are your job references in order?

Job candidates often hand over lists of references without much thought to the people they’ve included. But references can play a big role in hiring, so it’s worth being thoughtful and strategic about who you include.

Who makes the best reference? The best reference is someone who managed your work and will speak glowingly of you. A good reference-checker is looking to see how your past managers talk about your work, and whether they’re enthusiastic about you or not. A reference who is unreservedly enthusiastic about you counts for a great deal. On the other hand, a reference who sounds hesitant, uncomfortable, ambivalent, or simply unenthused can raise red flags. So you want references who will champion you and your work.

Do references have to be managers? Ideally, yes. People who managed you and therefore were charged with evaluating your work are able to speak to more of what reference-checkers want to know. Peers can talk about you as a coworker, but managers can talk about you as an employee. Plus, if you mainly put peers or other non-managers on your reference list, employers will wonder why you don’t want your past managers contacted.

 What if you don’t want your current manager to be contacted? Then you’re just like most people. It’s common to ask that your current employer not be contacted, because most people don’t want to tip off their employer to their job search. In fact, doing so can even jeopardize your current job. So it’s normal and reasonable to explain that your current employer doesn’t know about your search and ask that no one there be contacted. If a prospective employer is insistent, you can always offer to allow them to contact your current manager once you have an offer (which can be contingent on a good reference).

Do you need to alert references that you’re listing them? It’s smart to alert your references that they might be contacted, because you want to verify that they’re still willing to provide you with a strong reference. You also want to make sure you still have their current contact information (you risk looking disorganized if you provide a prospective employer with out-of-date information), and that your reference will be available and not out-of-town or otherwise unreachable. Plus, alerting them is a good opportunity to prep them on any key points that you want them to emphasize with the reference-checker.

When is the right time to offer references? The right time to offer references is when you’re asked for them. Don’t offer them before that – such as including them on your resume – because you want to know when your references are likely to be contacted, so that you can give them a heads-up. You don’t want to alert them every time you apply for a job or get called for an interview, only when you’re a serious finalist and the employer is at the reference-checking stage of the process.

Can you be sure that employers will only call the people on your list? No. It’s important to realize that employers aren’t limited to just the references you provide them with. They can call anyone at all to ask about you, so if you noticeably omit recent managers from your list, they might call them anyway or ask you to put them in touch. And  a lot of reference-checking happens behind the scenes when an employer spots a mutual connection and calls that person to ask their opinion of you. The only reference who is typically considered off-limits is your current employer.

But many employers won’t bother going outside your list, so it’s important to choose your list with care.

I originally published this at U.S. News & World Report.

{ 60 comments… read them below }

  1. jen*

    How do you handle references when an employer has a “no management reference policy?” My previous job from a few years ago has such a policy. Why, I have no idea, but I think it is because they have such a high turnover rate, they’d be giving references every other day!
    So when I am at the reference checking stage and a potential employer asks for 3 management references, I am honest and say that my previous employer has a no management reference policy. Some employers think I’m full of it, others understand.

    1. Jamie*

      I would give the references anyway.

      That way if the mangers are going to adhere to the policy the reference checker will have confirmation – they will be told that and transferred to HR or whomever.

      However, if your reference would like to speak they can give the reference checker alternate contact information and do so out of the office.

      It is so OOC of me to advocate disregarding policy – but I would hate for my hands to be tied in speaking about someone whom I held in high regard.

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I agree with Jamie — give the references anyway. In reality, these practices are often ignored by managers (just not by HR). I’ve never had trouble getting a reference from a manager, even when the company policy is not to give them, so you might be surprised.

      1. Sarah*

        So my boss from my last job once mentioned to me that he could not give me a reference in the future because of company policy (he always gave me rave performance reviews though). I worked for him for four years, so of course I would love to use him as a reference when need be. He told me that years ago, so I’m hoping his opinion may have changed now that we worked together for so long. He was a new manager, so I think he took “company policy” extra seriously. Should I email him and ask about it in the future? Or just list his phone number anyway?

        1. COT*

          Definitely let him know before he gets called for a reference! Even if he’s happy to provide one, he’ll be most prepared if he has a heads-up. If he can’t provide one, he’s probably still willing to state that over the phone to your hiring manager.

          Like Alison said, you should always, always give your references a heads-up before they are contacted.

          1. Sarah*

            Yeah, that makes sense. I wouldn’t want it to come as a total surprise. I like the idea that even if he “can’t give a reference,” at least he could tell the hiring manager it was because of company policy. I didn’t think of that. At least that way, it wouldn’t look like I had something to hide.

  2. anon in tejas*

    what’s the best policy when previous managers have been fired or left your workplace under bad circumstances? Is it best to explain that as a reason why you don’t have prior supervisors as references? Should you still include one in on your list?

    1. deirdre*

      ah. that’s a good one. I have a fired manager from the past and I just offer a peer reference from that job. My old manager who was fired is too bitter to provide any sort of good reference because of the way she left the company.

    2. Anonymous*

      Just because a prior supervisor has left the organzation, doesn’t mean they are no longer a prior supervisor. They just have different contact info.

        1. Jean*

          One of my past employers has a very strict rule about not letting anyone except HR give out references re previous employees. Thus when a prospective employer’s online job applicant profile asks for references I’ll give the names of my past managers but only the company’s main phone # (rather than anyone’s direct #). I figure that the frontline receptionist will direct the caller only to HR. For the same reason I have neither requested nor replied references from my former coworkers.

          Now I’m wondering: Have I been too naive?

          Another question: what about employers from over 10 years ago? I was figuring that nobody wanted to hear about anything that far in the past.

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            Possibly too naive, yes. Give them your managers’ direct contact info. Let your managers decide if they’ll talk or not; don’t decide for them. (Most often, they do.)

            And yeah, it’s unusual for an employer to want references from 10+ years ago.

        2. Anonymous*

          What if they left because of you? I’ve had the unhappy experience of having to turn in a supervisor for malfeasance.

            1. Anonymous*

              Understood. I clearly didn’t ask the whole question. In this case, how do you feel about using a direct report for a reference? And, while I’m asking, what do you say to a hiring manager about why you aren’t offering your ex-manager as a reference, instead? We’re going back a good ways to find other managers to include.

              1. Ask a Manager* Post author

                I think you’ve got to explain it in some way at that point, since generally they’re going to want to talk to managers. I suppose you could say you can’t locate the person, but they might try on their own. I wouldn’t ever talk to a direct report as a reference though, not unless I was also talking to multiple managers too — because the point is to talk to someone charged with assessing their performance.

      1. anon in tejas*

        I understand this, but if they have left under bad circumstances or because they were fired, my concern is that their situation/circumstances reflecting poorly on me.

        In a previous job, I was there for 4 years, and supervised by 4 different supervisors, who all left quickly, involuntarily or under ugly circumstances (would not be eligible for re-hire). I don’t want that reflecting on me for using them as a reference.

        1. Anonymous*

          How would the reference checker know that the previous supervisor left under bad circumstances? I am doubtful that person would volunteer that info.

          Or if they did, maybe your reference could spin it in your favor: “Oh, she was great. Once she left they saw how lame I was – she’d been covering for me. So I got canned. Cheers!”

  3. QQ*

    It seems to me that these rules are pretty obvious in the ideal situation, but that most of the issues arise from trying to weigh these factors in the non-ideal situation. Somebody who is still in his first professional job and doesn’t want his employer contacted. Somebody who was let go or otherwise has reason to believe his manager might not speak highly of him. Somebody who has only had one manager and needs three references. Somebody whose manager doesn’t return phone calls or has dropped off the planet. Etc.

    1. Jazzy Red*

      A few of my previous managers have dropped out of sight, too. The latest one from my previous company has been institutionalized for the last year. Another one has such a common name that he’s pretty much incognito. And I don’t want anyone at my present company to know I’m looking for a new job.

      There are lots of reasons people can’t come up with 3 managers as references. It really shouldn’t make anyone suspicious of the job seeker.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        It’s not that hiring managers assume you’re a shady person — but it does pose an obstacle in hiring you, because if they have two great candidates and one has references and the other doesn’t, it’s going to be easier to go with the first one.

        1. nyxalinth*

          This is pretty much why I’m not pinning my hopes on getting a really good job right now. Most of my positions had lay-offs due to the entire company going under and people scattering to the four corners of the world, and a third has already proven himself unreliable with regards to returning phone calls. It wouldn’t be impossible, just a whole lot harder.

      2. Piper*

        I’ve had two past managers who I would never want contacted by a reference checker: the first was a manager from my first job out of college. We had a fantastic working relationship, he raved about my work, and then when I put my two weeks’ notice in, he stopped speaking to me altogether. Why in the world would I want him as a reference? The other is the crazy jerk I worked for who threw chairs across the room and had other psychological problems. Why would I want this nut on my reference list?

        So, I have several instances where I use co-workers, project managers (not specifically my manager, but managers of the projects I worked on so they can definitely speak to work ethic and results), and one previous manager.

        The sad reality is, at least in my experience, there have been way more bad managers out there than good. And even the “good” ones you might turn on you the second you put in your notice.

    2. Work It*

      My situation certainly isn’t idea. I don’t want my current manager contacted, the guy before that dropped off the earth after were both laid off, before that I was in Japan and the company went abruptly bankrupt (as in doors barred), then I have internships going on six years old. All I have is a co-worker and a manager from a non-related temp job. Plus, it seems strange to me to keep in touch with managers from years and years ago.

      1. Jamie*

        I don’t keep in touch with people on an ongoing basis – but I’ve gotten emails out of the blue from people with whom I’ve worked 5 years or so ago – that they are back on the market and will I still be a reference.

        I don’t mind that – I much prefer it to someone sending me a base touching email once every 6 months just to solidify a ‘relationship’ for when they need me.

        Someone with whom I’ve once worked who I respect is a great relationship as far as I’m concerned – better than that faux friendship thing that baffles me.

        1. Jean*

          I’m confused. I always thought that it was a faux pas to _only_ stay in touch with a past manager when I needed him or her as a reference. When I’ve been forced to list all past managers (say, while completing an applicant profilfe online) I’ve actually worried what will Past Manager X think about me if Potential New Employer calls him or her–and I haven’t been in touch for several years?

          Sending one email every 6 or 12 months is not the same as regularly exchanging messages with one’s best buddies but that doesn’t mean it’s a “faux friendship thing” either.People also send annual holiday cards or email greetings–it’s another socially acceptable way of maintaining sincere even if infrequent contact.

          I’d be interested in hearing other opinions on this.

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            Nah, I don’t think you need to stay in touch with someone to use them as a reference. It’s a good idea to anyway (so that your characteristics will be fresher in their mind, and because they might tell you about a job you’d love to know about), but it’s not rude to use them as a reference if you haven’t. It’s part of the deal with managing people — they will later call on you for references.

            (Like everything, there are some managers who may not see it this way, but this is the typical view.)

          2. Jamie*

            Just to clarify those were my opinion and how I feel about the process. I wasn’t speaking to convention or even best practice.

            And yes, for me I find it it off putting to have someone contact me every so often just to keep lines of communication open. It feels phoney to me, since I am in touch with people I’ve worked with if there is a mutual and organic reason to stay in touch. I persoanlly wold rather an old aquaintence contact me whe they need something rather than require small talk from me a few times a year.

            But I don’t get the point of sending Christmas cards to people you don’t contact another time either – so I’m the one that’s probably out of step on this.

            I guess I look at the base touching in the same vein as getting one of those Christmas newsletter from a distant cousin. Why is someone I barely talk to updating me on their lives, and why do they think I care about their new deck?

            But again – there are people like me out there, but I’m sure there are plenty of people who enjoy the casual social thing.

    3. Ask a Manager* Post author

      QQ, perhaps obvious to you, by based on my mail, definitely not obvious to everybody!

      It’s harder to get into the more complicated situations you raise in that sort of column, but that’s what this blog is for — lots of what gets printed here are letters with more complicated twists like that.

  4. girlreading*

    I just had the reference issue come up as I’m at that stage in my interview process. I already had references prepared, but I wasn’t exactly sure how to list them. My company had lay offs, so none of my references still work there (but just as of mid 2012). I didn’t know if I should list their current positions, or their positions when we worked together or both. I didn’t know some of the people who were still there well enough to feel comfortable asking for references from them and knew I wouldn’t really keep in touch with those, I want my references to be people I keep in touch with so they don’t feel I’m just using them.

    Also, I’ve really only worked at one company since I graduated college and my interviewer asked if I could give him references from another company. I’ve been doing temp work at a company that I’m currently at for about 6 months, but I’m not sure that’s long enough for a good reference. I worked for my school through college in a department that directly relates to my career, but it was over 6 years ago and I haven’t kept in touch much with people there, so I’m not sure they remember me well enough to give a reference.

    1. COT*

      List their positions they held you worked together; that’s what hiring managers want to know–your relationship to each other. You could note Manager of Teapot Production (former) if it makes sense in the context.

      A reference from your current job might not be as in-depth because you haven’t worked there long, but expect the hiring manager to speak with this company. The information could still be helpful, because it provides insight to how you’ve performed in a different environment.

    2. TL*

      If your manager at the temp job is willing to give you a good reference, I’d totally use it. It’s current, and 6 months should be long enough for your manager to have developed a general opinion of your work. (FWIW, I’ve had supervisors/managers at temp jobs offer to be references after I’d been there only 1-3 months.)

  5. JM*

    I have an issue where I’ve had the same managers for 6 years, and prior to that, I actually worked with the same people at a different company for several years. If I interview somewhere, I don’t want these people knowing I’m looking for other jobs. So that leaves me with colleagues that I could trust to be references but who do not supervise me, or possibly a manager that I have not worked with in about 8 years, which seems irrelevant. Has anyone else out there encountered this issue? Is there a good way to explain this to a hiring manager without sounding too shady? I have a feeling that the answer is that I have to be upfront with my boss if I am contacted for an interview and hope that it’s not held against me if I don’t actually get the new job, but that feels risky to me.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Nope, don’t do that. This is where you say that they can make you an offer contingent on a good reference check, but that you can’t allow them to be contacted before the offer stage, because it could jeopardize your current job.

      1. JM*

        Thanks! I know that’s the advice you have given for other dilemmas, and it makes a lot of sense. I guess I just worry that it will be a turn-off to a manager not to offer any references up front. But as you have also pointed out, the interview/hiring process shouldn’t only be about the manager getting the best candidate. The candidate needs to do what’s best for him/herself too.

    2. twentymilehike*

      I have had a very similar dilemma!

      The only person that has supervised me in the last 8 years is my current boss. Not long ago I applied to a position that requested three references, and they wanted two to be supervisors from the last five years. I just went with my two most recent supervisors from before that and a current colleague. I was really at a loss with that one.

      What should I have done?

  6. JM*

    Another question – What about using a former employee as a reference? Is that weird? I have a professional relationship with someone who used to work for me who has since left my company. I think he would be able to speak to my management style and skill set, and he has the maturity and experience to understand how my role fit into the bigger picture of the company. I’m not sure how I would feel if I was in the hiring manager’s shoes and got a reference like that though…

  7. some1*

    Semi-related question: What is appropriate way to thank someone for giving you a great (and honest) reference? Would any sort of gift be seen as a quid pro quo & unethical?

    1. Jamie*

      I don’t know about unethical, but totally unnecessary.

      An email saying thanks is all that’s needed. I would definitely feel weird if someone sent me a gift for that.

      1. some1*

        I agree, I just always feel bad when it’s a former peer that I have lost touch with socially. So maybe it’s my guilt talking.

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Yeah, don’t do that. Someone once sent me flowers after a great reference, and I felt really uncomfortable. I told the truth about her because that’s what you do; I didn’t need or want to get a gift for it.

  8. Kat M*

    Should you ever include more than one reference from a single job? Both the Executive Director and the Director (who was Assistant Director when I worked there) knew me and my work quite well. Would it be better to use one, or both? And if just one, then which?

  9. jesicka309*

    Ack. I need to rethink my references, as I think my last one lost me a job that I was pretty close to having.
    I listed my reference on my CV (as advised by this reference – in media publicity land, she’s big news, and she said her name would rightly ‘get me in the door’). After the best interview I’ve ever done ever, the interviewer asked about the references, and asked if she could contact my current manager (NO!). She said, okay, but how about media lady? I said sure, but didn’t think much of it, considering it was a first interview and I hadn’t provided phone numbers, so I figured there’d be another interview in the line before that stage. The interviewer had mentioned having an interview with her boss in a week and a half when I returned from my short holiday.
    Recieved a text a week later from media lady saying that she’d recieved a call from this interviewer, and she’d given me a reference. I thought, oh wow, didn’t expect that, but lucky I’d warned media lady about the potnetial job and had given her the info etc! And that’s great they’re thinking of me!
    And now it’s two weeks since the reference call and I’ve heard nothing from this company. I can’t even ring the reference to let her know how I did because I don’t know. And I have no contact details for my interviewer as she rang from a blocked number. I don’t know what media lady said, but it’s the only thing I can think of that would have made the interviewer go from “I will definitely call on this date, you have the best CV/cover letter I’ve seen in a while, please meet my GM!” to silence.

    It’s so hard when you’re starting out. You may only have 2 or 3 jobs under your belt, and if you are discounting your current manager, and may have (unknowingly) burnt another reference, you have no one!

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I wouldn’t assume it was the reference, especially if she encouraged you to list her. It’s more likely the thing that happens so often in job searching — hiring processes take way, way longer than anticipated and/or a stronger candidate comes along.

      1. jesicka309*

        I’m only thinking this because the interviewer said she was keen to move the process quickly, and the fact that I’ve been left hanging with no contact whatsoever.
        Not to mention that in the two years since I’ve worked for her, I’ve changed a lot – I’ve gone from a nervous, timid person to someone who is a lot more confident about my skills and where I want my career to go. There’s no way I can say to my reference “please don’t mention how nervous I was when I worked for you!” so I’m scared my reference said something about me that doesn’t correlate with how I am now, and it’s put the interviewer right off.
        I’m trying your other advice Alison, where I don’t think about the job anymore, but at the same time…every post I read on here reminds me of it – “maybe THAT’s the reason they haven’t called!” Gah!

  10. glennis*

    What’s the best thing to do if you’re on the job market for the first time after many years? I can give my current manager, and maybe even another name in the same company – another department manager we’ve partnered with. But my earlier references are now so distant and obscure – what’s the best choice? A client? What about personal references who are people of status?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      No, definitely not personal references. You want people who can speak to your work. By the time you’re at the reference-checking stage, the employer is going to understand your job history; just ask them who they’d like to speak with from your professional history.

  11. No Reference, Need Advice*

    I actually just ran into the no-reference policy just a few moments ago. I’m looking for summer internships and my manager refused to give me one due to company policy of course. However, I decided to call one of the lower-level managers and she offered to be a “personal” reference, but said that she’d say that we worked together and everything but that it’s against policy for her to mention where we worked together, etc.

    Should I still put her on my reference list or just make do with y other references? If I do put her on my reference list, how could I possibly list her without saying what capacity we worked together in? I feel really shitty about this now and my confidence for my upcoming interviews has just gone down the toilet. I wasn’t going to quit where I work if I managed to get one of the internships, but I just don’t understand why I’m working there anymore if I can’t even get a reference.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I wouldn’t list her, but if you did, you’re not forbidden from listing the capacity she worked with you in; who’s going to stop you?

      But this is so weird that I wonder if it’s inept attempt to get out of giving you a reference. Any chance she just doesn’t feel she can give you a glowing one?

      1. No Reference, Need Advice*

        Honestly, not that I’m aware of. She always compliments my work when she gets a chance and when we work together she seems to enjoy it. However, she is pretty new to her role as our old manager left about two weeks ago (she’s off traveling the world, so I have no way of contacting her). The lower-level manager reiterated the same “no-references” policy to me as well, so yeah, I don’t know.

        But yeah, I’m finding that this is leaving a really bitter taste in my mouth. If she did have any concerns as to my performance, I would hope she would tell me so I could try not to do whatever I might be doing wrong.

        (ack, I forgot to click reply!)

  12. No Reference, Need Advice*

    Honestly, not that I’m aware of. She always compliments my work when she gets a chance. However, the manager I asked is pretty new to her role as our old manager left about two weeks ago (she’s off traveling the world, so I have no way of contacting her). The lower-level manager reiterated the same “no-references” policy to me as well, so yeah, I don’t know.

  13. lee*

    What if you are applying for a Director level position and you are already at a high level within your current organization. Who should be your reference? Would they not want a previous subordinate as one of the references in order to get a sense of your management style? What if it is not an option to ask your current CEO to be a reference?

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