when your references are deliberately lukewarm as a “strategy”

Sadly, my vacation is over. Why is the transition back into normal life so onerous? In any case…

A reader writes:

What do you do if your references don’t know how to give references? I recently provided my references for a job that I really want. This company has a very rigorous hiring process, so they probably check references the way you describe a good reference checker does. I know my references are good; I’m still in contact with all of them and they are enthusiastic about me.

But when two of my references followed up with me after they were contacted by this company, they seemed unsure and bewildered (like they hadn’t experienced a real in-depth reference check before) and most alarmingly, they said that gave me a good one, but they made sure not to sound overly enthusiastic because they were concerned they would come off as insincere. They said they played it down a little because they wanted to be taken seriously (I guess under the assumption that a very enthusiastic reference would sound like a fake reference; these were definitely not fake references).

So, two questions: 1. How can I communicate to my professional references that they should be candid and if they are enthusiastic about me, then they should show that without telling them what kind of reference to give me, and 2. Will reference checkers who receive good, but tempered, feedback come away thinking my references weren’t actually good?

It’s hard to answer your second question without knowing exactly what they said and how they said it, but as for your first question: Please address this with them head-on if you approach them for references again. I’d say something like, “By the way, obviously I don’t want to micromanage what you say, but you mentioned last time that you tried not to sound overly enthusiastic so that it wouldn’t sound insincere. But I really want to convey that people who’ve worked with me in the past are enthusiastic about my work, so I’d really appreciate it if you’d not play down any positives about my work.  I’d definitely rather you err on the side of being too effusive than to risk coming across as lukewarm!”  You could even add, “I’ve heard too many reference-checkers say that they really pay attention to tone of voice and how warm a recommendation seems to be.”

By the way … since you ran into this weirdness with two people, could there be more going on here? For instance, is it possible that they actually aren’t super enthusiastic about your work and said what they did to you in order to politely convey, “It seemed like that employer was looking for the sort of strongly positive testimony that we can’t honestly give”?  It’s entirely plausible that that’s not the explanation, but whenever you hear anything remotely weird from your references, it’s worth considering all possibilities.

{ 31 comments… read them below }

  1. EM*

    Yeah, it seems odd that two references mentioned not wanting to sound too enthusiastic.

    I was hired at my current job about a year ago. When I checked in with my references to let them know I got the job, one of them told me that he said he’d “Hire me back in a New York minute” if he could (I moved to another state, which is why I left that job), and another one said the person calling said that they really didn’t need too much from him in the way of comments because my other references were so effusive about my skills/abilities.

    So, you might want to find out what’s going on. It seems weird to me for them to say they gave lukewarm reviews so the would be more believable. When people really believe in you and your work, they aren’t afraid to tell others.

    1. Nikki*

      Yes, if they *are* sincere, I think the reference checkers will know. One of my reference said, “I wish I had a job open for her right now!” when asked if she would hire me again.

      As mentioned below, maybe they are over thinking it…

    2. Commenter30*

      Don’t be afraid to strike up a conversation with a reference and offer them what amounts to a script. If you absolutely have to, you can mention that a recent job offer was withdrawn, and when you pressed them for details they mentioned that some of your references seemed extremely lukewarm. Most people will be wracked with guilt and quite cooperative when they hear this.

  2. Another Emily*

    It seems like your references are enthusiastic but they’re overthinking things. The best way to be genuine is to just be honest without worrying about the perceptions of others. Maybe if you reassured them, and that it’s okay for them to relax, they will give you a straightforward reference.

    I would just bring it up once and then not worry about it. As good reference checkers can see through B.S. hopefully they can also see through nervousness. Don’t worry about it too much though, since ultimately you can’t control what they say.

  3. Rob*

    The references might just be nervous, as they may never have done anything like this before. That’s not a bad thing, but using Alison’s advise should go a long way to helping those people out. However, if those references are seasoned at giving references, there might be something else worth exploring about the OP. New references might be in order as a result.

    But that being said, the OP might just be looking into things too much and should just relax. Everything will be just fine…no worries!

  4. OP here*

    OP here. Thank you Allison for posting my question and thank you commenters so far. I just want to clarify, since it was asked and before comments really get under way, that I do think my references are enthusiastic about me. They have continued to seek my advice on projects after I’ve left, we stay in touch and even meet for coffee on occasion, they are very supportive of my job search and continuously ask me how it’s going, and when first approaching them, I took Allison’s advice and said that while I wouldn’t want to in any way tell them what they should say, that if they didn’t feel they could give me a positive reference, then to let me know so I could ask others. I do think it’s a matter of both of these not being seasoned at giving references. I wonder if many people really know how to give references. That being said, I did wonder the same thing when I heard 2 of them say that and I am open to hearing if people think it really is the case that they may not feel strongly about me even though other evidence seems (to me at least) to indicate otherwise.

    1. Evan the College Student*

      Are your references from foreign countries, perchance, or otherwise outside US corporate life? If so, you might want to alert them of how their references could be perceived in this culture.

      1. OP here*

        Not foreign, but those two were not in corporate life as such. So that may have a lot to do with it.

    2. Long Time Admin*

      ” I took Allison’s advice and said that while I wouldn’t want to in any way tell them what they should say…”

      On the other hand, I’ve told my references what I DO want them to say about me. I don’t want potential employers being told how great I was at doing data entry (while we were short on clerical help for a few months) because I don’t want a job doing data entry. I want my references to stress my qualifications as an Executive Secretary while simply mentioning that I was always happy to help out with any tasks that needed to be done.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Yeah, it’s really about not appearing that you’re trying to micromanage what they’re saying, but it’s great to tell them particular things that you’d love them to emphasize.

  5. Liz*

    Different fields have very different cultures around references, and this seems to be an area in which standards and practices will vary quite a bit. It actually sounds perfectly credible to me that some people would worry about sounding too excited. I’ve had the thought myself while serving as a reference.

    You just never know. I’ve also seen bosses worry that a positive reference for a good former employee or coworker would cause problems for the project or company later because of competition for projects among different companies in a small field. And I’ve seen bosses completely blow off reference calls for good employees because “There’s nothing in it for me anymore so why bother?”

    So I love the advice on this site, but I have to admit, I wouldn’t personally trust references the way AAM always recommends. There are too many bad bosses out there, and I’ve seen too many bad employees work in tandem to protect each other.

    Actually, the more I think about it, the more I think I would be a little suspicious if a reference was super enthusiastic. It would make me wonder if someone just lined up his or her friends, or if a boss was trying to dump a low performer but felt guilty. Thinking back, I’ve just known too many excellent employees who wouldn’t have an enthusiastic reference, and too many terrible employees who would.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Just to be clear, I’m not advocating blind trust, but you can look for patterns. You can also generally avoid the possibility that someone lined up her friends by asking to speak with former managers, not peers, and then looking those people up yourself to call them, rather than relying on the phone numbers you’re given. That’s not foolproof, but in my experience it’s extremely rare for candidates to try to set up fake references.

      1. Liz*

        Oh I didn’t mean to imply that people would completely fake a reference. That’s something I’ve definitely never seen.

        I just think reference givers vary so much that for me, knowing what I know about fields where I’ve worked, I wouldn’t want to rely very much on references, at least not as a way to discover personality problems.

        I would use your work test ideas and call people who would know the candidate to find out what the person is like at work , and these are both really great ideas you’ve suggested on this site (not sure I would have thought of them without you).

          1. Kimmiejo*

            I had the same thing happen to me. The guy even did a really bad Australian accent to try to pose as his former boss. But caller ID gave him away as he called from the same number that he had listed on his application.

  6. Liz*

    PS – When two people in the same office use the same phrase they are probably quoting a prior conversation. I’m picturing one person saying, “I always try not to sound too enthusiastic when I give a reference because it will seem fake” and the other person saying, “Yeah, that makes sense.” Then they both tell the OP the same thing, thinking they’re being considerate.

    1. A Bug!*

      I agree. The first thought that crossed my mind was “do these two references know each other” because it’s a weird coincidence otherwise. If they know each other, then this is the most plausible explanation and the problem should be easily addressed with a low-key conversation.

  7. Tamara*

    I can definitely relate to the references here. I once had to give a reference for a really great employee. I answered everything honestly and was very positive. After the fact, I started down the same path as OP’s references did – worrying that I came off as insincere somehow. My employee got the job, so at the very least my reference didn’t hurt. On the other hand, she ended up hating the job, so perhaps it would have been better if I had ruined her chances!

  8. AD*

    If the reference-checkers are REALLY good, though, they wouldn’t even be asking particularly subjective questions, because those types of questions do lend themselves to insincerity or fear of insincerity, etc. Rather, they’d be asking the same sort of stuff that gets asked by a good interviewer, i.e. “tell me about a time that Kathy really showed a lot of leadership”.

    Certainly, tone of voice and specific word choice can still convey enthusiasm, but it’s not like a good reference-checker just calls up and says “is this person good?”

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      There’s a lot of subjectivity in there though. For instance, I’ll always ask how the reference would rate the person’s performance overall and how she compares to others they’ve seen doing the past work. I’ll also always ask something like, “If you were thinking of hiring again for her position, how would you describe your reaction if she applied: wouldn’t hire, would consider hiring, would strongly consider hiring, would definitely hire, would move earth and moon to lure her back.” I ask questions like that because I’m looking for people who are amazingly great, not people who meet the basic requirements and no more. So enthusiasm really can play a role.

      1. AD*

        Okay, that makes sense; I think your scale is more granular than mine, which I think is what I meant by word choice (a “definitely” is different from a “yes” when asked if you’d rehire someone).

        I’ve generally been on the receiving end of two types of calls: the person who has no idea what he/she is doing and asks really general stuff, so I fill in with whatever the candidate has asked me to emphasize (provided I’m comfortable with it), or the person who asks almost entirely the “STAR”-type questions. In both cases, though, I’ve gotten the impression that the hiring decision had already been made, pending no horror stories from any of the references.

  9. sparky629*

    So I’m a little late to the party. :-)
    I have a question about the situation that I am currently in. I’ve had this particular position (and one prior to it) at my current employer for the last 10 years. How do I go about gathering professional references when I don’t want my immediate supervisor (or anyone here for that matter) to know I am looking for a job? Basically, all of the people who could attest to level and quality of my work are the exact same people who shouldn’t know that I am looking for another job. :-(

    That alone makes job searching feel impossible for me. Any advice/recommendations/suggestions would be greatly appreciated.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      You can ask a prospective employer not to contact your references until you’re at the job offer stage, at which point an offer could be contingent on good references. That’s pretty typical. Meanwhile, though, I’d offer up former coworkers, coworkers who you know would be discreet, clients, etc. — anyone who you trust to stay quiet.

    2. KellyK*

      I think if you’ve worked at the same place for ten years, you’re going to need to let at least one or two current coworkers know that you’re looking and ask them if they’re willing to be references. If you don’t trust someone to be discreet about your job search, are they really someone who should be your reference anyway? I know there are some pretty messed-up work environments, but there should (I hope!) be at least one trustworthy person who can talk about what you’ve done.

      If those people are hard to find, can you flesh out your list with other current professional contacts? If you’re involved in a professional organization or you’ve done relevant volunteer work, can you list someone in that capacity?

      It might also be worth asking yourself “What’s the worst that could happen?” and comparing the “what ifs” for “They find out I’m looking” to “I have an irrelevant and outdated reference list.” Are you worried about being fired on the spot for looking for another job, for example? Actually listing out why it’s so important that not only your boss not know but that none of your coworkers find out might help you figure out the pros and cons of asking vs. not. (Anyone who I thought I’d lose my good working relationship with if they found out I was looking for other work is not someone I’d really want as a reference.)

      1. Anon*

        I think Sparky was also speaking to past comments that managers/supervisors are more relevant than coworkers as references. I’m in the same spot, 12 years at my current company AND my company has a policy of referring all references to HR. After reading some older posts, I’m going to include managers’ direct lines just in case anyone wants to be a rebel, but realistically I will be relying on my coworkers. Thank goodness I have plenty of coworkers who would give me great references.

  10. Samantha Jane Bolin*

    This is an interesting thread. A few years ago, I was called to give a reference for a (recently) former staff member. In an office full of crabs and curmudgeons, she was a ray of sunshine. She did her job plus some without complaining and did it very well. I kept gushing about how great she was, how well she did her job, and finally said something to the effect, “I know I sound over the top, but I really do love her and would hire her back in a second.” Not only did she get the job, but she called me later to say that her new boss said there was no way she would not have hired her after that. I say all that to say if the praise and “gushing” IS genuine, it will seem genuine. On the other hand, I’ve done references for employees that were okay at their job, in which case I simply answer the questions that I am asked. Nothing extra. You can’t miss that either.

  11. OP here*

    Thanks everyone for their comments and thoughts. I guess I’ll either address it with them next time or just let it go. I was mostly worried about how those checking the references were perceiving it. My references are reserved and circumspect people and they’d never be as effusive as to say, “I’d move heaven and the moon to lure her back.” They just wouldn’t, even though one did try to lure me back (that’s also why I know they really do think highly of my work); it’s not their style. I think it’s great that some people here had their references respond that way, but my references are soft spoken, cautious people. Alas. I just hope it won’t be the thing that prevents me from receiving some offers.

    1. Liz*

      Well, for what it’s worth, I appreciate reserve and I’d like to think I would recognize the merits of a soft-spoken, cautious reference. Maybe the kind of person who wants a hyperbolic “Oh my good golly I would hire that person back in a flash Miss Molly” kind of reference wouldn’t be your ideal boss anyway?

      Good luck with the job and I hope it works out in your favor!

      1. Rana*

        Liz, I find your comment reassuring too, though for a different reason. I have been asked to write recommendation letters for many people over the years, and I’ve always hated it. I want to do a good job, and to be a supportive reference for the people I’m recommending (I won’t provide recommendations for people who I can’t be positive about), but I’m just not a gusher.

        I have high standards, and so I’m impressed if someone meets even a decent percentage of them, but I’ve long feared that saying “this person did a really good job meeting most of my high standards” doesn’t come across as well as saying something like “this person is amazing, hire them now.”

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