you don’t get to choose your references

I frequently hear from people who say that they don’t care if they leave a job on bad terms because they’re not planning to use that boss as a reference anyway.

To which I say … Pfffff!

As Suzanne Lucas of Evil HR Lady points out at CBS News today, you don’t get to choose your references. She writes: “I know, I know, you always provide the names and phone numbers of three people who think you are fabulous. And it’s certainly normal to withhold the name of someone at your current position because you don’t want people to know you’re looking. But when you apply for your next job, there is a high probability that the recruiter will call THIS company looking for a reference.”

And that’s exactly right. Thorough employers won’t always stick to the references you provide them, particularly if there’s a notable omission there. It’s a red flag if you don’t include your most recent manager (assuming you’re not still working there, in which case it’s understandable) or if you offer up peers instead of a manager for a particular job. And employers don’t need your permission to call people who aren’t on your reference list; they’ll call who they want to call. They might ask you to connect them, or they might just pick up the phone.

So don’t lull yourself into thinking that you can burn a bridge simply because you’ll just not use that reference. You don’t get to pick your references — or more accurately, you’ve already picked them, when you picked your past jobs.

{ 73 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymous*

    This is good to know. What do you do in cases when you did everything in your power to leave on good terms but your supervisor took it personal and is forever angry at you even-though you did nothing wrong?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Well, first keep in mind that plenty of people have a boss in their past who things just didn’t go well with. So if you have a sea of positive references and this one negative one, if you’re able to explain the situation, most employers are going to overlook it. That’s especially true if you can offer them other references from that company who can verify that you’re great.

      Also, read this:

    2. Michael*

      When I left one of my previous jobs, my boss was extremely upset with me that I was leaving and didn’t speak to me for the last three weeks that I was there. Now 5 years later, he’s one of my best references.

  2. Anonymous*

    I worry a lot about this because of the bad managers I’ve had in the past. Don’t get me wrong–I have plenty of great references, but ‘good employee’ doesn’t necessarily equal ‘good reference’. For example, I worked a position where the roles were not clearly defined, there was no training (despite being an internship), and several people tried to ‘manage’–leading to confusion and doing the ‘wrong thing’ a lot (person A says “do it this way”, then person B sees what your doing and says “no-that’s all wrong, do it this way”). You’ve talked a lot about having bad managers in the past, too–how do you navigate beyond these, particularly if you need the internship (or job) on your resume?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      That’s where patterns become important. Hopefully you have other references who will balance the bad one out — if you’ve got multiple people saying you’re awesome and one who’s more lukewarm, she won’t carry as much weight.

  3. Joey*

    Problem is most managers either don’t call references, do a piss poor job, or can’t seem to take off the rose colored glasses. Lots dont bother and many others just go through the motions. It is a rare manager who digs and has actually changed her mind because of reference information. Of those that do, most are just looking to validate the decision they’ve already made.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Even in that scenario, it’s dangerous to assume you can just “not use someone as a reference.” Even if the new employer is a bad reference checker, if the new employer happens to know the old boss, it would be unusual for them not to reach out to ask about the candidate.

  4. Work It*

    I understand this practice but it irks me. With background checks, references, credit checks, social media accounts, and whatever else, potential employers get your whole life story but employees basically have to trust what the employer says and hope for the best should they take the job. I know people say you can ask to speak to current employees or find some on LinkedIn, but in the real world that would look weird. Harrummpphh!

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Yep, it’s not fair in that sense. It’s one more reason why it’s good to build your reputation until it’s so strong that you always have options and can avoid/get out of bad situations pretty easily.

    2. Malissa*

      Glassdoor is an excellent site to get a better picture about a company. Also Googling the company will often yield interesting results if they are a crappy place in which to work.
      Often I ask my interviewers what it is they like most about the company. Everything from the tone of their voice to their body language speaks volume.

  5. Work It*

    Also, how does this work? My old managers have left the company and if I don’t list them as references how do the employers know who to call? Do employers just call your old company and say “Can I speak to someone who worked with Jerrica Benton or whoever?”

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Yes, or they ask you to put them in touch with your manager from that job. You can say that the person isn’t there anymore and you can’t track down their new contact info, but the higher-level the job you’re applying for, the less likely that is to fly.

      1. Suzanne Lucas--Evil HR Lady*

        And with things like LinkedIn it’s so easy to keep track of your former coworkers, it’s going to be hard to convince a recruiter that you just don’t know.

        Granted, not everyone is on there. (One of my old bosses isn’t, and I do not know where he is, but I worked for him 1999-2001 so I don’t think someone would call him anyway.)

        And Alison, thanks for the link and the kind words. I learned it all from you!

        1. Rachel - Former HR Blogger*

          What if your managers didn’t leave on good terms? Two out of three of my managers since I’ve been working in HR have been fired (I guess I’m bad luck lol). So, they’re not really people I would search out…

          1. Liz*

            Ha! My bosses tend to get in a fight with the company and quit, then refuse to ever talk to anyone from the old company again. I don’t think it’s because I’m bad luck though – it’s really probably more due to my ability to get along with high-stress types.

  6. Student*

    How do you recommend handling absent managers?

    I had a prior (recent) manager who just wasn’t very involved in my work. I’m sure I’m partly to blame – lesson learned from that job was “stop by your boss and make sure he knows what you’re doing at least once per month.”

    At one point, I got called into his office because he hadn’t seen me at my work station for over a year and wondered what was up. I was at that work station daily for hours – but I’d been working from 8 to 4 and he only came by to look around at 6 or 7 on his way out the door. I’d cleared my hours with him, in writing, more than 2 years before this chat and never varied them (and attended all requisite meetings, completing my projects the whole time). He didn’t bother to ask until he felt there had been a “problem” for a year!

    I can’t stop people from asking him about me, but he has no clue what I was doing or how I was doing. He was out of the office for business trips much of the time. I don’t really know how to explain that to people I’m interviewing with, especially since I also don’t want to frame it as a complaint about a former boss.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      he hadn’t seen me at my work station for over a year and wondered what was up.

      First, it’s hilarious that it took him a year.

      But to your question, it’s fine to say when providing his contact info, “He traveled much of the time and was a very hands-off manager, so I’m not sure that he can speak in detail to my work, but ___.” Fill in the blank with:
      * “I always got excellent reviews and the maximum raise each year”
      * “I can also put you in touch with colleagues at that company who did work more closely with me”
      * or whatever else works in that spot

  7. Ivy*

    Beyond the reference check, I just really don’t understand why someone would unnecessarily burn their bridges. No matter how much you can’t stand your coworkers, you should leave on a good note for yourself, for your future. I have always made an effort to leave every job on the right note because it boils down to the cliche, “you never know.” And you really don’t! Even if you convince yourself that you will never work for/with this person again, you just might. Beyond that, it is likely that your coworkers have great connections in your industry, connections you could really use in a tricky job hunt. I understand that things happen that are beyond a persons control, but a lot of times how you leave is in your hands; do yourself a favour and leave with your head held high and your bosses sad to see you go.

    1. JT*

      ” I just really don’t understand why someone would unnecessarily burn their bridges.”

      Because sometimes it’s just right to be harsh to people who treat you badly. We shouldn’t go through life being nice to everyone just because they might sometime in the future have influence over our fate – instead we should recognize there is a cost (or at least a potential cost) to not being nice and decide accordingly.

      1. JT*

        Also, sometimes burning bridges with an employer can be helpful to networking. My wife was fortunate to get a job offer from a great company while working at a terrible company, which, among other things, would kick people out as soon as they said they were even planning on looking elsewhere. So she gave them no notice that she was planning to leave in a few weeks.

        Then the management treated her badly about something minor. She grumbled a bit, and then HR called her in for a talking to. So she quit loudly and suddenly on the spot – “A take this job and shove it” moment.

        And while that surely burned bridges with the leaders of that bad company, she maintained good relations with former co-workers who particularly admired her spunk in quitting. They all continued to network as alums of a terrible place.

    2. Mike C.*

      Please consider yourself lucky that you’ve never found yourself in a professional sweatshop.

      And there are plenty of situations where management might hate you for leaving, but all of your colleagues respect the heck out of you for doing it. I had vice presidents and other senior staff of this smaller company shaking my hand and congratulating me when I quit my last job without notice.

      My head was held high, and frankly I don’t give a rat’s ass how upper management felt. I’m not going to live my life being verbally abused and unable to professionally progress just because “you never know”.

  8. .*

    I just wish former employees would tell me they are using me as a reference. Then I can tell the ones who won’t get a “glowing recommendation” not to bother.

    1. Spreadsheet Monkey*

      I always ask my references before I give out their contact information, but the point of this particular blog entry is that employers can call anyone from your past to get information. So maybe your former employees aren’t “using” you as a reference; potential employers are calling you on their own.

    2. Ariancita*

      This reminds me; I have been meaning to ask about these off-the-list reference checks. Could calling an unlisted reference actually hurt the relationship between the candidate and former employer? Since it’s considered very rude to not ask ahead of time, could this rub the former employer the wrong way (since they have no way of knowing that the prospective employer initiated the contact on their own), perhaps cause them to give an even worse reference because they didn’t like being blind sided, and increase the strain between the candidate and former employer?

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        I actually wouldn’t say that it’s considered very rude not to ask ahead of time — just smarter to ask ahead of time since that way you’ll be fresh in their mind, can ensure they’re comfortable acting as a reference, etc. It shouldn’t cause a strain if they don’t get a heads-up.

        1. Liz T*

          But wasn’t this on a list of no-nos posted here at some point? I thought it was considered damaging.

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            It looks bad when a reference who you provided wasn’t expecting the call, because you provided those names and should have alerted the person to expect the call. But if the employer is calling someone without checking with you, they know that you won’t have had a chance to warn them.

            On the reference side, it’s nice to get a heads-up but not required.

  9. Rin*

    I think I’m a little confused. In an application, why would you put a manager as a reference, if you’ve already put his name in the Manager/Supervisor section? On my resume, I have my former managers listed with each job (although one of them doesn’t work at that job anymore), and then, under references, I write co-workers. I would think it’s obvious that interviewers would call your manager; I just always thought references were supposed to be non-managers.

      1. ChristineH*

        I have the same question as Rin. So, even if I’d already listed a direct manager/supervisor in the Employment section of a job application, should I then include those same individuals in my list of references?

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Yes. You shouldn’t worry about overlap. Your list of references is the list of people where you’re saying “here are people who can speak about my performance.” The employer isn’t required to stick to that list, but that’s the function it serves.

          1. Kathy*

            I’ve come across several online applications in the last month that had separate sections for former managers and references, and specifically said *not* to include former managers in the reference section.

            I’m applying for a job right now that wants no former employers, no friends and family, and no ministers or clergy as references. Suffice it to say that the longer this recession goes on, the weirder online applications are getting.

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              Any special instructions like that trump the normal guidelines, of course. But in general, unless the application says otherwise, you wouldn’t do this.

            2. Josh S*

              Um, who is left?

              Reference 1: Joe
              Relationship: The bus driver on my daily commute.
              Contact Info: Bus 1743, arriving at the Western Stop on the Chicago 66 bus weekdays at 8:23am

              Reference 2: Frank Fiore
              Relationship: Owner of the corner store where I like to get sandwiches
              Contact Info: 773-555-1234 (7am-7pm MWThFS)

              I mean, What do they expect?!

    1. Julie*

      AAM: Is it usual to list supervisors on a resume? While I’ve been required to fill in that information on certain job applications, I’ve never thought of putting the name of my manager/supervisor on my resume. Should I be adding it?

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        No, definitely not. And I just caught that the commenter above mentioned that; I think she was just talking about on an application. No, managers’ names do not belong on a resume.

        1. Rin*

          I haven’t looked at my resume in a while, but I think what I have is the job title, dates, address, number (in some order) and then Contact: Manager. I guess it’s a built-in reference, but if it doesn’t belong, I’ll certainly rework it.

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            You can actually remove the employers’ addresses too — they might ask for it on an application, but no need to take up any space with it on a resume!

  10. Scott Woode*

    Here’s something I’ve been thinking about and am curious for your take on it. A large portion of my role is working with external vendors and developing/improving relationships with pre-existing and new vendors. In a case where I only have monthly contact with my direct supervisor (he works in NYC, I’m in Boston) to check in, would it be appropriate to list vendors as references for work in addition to the standard three (my direct supervisor, my local supervisor and her boss) if/when I decide to leave?

  11. Antony from Australia*

    People always remember the way in which you leave the organisation, it’e the last memory they have of you.

    Working for a large organisation in a HR team of around 50, I’m constantly amazed by the number of people that leave on bad terms and then re-apply to another division/project a short time later. We have notes in our systems specifically stating how they left the organisation, with file notes and emails from previous Managers to support a ‘HFO’ (When Hell Freezes Over’) mark, in relation re-hiring.

    We are lucky enough to have very low unemployment in Western Australia and a massive skills shortage and not enough people for the amount of jobs going around, which makes it very easy for people to say ‘too hard’ and just leave for another job. Company’s aren’t just fighting for talent over here, they’re finding it hard to even find a warm (or even cold) body to fill a position. But people still remember you, and especially your behaviour.

    1. Another Emily*

      They say the two most on the job are your first and your last, no matter how long you work there.

  12. MW*

    As usual, AAM’s advice is spot on! I was recently going through an interview process that required three letters of recommendation + references. (I used the same three people for both.) When the organization moved forward to check my references, they called one of the people I’d listed, but the hiring manager also knew someone I’d worked with in another job five years ago, and he reached out to her. It just goes to show– it’s good to work hard and cultivate relationships, because you never know when that will come in handy!

  13. Anonymous*

    I admit I sniggered when I saw the candidates email address lead EvilHRLady straight to their Facebook page. I specifically try to use a seperate address for forums and Facebook etc for this exact reason.

  14. Eggs and bacon*

    To just add to what MW said, even if you think your field is large, it usually is not as large as that, especially now with online tools, and especially if you move up. I think the 6 degrees of separation is real in the professional world, and work with the assumption that a hiring manager will know someone who knows someone … who knows me. So I try to behave accordingly.

  15. Lesa*

    Just another thought on how we “choose” to behave when we leave our former employers…it can certainly feel somewhat satisfying to be rude to an employer when we feel he/she has been rude to us or treated us with disrespect, but our behavior says something about who we are. I’d rather my behavior say that I know how to behave appropriately, and not be in a competition about who can be meaner, ruder, and more disrespectful.

  16. Alice*

    If an employer called up referees I had not provided and did not tell me, this itself is a red flag telling me I don’t want to work for this company.

    If a company needs additional referees, ask, I’ll give them or not, and explain why. Going behind my back is underhand and it reflects an arrogance of employers over employees. Do I get the right to call up other employees, past and present, of my new manager to make sure they’re all they say they are and not incompetent? No thought not.

  17. Liz in a library*

    I had this very thing come up recently! We were hiring, and one of the applicants provided NO supervisor references (it was a student position; otherwise, that would have immediately disqualified her). It took some time, but we tracked down managers at two previous jobs and found out some horrible things.

    When we sent her the rejection letter, she responded back along the lines of “Hey, I’m overqualified for your job. I demand you tell me why I wasn’t interviewed!” We told her that we called her references and previous employers and were concerned with what we heard; her response was “I didn’t tell you you could call them!”

    Dodged a bullet, I tell you.

  18. em*

    i’m a little shocked and concerned to hear that a potential employer can phone people that are NOT listed references for you? i have never heard of that happening (i’m in australia btw) but i guess it really shouldn’t surprise me that it does.

    i’ve always left my old jobs on good terms. my previous job being the exception, but i put that down to a bad cultural fit and personality clash rather than anything that actually happened (i’m sure the a-hole boss would disagree but whatevs). problem is, i now need the previous job for a reference. i used my old manager who i worked closely with and gave me a great reference, but now they want the BOSS to give me a reference. i’m sort of panicking about what to do as i don’t feel it’s fair i should miss out on a job because i worked for someone who happened to decide he didn’t like me.

    i also agree with the poster who said that the potential employers are holding all the aces – they get to do so much information gathering on their potential employees, whereas the employees are at a distinct disadvantage! i wish i had know what my previous boss was like, no way would i have signed up to working with that!!

  19. just wondering..*

    I had a really bad experience and time at a previous company where all the coworkers, bosses, etc. not only spoke badly about me behind my back, but also mocked me (due to health reasons that caused me to stress out and break down in front of people, very bad situation). They discriminated me on multiple levels.
    I’m terrified to even see what would happen if I tried to look around for other jobs, since this was my first full-time job. I have had so many health check ups, at still am, and just couldn’t keep up. Due to complications, I was not able to smile, interact, etc do the basics that are required to do well in any profession.
    So, of course the question of ‘would you rehire’ is a big joke.
    I know that this past company will base my work performance on what they saw, regardless of if I’d done so well in my previous part-time/volunteer opportunities.
    I just cannot believe this happened. Due to all this, I wasn’t able to form any bonds with anyone that would cause any good references to come out of it. It’s like a nightmare.

  20. anonyman*

    i ‘m verry worried about my references.I have done an internship and everything was going right.They liked so much they already wanted to hire me at the end.Where i was working, they were a collegue who wanted to bhe promoted and Supervisors told her they are thinking of her for a new position.For her, we were competing.She decided to lie and invent bad behaviour such as me trying to get fire some collegue…………..and it work because she said it comes from the supervisor and she did the same to the supervisor saying collegues said i was saying bad stuff about them.It was very hard to leave there asz i could see the lack of respect but itried to stay away from that because one of the policy of the company is not to take care of rumours.But feeling depressed, i confessed to an ex collegue about how i felt. week before i left for the new department where i sshould have been permanent, she took my mobile and read all my texts and went outside with the manager and show them to him and lied about it.The HR manager and the head of the department ( the manager of my manager) came and lied saying my friend send them text and lied about what was in it because my manager lied about what was inside.they got me straight away to the new department to finish my internship and rumours running in this company, everyone in the previous department started to lie about my behalf (because according to my manager i was talking about everyone).And i had to work under ther supervision of this collegue who stole my mobile because she got the postion.Officially , there is nothing againstg me, when i left they told me Professionally,i was perfect and they will call me back if there is anay position.I’m now worried about what they will ssay as reference because there is no way i will give the number ofr this manager who actually told me about looking into my mobile and telling the HR and also he was so happy he told everyone about it like it was a trophy.They all cover him and the collegue who already have been sued by a collegue for the same reason but they are still covering her.i dont know what to do, because even the HR cover the story .This si how it works inthis company.Actually its a very very big one.

  21. Dee*

    Question for AAM: Is it rude not to notify a previous supervisor that they will be used as a reference? Some potential employers send out emails of a survey to be completed by those on reference list to fill out and submit, vs actually calling

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Not rude so much as not smart. You want your managers to be prepared for the possible call/email, you want to make sure they’re in town and your contact information for them is still correct, and you want to make sure they’re still willing to give you a good reference.

  22. All I wanted was my Superannuation*

    I was told that the Australian Tax Office handles Superanuation inquiries and because I was not getting my Super entitlement after speaking with my employer several times they said they can not afford it and asked if i could wait for 3 years a friend said if eligible it is compulsory they pay it , confused I phoned the ATO they said the only way I could get my super started was if I put my name to an investigation with them which I did within a week the ATO representitive went to see my employer and requested to have their books auditited which opened a can of worms and gave my employer a set time to produce their records for a audit but this was not done and on the next Visit to my employer I was named as the person who made the initial enquiry with the ATO and i think my employer was fined becaused I was abused sworn at treatened with legal action so i resigned now I am applying for a job with another Employer and my previous employer is saying to a potential employer if they hire me they are stupid because I am a trouble maker and on several occassions potential employers have said they will not hire me, I am now thinking legal action against my past employer may be an option if it continues.

  23. Arlene*

    Over the last 3 weeks looking for work I had several interviews on 4 of those interviews each employer said that I had all the qualifications for the position and it was just a formality to have a unpaid work trial ranging from 5 to 6.5 hours to see how I could adapt into the position, at a busy time of the week I was of the opinion the job was mine and I did my best but the employer had a hidden agenda making me wait for a week whilst they trialed many others then saying i was unsuccessful with no explanations at all.
    With high unemployment some job seekers will do anything to get a job even if it means working unpaid work trials.
    Being upset I phoned Fair Work Australia Ombudsman I was advised that all work performed must be paid for as these Unpaid Work Trials Are unfair and illegal and a investigation can be done if i so desired.

  24. Manda*

    I was unaware they could do this. Seems a bit stalker-ish to me. Do they just call the company and find out who managed you at the time? Are managers and supervisors used to getting unexpected phone calls about past employees?

    I remember somebody once telling me that if someone calls your former HR manager and you haven’t asked them to give a reference, all they’re allowed to do is confirm when you worked there. Now, two things:
    1) I don’t know how credible this information is. It may have been one company’s policy or a misunderstanding.
    2) I live in Canada, so it is entirely possible that we have laws regarding this sort of thing which don’t apply in the U.S.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      No idea what the law is in Canada, but in the U.S. an employer can give any information they want about you, as long as it’s true.

      It’s really not stalkerish, any more than it would be stalkerish to ask for references from people who used the real estate agent you were considering, without going through the agent to get her permission.

  25. Roxanne*

    Please let me know if you are allowed to place your deceased spouses’
    name on your resume….especially when you are placing your self down as a Caregiver as one of the postition in which you have worked.

    Now that the person is no longer alive I cannot see the problem with it.

  26. Michelle*

    Well my manager hates me, has picked on me in the past. He is Manager and his wife is assistant manager. I have found myself being repeatedly singled out at work. He has flat out threatened me on a few occasions.

    However the HR in our company stated that there is a standard reference that they give to all employees. Will this suffice? I know that I work hard and I work well in my job. I should also point out that I am currently working as a hostess in a restaurant but am studying to be a Quantity Surveyor. The job that I will go for next will thus be in this field. Am I doomed?

  27. Canadian Girl*

    I was terminated from my last position as the manager felt I was not assertive enough and was lagging behind the team with regards to discharging patients from the hospital. There was definitely a gap between my actual experience and the expectations of the manager. I was there for 7 months. I decided to include the experience on my resume, and I have an interview tomorrow where they have asked to provide references from my most recent manager/supervisor. I have a ton of other great references from my positions prior to this contract. I am worried about my career, and finding another job in this province. Any advice?

  28. Baylee Girl*

    I’m currently leaving my current employer and they are doing interviews for my position. One candidate has some interesting work background (enough info along not to higher her off of). But one of my co-workers still started calling her personal friends who she thought might know this applicant. She got all kinds of gossip on this woman, most of which was very personal. Now, I was shocked by this behavior and thought this was incredibly unprofessional. I know this is technically legal, however, is this normal for employers? I’ve NEVER seen anything like it.

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