can I use my ex as a job reference?

A reader writes:

On the application I have been asked to return immediately before what appears to be my final interview, it asks for three references that are not relatives or former employers. I would like to use my ex-wife, but I am concerned if this may be acceptable from the eyes of a recruiter. I am not one who normally keeps good contact with former co-workers or even long term friends. My ex who I have known nearly 20 years is very professional and would give me an excellent reference despite our marital problems. She is well aware of my work ethic and technical abilities. What are your thoughts?

Absolutely not. Using an ex looks really unprofessional.

It’s also assumed that she’ll be biased in your favor, so any reference she provides isn’t useful.

Frankly, I don’t get the point of asking for references that aren’t professional ones — I think “personal references” are just about worthless when you’re evaluating someone for a job — but since they’re asking for non-employers, you should give clients, non-manager colleagues, or people who know you in your community.

I once called a reference I’d been provided with and discovered during the course of the call that the person was my candidate’s ex-boyfriend and had never worked with her professionally. Not only did I disregard his feedback, but it made me wonder about her judgment and professionalism. Don’t do it.

{ 11 comments… read them below }

  1. Krista Ogburn Francis*

    Although using an ex as a reference might illustrate the candidate's conflict management abilities, I agree it's way, way too personal and not appropriate.

    It is a red flag when candidates can't find three or more people to vouch for them professionally. Pick your reference list carefully to showcase your accomplishments and abilities from different perspectives/roles. Also be aware the employer may call people not on your official list.

    The first blog post I wrote was on what I called 360 degree references:

  2. M*

    I work in a university library and hire undergraduate students. Understandably many of them have little or no job experience. In that case I'm happy to have a reference from someone who knows them well in a non-work setting (a teacher or a supervisor from volunteer work are especially good).

    In the last year, though, many have been listing their mothers as references, and I even had one student last week list HERSELF as a reference. Has anyone else ever seen this?

  3. TheLabRat*

    I'm curious to know; if the writer and his ex-wife have actually worked together, would anyone consider it an appropriate reference? My best friend is one of my references but she and I have worked together off and on for over a decade (she's my boss right now). And I never list her as "Best Friend" though I do note how long we've known each other (18 years).

  4. Anonymous*

    I am the writer. Thank you for the replies. Interestingly most of the "common" people I asked this question thought it would be completely fine. For a little background we have worked at the same company although in separate areas. Also we have done numerous large home projects together. It was my reasoning that if anyone would give you a poor reference it would be an ex spouse.

    I will not use her as a reference. Thank you all again for the input.

  5. Charles*

    "It is a red flag when candidates can't find three or more people to vouch for them professionally."


    What about job candidates who have worked for companies that have policies against anyone except HR giving references?

    The last three companies that I have worked for have just such a policy.

    I consider it inappropriate to ask any of my managers in those companies to put their jobs on the line for a reference. This has left me with "less than perfect" references.

    Do you, as a hiring person, take such situations into consideration?

  6. Just Another HR Lady*

    I've never seen the point of personal references myself, I usually disregard them no matter what the relationship. If you've never worked together, you have no idea what that person is like as an employee, and that's what we want to know as a hiring manager.

    If you have worked together and also have a personal relationship (i.e. parent, sibling, spouse, etc.) do your best to find another reference. If you can't, keep in mind that the recruiter may assume the reference is flawed because of your relationship.

  7. Anonymous*

    I also think an ex-wife would probably fall too close to the "relative" category. The point of personal references not being relatives is, I would think, so they aren't too biased in your favor.

    I have put in a good word for a friend when she applied for a position where I have a colleague. And she has also recently listed me as a personal reference. We have never worked together professionally, but we did collaborate on a few extracurricular projects in college so I think I know her more than socially.

  8. Greg*

    There have been movements afoot in some states to hold employers completely immune from giving out poor or bad references.

    Yes, giving references is done to guard against negligent hiring. At the same time, I've seen situations where a person was really good and a past reference was jealous. Or they were otherwise incapable of giving a good reference, e.g., the boss who felt the need to always bring up a flaw because he felt "Nobody's perfect" and that would increase believability.

    If it were up to me, I'd suggest doing away with the whole reference checking process. I've met people who everyone said was great, and they were disasters where I worked. Conversely, I've met others who were repeatedly rejected and they thrived at our place.

    Checking references is akin to saying, "I don't trust my own judgement. So I need others to tell me about you."

  9. Ask a Manager*

    Greg, have you done much reference checking yourself? It can certainly be done in a rote and unhelpful manner, but it can also be quite useful. For instance, I've gotten really useful information by asking previous managers what advice they'd have for the person's next manager. It's not just about trying to "dig up dirt"; it can be about just getting helpful advice about how the person will work best.

  10. Shane*

    No, Greg is right. I’ve been both a manager and a person who answers to them , so I’ve been on both sides of the fence. I’ve seen some excellent workers with superior integrity raked over the coals by former managers and co-workers. Managers are just as prone to be hold personal vendettas and jealousies against their their subordinates as co-workers or anyone else. They are not above it. This is a common flaw in human nature and has nothing to do with the position a person holds. There is often an elitism in management that enjoys the power to destroy the lives of those who they dislike for unjust reasons. I never engaged in that ugliness. You cannot trust someone just because they are in management. To do so is a very naive perspective and it has done a great deal of harm to people who do not deserve dishonest negative comments regarding their character or performance.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I don’t think anyone is disputing that managers can be jerks just like anyone else. But that doesn’t mean that there’s no point in checking referencing.

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