current employer won’t give me a reference

A reader writes:

The company I work for has a no-reference policy. From what I can gather, it’s because the managers I work for aren’t permitted to speak about my performance on behalf of their area managers.

I have worked for the company for 2.5 yrs and have performed well, risen to supervisor, and have received prizes for doing so. However, I didn’t finish high school and have wanted to get more qualifications.

I asked my managers if they could write me a reference for my college application, and they said they’d write a character one. I brought in the form and they informed me they couldn’t write that as head office told them it would be in breach of the aforementioned reference policy (it took them two weeks to inform me of that). I then asked what they could do within those parameters. They then told me they could give me a reference that was very basic, giving details of how much I’m paid, how many hours I’m contracted for and title within the company etc. Three weeks after I handed them my college application and they have put it off for ages despite me being on their case all the time to ask them to get it done.

I have contacted them outside of work hours asking about it, and they’ve told me that they’re still writing it “off their own backs” and have implied that I should be grateful they’re doing it at all. On top of it all, because of all their delays and recent snow I haven’t been able to contact the University about the problem.

Am I asking too much of my employer? Are they within their rights not to right me a reference at all, even a basic one?

I’m one of the longest serving members of staff and feel I deserve more.

Are they within their rights? Sure. Is something else going on here? Yes.

That something else is one of two things:

1. They don’t feel they could honestly give you a good reference, and they’re too weak to come out and tell you that.


2. They’re rude/inconsiderate/lazy/jerks/all of the above.

If they felt they couldn’t give you a good reference, they should have just explained that and not jerked you around. And what’s this business about saying they’d give you a “character reference” rather than a performance reference and then not even coming through with that?

At this point, I would give up on getting a reference from them and find a way to complete your application without them. Even if they come through with the bare bones reference they’re not promising (pay, hours, and title), I don’t think that’s something likely to be useful for a college application anyway.

I would also start seriously questioning what kind of people you might be working for, and feeling good about the fact that you’re on your way out of there.

{ 33 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymous*

    Because of snow you can't pick up a phone and call someone at the university? Or send an e-mail to the admissions office?

    Something's rotten in the state of Denmark.

  2. Interviewer*

    Anon, depending on the snow and ice situation on campus, the university may be closed. Several school systems in my state were closed for an entire week due to heavy ice and extreme cold.

    Reference letters from a current employer who is unwilling to write one isn't necessary. Also, if someone is unwilling to give you one, then you don't want that person to write you one. Find someone else. Summer job, volunteer organization, church, sports team coach – anyone else will do. Give up on your current employer and move on.

    Alternately, is there someone you worked for in that 2.5 years that has left the company that you could ask to write a reference?

  3. Anonymous*

    It could also be that they feel you deserve a good reference, but they don't know how to write one or they have issues with procrastination. Some very busy former bosses have asked me to draft my own letter of reference and then they would make any changes and sign it. I love it because it gives me the chance to emphasize the most relevant skills for the job I'm applying for and to include accomplishments they may have forgotten about. They have always made changes and put things in their own words, but they come through much more quickly when they don't have to start the letter from scratch.

    Would it be out of line in the future to offer up a list of your accomplishments to make it easy for them?

  4. Anonymous*

    For what it's worth, and I write a lot of reference letters for colleges, I always ask for a "reference resume" with achievements, employment, volunteer work, awards, etc. on it–then I can write a better character reference. This isn't exactly the problem here, but in general for these types of letters…

  5. Anonymous*

    It's my letter and yes, the university was closed due to snow. Thanks very much for everyones feed back i appreciate it immensely.
    Also for anyone interested the date passed and I missed it and can't go to that university this term. However I've decided to do an open degree at the Open University and am looking for a job where my bosses and managers know how to run a buisness.

  6. Anonymous*

    I am currently working on obtaining recommendations for graduate school applications. The things I have noticed from this post are:

    –EVERYONE has the right to decline to write a recommendation for any reason. For all of my recommenders, I reiterated that they were free to decline my request for any reason, no questions asked. I do not want them to feel pressured–a half-baked recommendation does me no good. The entitled attitude of the author is likely not helping their case.

    –Three weeks isn't that much time. My application isn't due for three MONTHS and I've already made my requests. A year ago I needed written recommendations for a professional exam I took and gave everyone two months, and barely got them back in time. Working people just have more important things–i.e., profitable things–to do than write recommendation letters.

    –Even a willing HR department would likely have difficulty providing a recommendation about someone's intellectual capacity, maturity, communication skills, motivation to complete the program, etc.–the things colleges are usually looking for. There are much much better sources for recommendations.

    As an anonymous poster above mentioned, I have provided all of my recommenders 'talking points'–reminders about my experience, qualifications, and accomplishments, as well as a brief description of my planned course of study. College recommendations are harder than job recommendations, I think. For a job recommendation, a reference merely has to answer an employer's questions. College recommendations are open-ended essays. It helps to give the person writing them a little help.

  7. Ask a Manager*

    I definitely agree that anyone has the right to decline to write a recommendation for any reason, but they should tell the person that, not string them along.

  8. Marika*

    I just told my current supervisor that I have another offer. He asked what the offer was, and I told him. Is it unlawful for him to want to see the offer letter from the other company?

  9. Anonymous*

    I just started a new job and my supervisor does not want to be at this job and makes it clear. I am trying to make the best of the situation obviously. I offer my help with whatever tasks she needs done to make it easier for her but she is unresponsive. I offer my suggestions on tasks that she assigns me and it is the same thing, she either knocks it down or just does not respond. I am really trying to just smile and grin and get through the day but it is difficult because I really do like this job and want it to last for a long time. I cant go over her head because I just started and do not want to step on her toes and make enemies. Please any suggestions.
    It is especially difficult for me since I am working with children and her lack of passion for the job is disturbing to say the least.

  10. RE: Anonymous*

    I sympathize with your predicament. I’m only in my mid-30s and I’ve encountered almost a handful of hostile work environments where literally, walking through the door, and by no fault of your own, you end up with a boss or coworkers (and i mean “seedy, friend of boss-type coworkers) who make it clear you’re no wanted AND that they’re willing to be hateful, unprofessional and childish just to get you to leave. My advice? Tough choice either way, but you have 2 options. 1)Start looking elsewhere for employment (especially if you believe this boss is there for the long haul). 2)Start documented any and all forms of mistreatment! You’ll need as much as possible when this situation comes to a head, to show repeated indifference to your employment, working for this boss. Also, it’s particularly helpful if you have a coworker who also notices your moments of disrespect/mistreatment, etc. Most of all, and if you take none of the above advice, take this. HR is absolutely NOT YOUR FRIEND!!! Lots of HR companies try to come off caring and like they support the employee–NOT! 99.999% of them care MORE about helping the company not get sued. The biggest mistake I ever made in a situation like yours was taking my concerns to HR when the situation kept getting worse. While they actually may be sympathetic, they’ll care more about getting you to disclose as much as possible so they can mediate — meaning build a case so that you look like the villain (now, whether that means making you seem incompetent, too needy, problematic, all bets are off–they’re trying to flip the script and avoid a law suit). Soooooooo … if you’re going to go the route of documenting episodes of poor taste, plan on taking your gripes to a lawyer and/or obudsman. Good Luck!

    1. rosemarie*

      @ Anonymous – did you work at my last 2 employers!! :) lol hateful, unprofessional, childish – all of the abov e….

  11. Anonymous*

    This is a good post, but I feel like there is a whole element missing to this. What do you do when the places you work have a reference policy? I have worked for 2 Universities(as staff) and both of them have a policy where managers/supervisors are not allowed to give references. All reference requests must go through HR and the only information they can give is employment dates, job title, and salary info(with a signed release form).

    What exactly should you do in this case? You have to use all personal/professional references or refer them to HR and how does that look?

  12. michele*

    They actualyy can’t give you a reference or they are legally not supposed to. It has to do with a lawsuit that occured years ago where someone put their manager down as a reference and he gave negative information so the guy didn’t get hired. Sounds silly because that is the point of using a reference but nowadays all the info they are allowed to give is pretty much what they told you.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      No, this is not true, although clearly some people mistakenly believe it! It’s perfectly legal for an employer to give a detailed reference, as long as they’re not saying things that are false.

  13. Dee*

    i have been working for approx 12 hours per week on £6 per hour as a sales assistant for six months, i have applied for a full time position elsewere, i was self employed for 12 years previously to this job so just continued to pay my National Insurance contribution, i am not earning enough to pay income tax, my current employer says that he will not give me a reference and that if contacted will say i have never worked for him, he says it is because he has been paying me cash in hand, i explained to him my position about my NI contributions but still refuses saying he does not want the tax people to know he has anyone working for him, the other person working for him is claiming some kind of benefit, is this legal, can he refuse to say that he does`nt know me and that i have never worked for him.

  14. Paula*

    On behalf of my brother, where he is working they are using and making him work like a slave! he is doing so many different jobs and is expected to be effecient at all times. He wants to move to another job but, cant as the manager is hard and refuses to see his good work. He is streesing about the recognition letter and tells me he wont get it as the manager wants him to stay where he is. How can he obtain the letter without the managers input? he feels traped, and I understand his problem. please help.

  15. Sara*

    I’d love your advice (or anyone else’s who’s reading this!). My recruitment agent has consistently placed me in jobs since 2007 due to great feedback from the client. I’ve asked my agent in January for a written reference on my LinkedIn and have asked several times since and she always makes excuses why she hasn’t had time. She has written a reference on LinkedIn for another candidate who is now based overseas, even though the candidate only worked for the agent one year. She keeps asking me to do assignments but I told her I can’t until she can write me a reference. I would at least like a written confirmation that I have worked consistently since 2007! That’s 5 years. This would greatly help me with applying for home loan, rental apartment, etc! I explained this to my agent and still no response! She just wants me to make money for her. I have to draw the line. It’s bad enough that temps have no rights in regards to long service or maternity leave. I would appreciate your feedback, as I am thinking of taking legal action. It’s the principle of the matter! I feel I have a right to a written reference or at least a confirmation of my work history. She has certainly given me plenty of verbal recommendation to her clients. I want a written reference as I would like to apply for jobs overseas and agencies there would prefer a written reference rather than having to call an overseas phone number. Please help!

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      There’s no legal action you could take here, but I’d recommend asking her why she isn’t willing to write you a reference — is it an issue with your work quality, etc.?

  16. Dee*

    It has nothing to do with the quality of my work he says I am the best worker he has had, He says its because he doesnt want anyone official to know that he employs people.

  17. Sara*

    I know it’s not the quality of my work because she keeps asking me to do work for her! She also had the nerve to ask me to write a reference for her! Well I am getting free legal advice through my countries government fair work agreement, so we shall see about that. I want them to help me write a letter requesting one because she certainly doesn’t l isten to me. I could use a colourful noun to describe this agent but I will refrain. Having seen some of her client invoiced, I know that she charges an extra $15 per hour on top of wahat I get paid so she obviously doesn’t want to lose me. Full stop.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      You really, really don’t want a reference from someone you had to hound into giving it to you. It’s not likely to be the sort of glowing reference you want. I would let this drop. It sucks, but you can’t force it — and if you do, it might not be what you want.

      1. Sara*

        I would rather not have a VERBAL reference from this employer as then I don’t know what she will be telling prospective employers. The bottom line is that she is a cut-throat recruitment agent and if you carefully read all my posts you will see that she has written a LinkedIn reference for someone before and that’s probably because the candidate now lives in another country and cannot take assignments away from the recruitment agent. My agent has even discouraged me from looking for work overseas, telling me that there’s no work in the UK! She has been telling me this since 2007… geez I wonder why?? Because she has made so much money from me!! Often I have been the only candidate the employer wanted to hire because they liked my resume, but I am now refusing to work for her until she gives me a written confirmation of my employment. She keeps calling me and I am sick of being hounded just so she can make money.

  18. Sara*

    @Dee – I can see why they are too scared to write you a reference. If you are a legal UK citizen then you have every right to report this “employer”. The financial crisis hasn’t hit my countries shores yet, but is the work situation really that bad over there that you have to become a slave to this employer? I hope you do find a full time job for a decent company and fast. This is disgraceful especially as you are not living in a third world country!

      1. Anonymous*

        It’s probably not illegal to refuse to give a reference in any country. But is it FAIR? I think hard working citizens of the world have certainly have the RIGHT to ask for their employer to CONSIDER writing a written reference. And if they refuse or don’t give them a definite YES or NO – they have a right to ask for a WRITTEN CONFIRMATION OF THEIR EMPLOYENT. ie. date started and finished, position, etc. In my country the government has an employment separation certificate which employers are required to complete, for people who are looking for work and receive governmene employment payments.

        I think what people are wanting from this forum and is more empathy and support.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          I run this site to give people real-life advice on what will actually help them. Empathy and support sometimes comes along with it, but I’ll never stand for implying things are illegal when they’re not. That spreads misinformation and can actually hurt people. It’s the opposite of helpful.

          1. Anonymous*

            They weren’t implying that it was illegal – they are agreeing with you!

            Are you sure you’re not a recruitment agent?

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              No, they weren’t: “If you are a legal UK citizen then you have every right to report this ’employer’.”

              And, uh, you have the same IP address as “Sara.” Not cool.

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