervisor because she recognized the company and my supervisor was her former coworker. You never know who your interviewer knows… and you can only pray that they’ll give you a stellar reference.

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    2. Sevenrider

      Me too! I had to re-read that part several times to make sure I understood that she DID NOT provide them with her reference list yet. That would worry me more than what was said about me. Like, did this company go behind my back and contact former employers for references without my knowledge?

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    3. Mrs. Fenris

      My current boss knew my very first boss from way back. So even though I didn’t list him as a reference, you bet she called him. Even though I hadn’t worked for him in 15 years. He obviously couldn’t speak to my current skill level, but she mostly asked him about my general character and ethics.

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  9. OP

    OP here!! Thank you Alison for answering my question – great advice as always. I hadn’t thought about the fact that I could make her uncomfortable. We have a great relationship and I definitely wouldn’t want to sour it.

    I resisted the urge and did not email or call her to ask (and I’m so glad I did!). I think what fposte said was right on the money – I was on “tenterhooks” and working myself into a frenzy of anxiety over the hiring process (this is my first time going through any type of true hiring process).

    I thought alanna raised an interesting point – is it really not okay to ask what the next steps are? I hadn’t realized that would be inappropriate. Perspectives welcome!

    Reply
    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      At the end of an interview, it’s fine to ask about timeline and next steps. But in this context, where they’ve already told you they’ll be getting back to you about next steps, I wouldn’t reach out at this point and say “hey, about those next steps, what exactly does that mean?” The only thing that really matters right now is that it’s in their court.

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      1. PersephoneUnderground

        If she waits, say, 2 weeks and they still haven’t contacted her, would it then be ok to reply with a follow-up asking for an update on the timeline/status?

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  10. Student

    Please don’t ask. I’d lie to you, or deflect the question, regardless of how good the reference I gave was or how close to you I was. Mainly, this is because I don’t want you to try to dictate what I talk about when I give a reference, or nitpick the things I said – I’d be worried that your question implied you intended to do such a thing.

    When you praise somebody, it’s never exactly how they wish it sounded.

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    1. Not So NewReader

      Sometimes references do BETTER than what we wish. ;) It’s okay to let people do their thing, OP. I know there have been times where I have been quite comfortable saying a person is good at X, Y and Z but the person never, ever would have asked me to say that because they did not believe it about themselves.

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  11. Loz

    Where I work a transcript of the reference interview is on file and you are allowed to request that. No good if you don’t get the job of course but could have some insight. I looked at mine a couple of years after I joined.

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  12. Mrs. Fenris

    My current boss knew my very first boss from way back. So even though I didn’t list him as a reference, you bet she called him. Even though I hadn’t worked for him in 15 years. He obviously couldn’t speak to my current skill level, but she mostly asked him about my general character and ethics.

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  13. Bea

    My former boss texted me immediately after speaking with my now-boss to tell me he had called! Then proceeded to tell me a little bit of their general conversation, since I was interviewing for essentially my previous job on a bigger scale in a better city. It was delightful!

    I wouldn’t ask myself though, that’s up to your references to disclose on their terms.

    I confirmed with my other one that they were called only because I stopped by to do some chit chat catch up prior to my move. She said something that made me realize she had indeed been talked to and I was like “oh he probably called you too, right? thank you so much for all your help!” just a flutter by in that aspect.

    The best part was really finding out from my former boss that she liked my now boss because it sank in that my “vibe” we had in the interview was real and I wasn’t reading into things. Not just that he liked me and was interested but that he was chill and a good person most of all. I work directly with owners of companies so that’s of utmost importance to me is the character of my boss but that’s a personal thing more than a professional one of course.

    So yeah, let them do the talking and you just be grateful that they’re calling your references :)

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  14. Jessen

    Curiosity question on this – how does this interact with cases where someone suspects unconscious bias or other issues in references?

    For example, there was an issue in my (former, I guess) field where women were getting weaker references even when the reference giver thought the woman was a stronger candidate. Basically what was going on is the women would get references talking about how “friendly” and “helpful” and “outgoing” they were, while men would get references focusing on how “hard-working” and “intelligent” they were. Would there be a way to check on that sort of thing?

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  15. MommyMD

    IT guy: all of us are dispensable. Myself included. Our positions may be essential but everyone can be laid off or replaced. My advice is to say nothing. They don’t have to answer or tell you the truth anyway. Good luck.

    Reply

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