don’t list your spouse as a job reference (and don’t lie about it if you do)

A reader writes:

This happened the other week — Candidate for manager job interviews great. His second level interview goes great as well. 

He hasn’t provided us with a list of references, so I start calling the two references listed on his application. Our application asks for two “professional references” and has a “how known” section for each reference. He put down two coworkers. I call the first and it’s okay but the person is a little informal — more like he’s talking about a friend than giving a professional reference.

I’m not thrilled, but I call the second reference. I get her voicemail, which identifies her as “Jane Teapot.” Well, the applicant has listed her as “Jane Smith” and hmm his name is “John Teapot.” My interest is piqued. She calls back and we talk about how she worked with him in 1994. She keeps mentioning newer stuff related to his life as well. Finally, I ask her, “I can’t help but notice you both share the same last name; are you related?” Very hesitantly, she says, “Well, yes we are now.” I ask, “Can you tell me how you’re related?” Hesitantly again, she says, “Well, we’re married now.”

We did nothing and waited for three days to see if the applicant might call and profusely apologize. He did not. We decided that even if he wasn’t being deceitful (which I believe he was), he exercised very poor judgement.

Eventually, we called him up just to see why he would possibly put down his wife, why he did not list her as his wife, and why he put a different last name for his wife. He had some lame excuses about being nervous and just writing it down and that no, she goes by her maiden name. Funny, her work voicemail goes by her married name and he had other points to provide us with other references (second level interview).

Oh dear.

For the record, people who cannot be used as job references (even if you change their names):

your spouse
your ex
your children
any other relatives through blood or marriage
your friend who never worked with you
your dog groomer
anyone who hasn’t worked with you in a professional or volunteer setting

And when you find yourself trying to obscure the nature of the relationship, that is a signal that you shouldn’t be using that person. Heed the signal!

{ 98 comments… read them below }

  1. Katey*

    I have kind of a grey-area question- I’ve used my cousin as a reference before (we have different last names) but we actually have worked together in a professional setting. She was my direct supervisor for almost a year at an organization. I feel she can speak pretty accuately to my work skills and abilities. I have no other references from that company (their entire upper management was a hot mess of crazy and dysfunctional) and only a few short years of work experience. Should I not use her?

    1. Meg*

      I think the problem with this sort of reference is that if the hiring manager ever found out she was your cousin, her ability to accurately assess your performance comes into question. We see stories here sometimes about bosses who hire family members and give them preferential treatment, and any hiring manager worth their salt is going to think about that.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        I agree. It’s not as bad as a spouse, but it does call the person’s lack of bias into question. Of course, with a cousin, they may never find out.

        1. Natalie*

          If it’s absolutely necessary, could you mitigate some of the possible concerns by disclosing the person is your cousin? I’m thinking back to a time when my only former bosses were my dad and step-dad, both of whom had employed me for multiple summers at their businesses.

        2. Kou*

          I wonder, though, I mean– say you grow up working in the family business. Then when you go to move on at some point, is that actually a strike against anything you managed to accomplish there?

          1. Anonymous*

            I imagine you can explain that you worked for a family business and offer the (almost certain?) co-workers that aren’t part of the family along with client references.

            1. Ruffingit*

              I agree with offering co-workers as possible references. Also, I think people understand that if it’s a family business, your references are likely to be family members, but tacking on some co-workers who are willing to talk about your professional performance would help in that situation.

        3. Jessa*

          I think you have to sometimes do that – I worked in a family owned business for a number of years. But you absolutely need to be completely upfront with “I am related to these people this way, but I am giving this reference because I had ownership in this business as it is my grandfather.” I generally think that absent the case that it is a family business, you really need to give another person as a ref. “I worked as a sugar bowl consultant to Teapots LLC, and was directly supervised a person I married a few years after leaving TLLC, however, I also worked with Shuvon Ni Padraic and Wakeen Lewis. You can reach them here.”

  2. FD*

    I’m…truly boggled by this. Why would you ever think this is a good idea?

    Okay, yes, she worked with you in the past, let’s take that at face value. But 1994 is nearly 20 years ago! How in the world would even someone who *isn’t* related to him be a good reference at this point?

    Second of all, you should really, really know better than to list your SO as a reference, especially by the time you *have* 20 years of work experience!

    1. Ellie H.*

      What would be really funny is if you met working at, say, the same amusement park summer job 20 years ago, and that is the entire extent of her experience working with you in a professional setting.

      1. Kacie*

        Ha! I met my husband at a summer amusement park job in 1994. I should totally add him to my reference list. I was really good at running that tilt-a-whirl!

        1. Jessa*

          Laugh, but you’d say that. “I worked with this guy, but I later married them,” and give other references also.

  3. T in Construction*

    What bothers me the most about this story is not even that he listed his S.O. as a reference (obviously that’s unprofessional, but possibly just naive), but that he actively tried to hide that. That’s lying on an application, and not even having the decency to apologize for that or explain why he did it.

    1. FD*

      I agree that the lying is much more worrying than the fact that he listed his SO as a reference. I would think that it’s naive, but I feel like by the time you have 20 years of work experience, you ought to have grown out of that kind of naivete. Which puts this more into ‘deliberate lie’ territory instead of just ‘stupid but well-meaning idea’ territory.

      1. T in Construction*

        Yes, this exactly. And using her maiden name (which OP confirmed she doesn’t use professionally), and then getting shirty about it when the OP confronted him. Definitely put his file in the “Rejected” file

    2. V*

      I think the fact that he tried to hide it, shows that it wasn’t naïve, but manipulative.

      A naïve person would list their spouse’s real name, without realizing that it’s inappropriate.

    3. Jessa*

      Yes, completely. Being sneaky and underhanded is the problem. Not that they met someone at work that they later married. But they deliberately and with forethought hid the fact.

      1. Felicia*

        I put my mom down as a reference when I wanted to work at a summer camp, but I was 15 and didn’t know any different. I can’t imagine someone who’s had jobs where they can have a reference not related to them ever using their mom.

    1. Liz*

      My mum’s my boss, she’s a psychologist and I’m one of the receptionists – though, I am currently studying (math science for those who care) so its more a bridging job and I have an office manager for references. My mum does go by her maiden name though :-P

  4. Jenolen2161*

    Whenever I need references, my dad always jokingly says I can put him down since he’s known me for XX years (however old I am) and that he’d say I’m a great daughter. *oh Dad*

    1. Al Lo*

      Applying for a Canadian passport used to require the signatures of identity guarantors in certain professions (doctor, clergy, professor, lawyer, etc) who had known you for over 3 years and were not related. It always felt a little strange to put, say, my family doctor (who delivered me) and put my age as the number of years she’d known me.

      Those rules have loosened up now, though: the regulations around profession are gone — instead, they have to have known you for 2 years, can be a relative, and must hold a valid Canadian passport.

      1. nyxalinth*

        They still do something similar and New Zealand. My partner had to go through a lot of rigmarole getting hers to start, then when renewing it she either had to have something like that, or pay 175.00. She ended up paying the money, because she’s not a terribly social person outside family, and her doctor had moved out of the area.

      2. Chinook*

        I hated applying for my last passport because there was no one in the place where I was living who had known me over 3 years (including my husband!). It didn’t help that my provincial photo identification did not match my passport application even though both were correct depending on the issuing body (for 5 years I lived with legal dual identity which disappeared once I left Quebec). Luckily, I was able to convince someone at Passport Canada that this was indeed possible after giving them my military spousal ID and various others douments to prove I wasn’t scamming them.

        This having to know someone less than 2 years and who is not necessarily a professional definitely makes life easier.

        1. Felicia*

          My best friend was at one point my supervisor, I’d worked there first, and she was hired later. It felt weird even asking her for a reference, even though she knew my work well and no one would know we were best friends, because i knew how much she cared about me on a personal level, and she was as much like my sister as my actual sisters. It was an on campus job and we were both students, and i did briefly use her as a reference when it was my most recent/relevant experience. But I ended up just getting new references and deciding i don’t want to use my best friend, even if it was a bit more professionally relevant.

      3. fposte*

        It’s even *reapplying*–a friend who’s been US resident for over a decade is just going through this again now and is trying to figure out who she knows who can sign near here.

      4. Jessa*

        I read a story somewhere that a person trying to get a passport had to deal with an idiot inspector who said you have to have someone who knew you for 2 years, she was getting it for her child who was 18 months old. It was on one of those people are silly sites, and I’ve seen bureaucracies do this.

  5. Katie the Fed*

    If you’re going to lie, at least be smart about it! Make sure your wife is in on the plan too, and update the voicemail messages. Come on, people! Lying is one thing. Lying lack an amateur is another!

    1. Claire*

      Right? I would be insulted that not only did you lie to me, but you did it so poorly.

      1. Chinook*

        Exactly. As wrong as the lie is, it is even more wrong that he didn’t even do it well!

  6. nyxalinth*

    Most of the jobs where I’ve worked have gone completely belly up, and I have no idea idea where any of my former managers are. One of them even died from cancer. Linked in, etc. doesn’t turn up what names I can remember. So I’m down to one former manager, and one co-worker. So in a case like this, other than working crappy jobs that don’t check references until I have new references built up, what are the options?

      1. nyxalinth*

        No,and no. Well, guess since my job search is going nowhere, I certainly won’t be losing time on it if I start volunteering. Any suggestions for in the meantime?

    1. Chinook*

      If you don’t have any good references for very good reason, I would bring this up at the end of the interview. This way, youa re getting in front of the problem and asking if they would accept other people as a reference. This is what I did when I came back from overseas (especially since the alternative was them calling an office where the manager didn”t speak English).

  7. Claire*

    I will cop to listing my godmother as a reference as a brand spankin’ new grad with only one professional experience, but at least she’s not blood related and was clearly marked with her relationship to me and as a character reference? (Don’t worry, I have real references now.)

  8. Mike C.*

    I get that this particular situation is obviously problematic, but what are you supposed to do if you’re young, and you always had to work at the diner your parents ran, the family farm, etc?

    There’s a ton of family run businesses out there that require actual work from the family members and they’re real jobs that provide real experience that hiring managers would find useful. Can you list the experience if you are upfront about the situation?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      If that’s all you have, the best thing to do is explain the situation. It’s not ideal; employers aren’t going to feel they’re getting a credible reference from family, of course (and really, can you imagine your mom giving a rundown of your professional weaknesses?) and may not even bother to call. It would help if you could offer other references too — customers, anyone other than a relative — people you wouldn’t normally offer, but would in this case to try to combat the family bias thing.

      I’m pretty hardcore about not hiring anyone without talking to previous managers, and I’m also pretty hardcore about having zero interest in talking to family members for references. In a case like this, I’d try to work with the candidate to figure out who else they could put me in touch with as a second-best option, or would otherwise just find a way to do additional due diligence on the person in place of a reference. (The key is that there’s a completely understandable reason for their situation. If instead someone just had vague reasons about why none of their references were reachable, I’d have suspicion/skepticism.)

      1. Joey*

        Try it. Give dad or mom a call. I’ve done this a few times and each time the parent is probably harder on their kid than a regular employee. Although, I’ve done it in situations where the kid was trying to get experience that would prepare them to take over the family business. They weren’t shy about telling me where junior needed some work.

        1. Ariancita*

          Seriously. Folks should be glad that mom and dad are not appropriate references! Not only can they be harsher, but think of all the unnecessary asides…I’m just trying to imagine an employer calling Portnoy’s parent: “Junior’s very bright and just a prince, but doesn’t pay attention to the details that are potentially life threatening. See, he once had this rug…”

      2. Omne*

        “(and really, can you imagine your mom giving a rundown of your professional weaknesses?) ”

        All too easily actually…..

        She was tough but fair.

        1. Chinook*

          Ditto – I could imagine my mother being very clear about my weaknesses. My dad, on the other hand, woudl be more hesitant out of fear of costing me a job but that hesitancy would also speak volumes because you know there was something he wanted to say that was not positive.

          1. Emily*

            I think my dad would name specific and fairly objective weaknesses and strengths. My mom would go into great detail about my weaknesses and be totally subjective, emotional, and vague about my strengths: “she’s just a wonderful, precious girl!”

      3. Flynn*

        This reminds me of a friend; they got a job with a company they’d worked for before (then took a break to study) but for Paperwork Reasons they needs a certain number of references.

        But internal ones weren’t allowed, because it was the same people/colleagues of the people they were interviewing with. So conflict of interest.

        They wanted to hire them (and did), but had to really push the limits of ‘acceptable reference’ just so they could tick the boxes off (couldn’t take me, for example, because I’d worked with them, but COULD take one of my family members, because they vaguely knew them…)

          1. Flynn*

            Yeah, it was a bit silly. I think my main point there was “if they want you, they’ll work with you to find SOMEBODY you can use” :D

      4. Kou*

        If you asked my mom for a rundown of my professional weaknesses, you’d never be able to get her off the phone.

        1. Editor*

          I’m thinking of some of the mom advice we’ve heard here and the resulting conversation when Mom gets to talk to HR:

          “Oh, I’m so glad you’re interviewing Missy. I was afraid after she refused to take in the cake I baked for you along with her photo that you wouldn’t remember her at all. I told her she should never settle for second best. You know, she could probably have a dozen job offers if she would just take her resume around in person. Now what did you want to know?”

          While there are lots of sensible parents out there, the mom above is probably the one Alison is terrified of talking to.

      5. Loquaciousaych*

        My husband and I run a family business. Our son is employed with us. I just got done writing his yearly review, which included a listing of his accomplishments for the year as well as a listing of items on which he needs to improve. He is expected to do a certain amount of professional development (we pay for this as well) and learn new skills as he progresses in the business.

        We work with him daily and know his strengths much better than he does (he honestly had no idea that his strongest asset was so valuable to other workplaces) and are unfailingly honest about where he needs to improve.

        The “don’t use your mom as a reference” thing has honestly had me worried about his ability to get another job for some time. He does want a second job, and has expressed an interest in trying another business or field off and on, though he’s shown a pretty keen interest in eventually taking over the business from us when that time may come. I haven’t had any clue how to help him overcome the fact that both his immediate supervisors are parents.

        1. A Reader*

          Can he use his instructors as references in this case? I know they can’t speak to his work ethics, but if he is strong academically, that would be a credit to him, wouldn’t it?

          1. Loquaciousaych*

            Unfortunately, he wasn’t a great student. He did enough to graduate, and not a lot else. He wasn’t athletic and didn’t play an instrument so extra-curricular groups were out for him just due to lack of interest, too.

            I’m hoping using his coworkers might be an option for him, with explanations.

      6. Jamie*

        I agree about being upfront. My kids have all worked at my company starting in their teens helping me out over school breaks. As its an unusual temp job it they needed to explain it when applying for other jobs. So they were upfront that they worked at their mom’s employer assisting me over breaks, but both one of the owners and HR served as their references…because they were offered the opportunity because of me but wouldn’t have been asked back if they didnt do a good job.

        Just be honest about it if you need to do it.

        In fact my daughter was filing in for the receptionist this week and my boss offered her a part time job for one day a week. But she won’t be reporting to me and I wasn’t even involved in the offer or acceptance (I take a day off to have minor surgery and I wake up to find my daughter is now my co-worker!)

        My point being one shouldn’t turn down a great opportunity because family is involved, but it will require more explaining.

        And I would be a very biased reference for any of my kids…I wouldn’t even pretend I could speak of them objectively.

    2. AP*

      My brother works for the family business, my dad is his boss, my cousin is one of their main investors, etc. However, Brother also reports to Dad’s business partner, who isn’t related and I think would be candid about his weaknesses. Even at small businesses there’s usually at least one person in a management position that’s not related.

      In passing, I’ve given completely honest reviews of my boss’s daughter, who works in our field and did some work for us awhile back.

    3. Amy*

      If you’re young (e.g., this is your first job out of high school or college), I think that as a hiring manager, I’d be willing to accept references from teachers or professors in lieu of professional references. So when explaining that you’ve always worked for your family business, you could offer a few options: family member supervisors, nonfamily coworkers or customers, teachers or professors, etc. In other words, be a little creative, give the new employer a wide array of choices, and explain clearly and truthfully the situation you’re in and why. I think that will satisfy most people.

      1. Ruffingit*

        Agreed. When I applied to law school, I needed two letters of reference. I used my current supervisor as one and for the other, I had a high school teacher I was still in touch with write it for me. I had been out of college for four years at that point and I knew that none of my college professors would remember me since I hadn’t worked closely with any of them on research projects, etc.

        My former teacher was great because she could speak to my continued work ethic in that she knew my work from school and also because she kept in touch with me and knew my professional work as well. I was a newspaper reporter and she diligently read the paper and had been my journalism teacher as well as my English teacher so she was able to, and did, give me critiques on my professional work.

        All of that to say that getting creative with references can really work out well sometimes!

  9. TBoT*

    I wonder: Does this same rule apply to employee referral programs?

    I applied for a job at my partner’s (rather large) employer. We wouldn’t be working together or be in the same department. All his colleagues know about me and know I am trying to relocate to join him, and his manager has passed on newly posted jobs with “this might be perfect for her” notes before. So, when I applied for a position recently, he filled out the form for their referral program (which is done in this particular organization during the application phase, not after hiring). Now I’m wondering if that was OK to do, since our relationship is personal.

    (All my actual references I would list if I got to that stage in the process are former managers or colleagues, of course.)

    1. Chinook*

      I would see an internal referral program as different kettle of fish as long as your partner mentioned that you are married. After all, referral programs are about looking for good people and only kick off a hiring process. In fact, it would be a compliment to the company because you know that no one would encourage their spouse to work for a company they hated.

      1. Jessa*

        Exactly, and if they have half a working brain they wouldn’t refer their spouse if they knew for sure it would be a lousy fit. That’d be a lovely argument at home if the spouse screwed up and all. I mean referrals are to get new, GOOD employees, I can’t see why someone related should not be eligible.

    2. Jen in RO*

      Depends of the company I guess, but in mine it’s fine to refer a spouse (a coworker just did it, after checking with HR).

  10. AB*

    I just wanted to add a piece of advice to anyone coming to this thread, in particular people starting their career:

    Make an effort to keep in touch with at least some of the managers, supervisors, coworkers from past jobs!

    I don’t buy it when someone tells me they can’t list references because their previous managers changed jobs /died / retired / the company closed / etc. Especially now, with LinkedIn and other tools that make it so easy to keep in touch even if people change jobs or email addresses, as you can still use the website to contact them.

    At best, this tells me they didn’t have the sense to maintain a professional relationships with the people who they would need to rely on to provide a good reference for them in the future. But it also makes me suspect that in reality they were underperformers who are now making excuses for not having a single person willing to recommend their work.

    I moved from one side of the country to another, and some of my previous managers have also moved around, but I don’t see any problem in keeping in touch and reaching out to them to ask if they mind me listing them as a reference (I even rotate references on my list not to bother the same people over and over).

    1. Elaine*

      I think this is great advice, generally. But sometimes, when it’s been 15 years, people do just retire and are not of the generation where they do FaceBook or LinkedIn. Sometimes, no matter how great they thought you were, they just want to move on.

      1. fposte*

        I agree with both of you. Elaine, I agree that people may not necessarily be in touch with people they worked for in the past; AB, I agree that people should be aware that they’re going to want to stay in touch with their current managers for future references, so going forward it’s good to keep track of a few people who know your work.

      2. The IT Manager*

        Uggg! I hate that this is true because I barely keep up with old friends who I’m no longer in touch with. I am just that sort of (anti-social) person. And with bosses whom I never really had a relationship outside of work, I don’t keep in touch.

        But I know it is true because I have been procrastinating updating the two people old my old job who provided a reference for me at my current one since Christmas. I know I should, but I never email anyone any more anyway much less a business contact.

      3. Kou*

        Not one single person I have ever worked with at any point in time is on LinkedIn. I don’t know how that’s possible, but literally none of my coworkers or managers or even any of my professors are on there!

    2. Victoria Nonprofit*

      This is good advice, but I’d encourage you to be less hard on folks who haven’t followed it. I don’t think it’s necessarily a cover for underperformance; I’m not as good as I should be about keeping in touch with managers, but that stems from generalized introversion.

    3. just another hiring manager...*

      I don’t buy it when someone tells me they can’t list references because their previous managers… died

      Whoa, this seems to indicate that death is like changing jobs, retiring, the company closing, or other situations where a previous manager is presumably reachable… Not saying that’s what you meant, but that’s how I took it.

      I would probably be suspicious if a person claimed to have no references and several of them had died, but at the same time, with the aging workforce I also wouldn’t be surprised.

    4. AB*

      Perhaps I need to clarify my opinion:

      Obviously death, retirement, etc. happen to our contacts. My adviser in Engineering school died of a heart attack right before I graduated, and that made it more difficult for me to get good recommendations for my first job, as I had done most of my more advanced coursework with him.

      What I mean is, it doesn’t look good if *every single reference* you can think of is either dead, retired, unreachable.

      Elaine, you said “But sometimes, when it’s been 15 years, people do just retire and are not of the generation where they do FaceBook or LinkedIn.”

      Sure, if the person I’m interviewing stayed out of the workforce for 15 years (raising his/her kids, recovering from illness, etc.), then it’s an exception, and of course I would understand. But if the person has been working throughout this period, I’d need a really good explanation for only having references from 15 years ago that can’t be found. Not that it would eliminate the person from consideration, but I’d definitely want to know how come nobody comes to mind that could speak about the quality of their work in more recent years.

  11. Anon*

    I really try not to be excessively judgmental, but as someone who’s biggest hurdle by far is interviewing skills, I find it just mind boggling someone can apparently breeze through the interview phase then blow it for something like this. Any job application I’ve ever filled out was even generous enough to assume you didn’t know this wasn’t acceptable and stated what was considered an acceptable reference, so really, unless this guy hasn’t had to fill out a job application in 20 years… (I suppose it could be that he’s been able to pull it off for this long.)

    1. Lily*

      I would have agreed with you in the past, but I have gained too much experience with the sincerity with which some people can lie. If it is any consolation, I now feel suspicious of anyone who appears too charming.

  12. The IT Manager*

    The other lesson to learn from this example of bad behavior is if you make a mistake or lie and get caught, own up immediatly. He might not have been able to recover from his lie, but it can’t have ahd a worse outcome pretending it never happened.

  13. M.T*

    What if you have recently done work with the relative in a very professional manner and they’d be a great reference?

    My sister (married) is higher up in a private school. Last semester I worked with some of her students for a class. The work I did was professional, the letter of recommendation only speaks of the work I did for her students. I don’t flat out say she’s my sister, I say that she’s a professional reference (she is) and she goes by her last name so its not there, but if anybody ever asked I don’t see how this is a problem…..

    What’s the difference between using her and using another teacher who I worked with in this manner? Why does the fact that she’s my sister make using her as a reference or a letter of recommendation not ok?

    1. Amy*

      Because, presumably, your sister loves you. That means that she’s not unbiased. When she says, “MT is awesome,” it’s not that I don’t believe that she’s being as truthful as possible. It’s that I believe that when she says that, she’s not just thinking about the work you did for her students; she’s also thinking about how much she loves you and all of the shared history you have and how much she wants you to have a cool new job that makes you happy.

      As well, this is a problem because saying she’s a professional reference is, strictly speaking, not true. Even if you think she’s an unbiased reference, I have the right as a hiring manager to know that she’s your sister. Think of it as the work equivalent of introducing a new boyfriend to your ex-husband, but calling the ex “an old friend.” You know that there’s nothing going on between you and that you have no feelings for your ex anymore, but it’s still dishonest not to tell your boyfriend that the two of you used to be married. And that dishonesty is going to taint the relationship going forward, even though there wasn’t actually anything hinky going on. If I find out that your “professional reference” is actually your sister, I’m not going to trust you going forward, even if your sister actually did provide an accurate and honest reference.

      The theory behind getting references is for me as a potential employer to speak to someone who can tell me both the pros and cons of working with you. There are flaws to the system, since most applicants will choose references likely to speak positively of them and not provide names of people who will say bad things. But at the very least, I want the references I get to be about work, not about the deep personal affection that most people have for their family.

    2. RedStateBlues*

      I’ m not a hiring manager, so take this for what its worth, but to me a reference from a relative would carry no weight. Its the perceived lack of objectivity. Your sister might be the most forthright person, but most people are going to assume she can’t be objective. My feeling is that a relative would gloss over your shortcomings (if they are mentioned at all) and exaggerate your talents, or even vice versa if you angered them and they were particularly spiteful.

      1. fposte*

        Agreed. And I actually think you’re asking for trouble by not disclosing that she’s your sister–it looks like you’re hoping people won’t find out. That’s a big strike against you in an application.

  14. Bah*

    Anyone you pick to be your reference really isn’t going to be unbiased, so I think there’s limited virtue in talking to references except that it’s a HUGE red flag if someone’s reference trashes them.

    When I apply to jobs in a certain field I use a long-time personal friend/professional contact in that field as a reference because they’re well-known and whoever is thinking of hiring me probably knows that person too. However, I clearly identify them as a “personal reference” and have other professional contacts (former employers, etc.) on my resume.

    1. AB*

      “Anyone you pick to be your reference really isn’t going to be unbiased, so I think there’s limited virtue in talking to references except that it’s a HUGE red flag if someone’s reference trashes them.”

      I disagree. When I’m a reference for someone, sure, I’ll praise their strengths, but will also mention the weaknesses. You lose your credibility if you don’t provide a balanced recommendation.

      Of course, when I accept to be a reference, it means I like the work of the person enough to be able to say good things about her, but I just provided a reference to someone (who ended up hired), and mentioned that she doesn’t have the best verbal communication skills (but can do X, Y and Z very well). I later learned that the interviewers had noticed the same weakness, so it would actually have worked against her candidacy if I had only praised her and said she was perfect in every aspect.

  15. Brett*

    Make sure you know the standards for your field too. The OP made it clear this was a professional reference check only, but not every field uses references solely for checking professional qualifications.

    As an example, having no friends or family as a reference for a public safety job application is an immediate red flag. References in that field are used for checking your background, not checking your professional qualifications, even though that is never made clear on the applications. Standard practice is to contact your first set of references primarily for the purpose of asking those references to provide a list of your acquaintances. If those references are only professional references, that list is going to come up empty and you will not be hired. Unfortunately there I have been several times when I have been put in the position of being called for a background interview for someone I only knew professionally. I think some people figure because I am in public safety, I would make a good reference for a public safety job. (And in every case, that person had their job offer rescinded based on the results of the background check.)

    Many federal jobs, anything with a security clearance, and public legal jobs such as the courts are other areas where having only professional references can be a serious problem.

  16. Pickles*

    Gah. I once had a company take so long in the hiring process that two of my three references really did die. They were unsurprisingly skeptical and looked into it to verify before accepting two new references, though. I’d forgotten about that until now.

    1. Ruffingit*

      Dang, that must have been a really long process. If they were jerks about it, I’d give the address of the local cemetery as the reference address ;)

  17. Honest Question*

    Okay don’t be too harsh on me with your responses to this question. I’m filling out an application for a job now and it asks for personal as well as professional references. I have another personal reference, but I thought about listing my wife. At first I thought no because she’s my wife and she’s not really impartial cause I’m such a great husband (JK). But the thing the job is for a school system position and She works in that school system. Should I list her? Or should I not list her and if I get an interview just mention it. It may come up during their background check even without me saying anything.

    Any thoughts.

  18. Trish*

    For a reference that is not professional, but more personality wise but a boyfriend be ok? they said to list someone who knows you well good friend, college roommate ect…

  19. abc*

    Tell the candidate you’re no longer interested. Ignore the candidate if you’d like.

    But calling the candidate to ask about the reference? That’s catty. Sorry, but it is.

    It’s sad, but if we work for our spouses (I do), we essentially ensure that we’ll never work for anyone else again. It’s a hopeless situation. I kow, because I’m in it.

  20. Joshuel Patterson*

    You are profusely against the idea of using a family member as a reference, even if they worked/do work together professionally, and yet you give no valid reasons for not doing so.

    I think you’re full of it, no offense. If someone asks me for references, I am going to give them family that I have shared excellent professional experience with, and be honest about it.

    I think you need to reconsider your position on this part, the hiding I do agree with.

  21. Leo*


    Everyone, I have a question!
    in my case I’ve been working with my partner for a long time, we have founded little companies and a emerging NGO.
    This is her only job experience besides hospitality work.
    And she is really good! super professional, etc. She needs to apply for some funds, etc.
    What can I do? I’m a real reference, the CEO and Co-founder.


    How can I help here?

Comments are closed.