why should your references be managers rather than peers?

In last week’s open thread, a commenter asked, “Why is a manager or supervisor always a better reference than a coworker? I ask because often I’ve had a better idea of the quality of work of my coworkers than I think the manager does.”

In some cases, it can be true that your coworkers know the nuances of your work better than your manager does. But in general, employers would rather talk to manager references because:

* It’s your manager’s job to assess your performance. It’s unlikely that your coworkers were probing into what you were getting done and how you were operating in the same way that you manager should be. (Of course, not every manager is good at doing this, but the assumption is still that they’re more likely to do it than your peers.)

* Your manager should see the big picture about your performance in a way that your coworkers don’t. For instance, your coworkers might see that you’re fantastic at X, Y, and Z — but when I talk to your manager, I might learn that the biggest goals for your role were A, B, and C, and you floundered at those.

* Your manager is better positioned to know certain types of things than your coworkers are, like how you respond to feedback, or that you’re an incredibly helpful sounding board when she’s thinking over strategy questions, or that you were almost let go for performance problems last year, or what kind of management you work best with.

In addition to the above, when someone offers up a coworker as a reference, it’s much easier to cherry-pick someone who will say positive things. When a candidate offers a peer reference, I assume they’ve picked someone who loves their work, and maybe someone who they consider a friend as well (which introduces more potential for bias / shading the truth). When candidates are required to offer managers as references, it’s a lot harder to do that kind of cherry-picking.

And sure, this isn’t a perfect system. Some managers are incompetent, or bad at assessing performance, or had personal conflicts with the candidate. (And a good reference checker will take that into consideration, talk to multiple references, and look at the overall pattern.) Some coworkers know their peers’ work and work styles intimately and can provide insightful and nuanced feedback. But in general, the points above are true enough of the time that they justify employers preferring to speak with references who actually managed you.

Now, not every hiring manager feels the way I’ve described, of course. There are some who will accept references from peers and not think anything of it. But you’re still better off offering up managers to begin with if at all possible, because for the managers who do care (and that’s the majority), the mere act of submitting a reference list that doesn’t contain managers is a red flag. I’m immediately going to think, “Hmmm, she doesn’t want me to talk to past managers for some reason. I wonder why.” That doesn’t mean that there might not be a legitimate explanation, but it does create a concern on the part of most hiring managers, and you want to avoid that if you can.

{ 109 comments… read them below }

  1. Alex*

    This is such a catch-22 in my opinion – I’ve had the experience where potential employers require a reference from a manager within the last few years. When you’ve put in a few years at your current job and want to job search under the radar, you only have managers from previous jobs to use as a reference. This is problematic when the potential employer wants a more recent reference. In that situation, it seems like the only option would be to list peers.

    1. Joey*

      Reasonable managers understand that and won’t count it against you if you think your manager will fire you or otherwise freak out. It only becomes suspicious when no other managers are able to be contacted.

      1. Danno*

        I work in IT where there is a chronic shortage of quality workers. If I were to list my current manager as a reference and he was contacted, that would likely result in an attitude that I am not loyal. I can’t really discuss my desire to leave with my manager before hand as that’s tenuous as well. I have certainly used managers for references in the past but I had to use some from the distant past to satisfy the recruiter. If I had used my current manager, Hello separation slip. You people that suggest these things are looking at it simply from one side and not considering the really negative impact this would cause for a lot of employees. I have not met the kind of quality managers you speak of in my 33 year career. I guess they all considered me an asset and didn’t want to lose me. They just get annoyed when they realize I’m “looking” – never been positive for me. A good manager will try to keep good employees and may very well nuke an employees ambitions to move on. Not all managers have the integrity to deal with this situation appropriately. That’s giving them far too much credit. I have also managed teams of people. I have the integrity to give a good reference regardless of how it may negatively impact me or my project. It’s just the right and human thing to do. But let’s be realistic about the quality level in management layers these days….

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      If they’re insisting on references from the last few years and you’ve been at your current job that whole time, then that makes sense — and reasonable employers won’t expect you to use your current manager as a reference, because they know it could jeopardize your job. I’d explain that you can offer other managers (from before that time period) though.

      1. Erica B*

        But what if they have moved on, and you don’t know where they are and/or don’t have contact information for them?

        Also what if your previous job preference is far enough back (say 10 years) that your work style/ethic has changed since you left that job, and its no longer accurate?

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          That’s why you want to stay in touch with them (I know that doesn’t help you if you’ve already lost touch and can’t track them down).

          And yeah, references from 10+ years ago aren’t very useful, and most reference-checkers will want more recent ones.

            1. EvilQueenRegina*

              Yes, it is – I remember when my mum was recruiting for a position once and one applicant put “David ______. (Company no longer exists)” down for a reference. That was it. The person in question wasn’t selected for interview, but it could have been interesting trying to trace that guy!

          1. Prickly Pear*

            I have the double whammy of having been at my job for over a decade and my place of employment before that going out of business. (I mean, my manager before that was at my high school job.) Fortunately I’m in a field and city where people are close knit and never completely out of touch, especially in the age of Facebook, and I have many professional references through my current company.

          2. TychaBrahe*

            Or they’ve retired.

            I’m Facebook friends with a woman who was my supervisor until I changed departments in 1995. The manager retired, and I think he’s dead. The next manager is MIA. The manager after that worked briefly for the company I work for now, and was fired, so he’s off the table. The manager after that retired. Which brings me to my current job.

            I work for a small office, barely a dozen employees. I can think of one who would write me a review who would not be so adversely affected by my leaving that I could trust him not to reveal that issue. I have a volunteer supervisor who would say nice things about me.

      2. Tina*

        What about for people who have had the same manager for extended periods of time, say 8-10 years or more? It’s rare these days, but I know people in that situation. I’m guessing they’d most likely have to use peers in that case.

        1. LabRatnomore*

          I am in the same situation. The managers I had before my current one (I have been at this company 13 years) also still work in my company in the same department as me. One job I interviewed for said that they uderstood if I had no recent references, without me even asking. I didn’t take that job and the first worry I have when applying for a job is “who can I list as references if I get that far in the process?”

    3. Yup*

      To cover the bases as a candidate, I offered, “Here are three references who were my bosses for my last three previous positions, plus two references who are my peers/colleagues for my current position.” I feel like that’s enough boss references to convey that I do have a good track record, and enough current info to reassure you that I haven’t suddenly taken a turn for the worse.

  2. tesyaa*

    I always assumed that references should be managers. Sometimes there’s a dotted line relationship in which a person wasn’t your formal manager, and that’s OK too. I would consider a peer more of a “character reference”, someone who can vouch for your personal reliability but can’t judge your work performance.

  3. Anonymous*

    What’s a good number of references for someone that graduated a year ago? Can I include a professor?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      2-3. No professors unless there’s literally no one else you can offer. Professors can’t generally speak to the stuff a good reference-checker will want to know.

      Managers from internships, volunteer work, summer jobs, etc. are all better than professors.

      1. Anonymous*

        Thanks, Alison! Can you elaborate on what a good reference checker may want to know about a candidate?

      2. hamster*

        No, i disagree. For new grads, professors are acceptable. Especially if they relate to the industry you want to go in. I actually was suggested by hr at my last job to list a teacher reference if i want to.
        And i know colleagues of mines who got jobs usings teacher’s networks in industry. Maybe this just relates to computer science, but there is a thing such as a professor reference. The professor i did my Bachelor thesis with, he knows how i worked and what kind of insights i brought to the research program he was running. The one who helped me with advice while i was building a custom gps device, also knows my level of coding ( great) and electronic design( not so great).
        So I say they can offer nuance in you how-to skills. And perhaps a bit of your character

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Right, as I said above, they’re “acceptable” in the sense that you’re not going to be rejected over listing them. But managers are better if they’re available, and a lot of hiring managers (such as me) won’t bother calling professors at all.

    2. E.B.*

      I graduated a year ago. I have a professor as a reference and I think it’s fine, especially if you haven’t had any work experience in your field.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Employers aren’t going to reject you for including a professor, but they might come back and ask for manager references instead … or worse, just be more impressed by the person whose references included managers who raved about them (which is always going to be more impressive than a professor raving about you). So it’s “fine” in that sense, but not ideal.

  4. JustMe*

    I my experiences my managers had no clue the amount of work I was doing to get the work done…unless I told them. On the other hand, my team lead always knew more about my tasks/assignments and what I was doing to get them accomplished.

    My manager simply gave me my review based off what I, or my team lead told him/her. In addition, in IT we were reorg’d so many times to different managers, we kept the same team, it was better to have a peer who truly knew me and my work give the reference.

        1. Dan*

          You might want to rethink that. Every team lead I have had had more responsibility than me, and certainly had responsibility for my work product. That makes them not a peer for the purposes of this conversation.

          Every manager I have ever had has always been one step removed from my day-to-day work.

          1. JustMe*

            I get the point you both are making, and I agree. I guess I’m thinking in terms of title more than tasks.

    1. EvilQueenRegina*

      Was your manager actually based on the same site as you, or working from somewhere else? Having been line managed by someone who was based in a different building from my team, it did mean there were, shall we say, issues about our manager not knowing who was doing what.

      In my case, I was officially managed by the admin manager, but was based within a social care team, and the social care managers who saw me every day would have had a better idea of what I was actually doing. The admin manager was going on feedback that the social care team were giving. Therefore, I do wonder whether the social care managers might be able to give a better more accurate reference.

  5. A Jane*

    When giving a list of references and your manager has moved onto a new company, do you provide their current title or the title they had at the company you both worked at? Does that even matter to people?

      1. A Jane*

        I was writing out my list of references with their current company/title, and realized it would be very confusing to say I worked at Company X and provide a reference working at Company ABC without context.

    1. Yup*

      I write it like this:

      Mr. Mike Michaels, Strategy Director, was my supervisor at ABC from 2007-2011. His email address is michaels@abc.com.

      Ms. Jane Smith was my supervisor at XYZ from 2005-7. She is currently Operations Vice-President at LMNO, and her email is js@lmno.org.

  6. Lizzy*

    What happens when a manager retires? I had a manager who would give me a good reference, but he retired and moved. What should be done in this situation? For references now, I’ve used a senior coworker who took over some of the management pieces as my old boss was winding down. Is this appropriate?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      A good manager will still be willing to be a reference for you even after retiring, so ideally you’d stay in touch so that you have their contact information. But if not, I’d just explain that, offer the person you mentioned with context as to why, and make sure you have other past managers on your list.

    2. TK*

      My senior year of college, I had student job doing work directly relevant to the field I went to graduate school for immediately after graduating. My supervisor, who was a professional in the field I was going into, suddenly passed away five months after I graduated. (Fast-moving cancer, I believe; she was in her late 60s so it wasn’t as unexpected as it could’ve been.) Since that was my most extensive professional experience, I planned to use her as a reference throughout grad school for internship/part-time jobs, etc. It was somewhat awkward.

      The job was in a very small office, though– just her and one other full-time non-student staff member. The other person, also a professional in my field (and who was promoted to the late supervisor’s job relatively soon after the death), was more than willing to serve as a reference and was plenty familiar with my work to do so, since it was such a small office. So it all worked out.

  7. ThursdaysGeek*

    So, does it hurt to give more than 2-3 references? So I could say “here are some contacts, including former managers, team leads, peers, and customers. They all had different views of my work, and you’re welcome to call as few or as many as you wish.” That does mean that more of your contacts will potentially be bothered by reference checkers, and I wouldn’t offer them as contacts if that were to be an issue with them.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      It definitely doesn’t hurt. It’s either neutral or helps, depending on the manager. I’d definitely make clear what each person’s role was relative to yours, so that if they just want to talk to the managers, they can easily do that.

    2. Sascha*

      I don’t think it would hurt, I have applied for jobs that asked for 5 or 6 references. One job wanted 3 professional references, 3 personal references. And like Alison said, I would just make it clear what your relationship to them was so I could choose who I wanted to talk to.

  8. Goofy posture*

    My immediate manager at my last job disappeared almost completely in my last year. His boss was NOT a good manager (abusive, among other things), and had no real concept of our department at all, let alone my specific work. Especially how I was filling the gaps my former boss left behind. It was a nightmare.

    Luckily, we had a great consultant for my last few months who I unofficially worked under, and who was eventually hired into my old boss’ position (well after I resigned.) I plan on using her as my “manager” reference when I apply to other jobs. If that’s not good enough, well… I’m screwed.

  9. Megan*

    I am about to start job hunting for my second job post college, so I don’t have a ton of previous experience to draw on. I did an internship which directly led to my current role (same organisation, different team) and would definitely like to use my internship manager as a reference. The problem is that her job title was, and is, the same level as the jobs I will now be applying for (i.e. not a manager). Do you think this would harm me if I used her as a reference? I thought about asking her manager instead as we did work together, but obviously she doesn’t know me as well.

      1. Megan*

        Great, thanks Alison! I was talking to someone in my team about this today (they are a few years my senior) and they said they were still using academic references which didn’t sound right!

      2. Ethan*

        I’ve wondered about this, too. Double whammy for having interned at the place I currently work at (first real job). I always struggle when trying to figure out who I should list as a reference (I pretty much have a pool of… former coworkers, although one of those former coworkers was my manager as an intern).

  10. Erica B*

    As a generic norm, I would have to agree with the rule of listing managers. From my current position though I feel like my colleagues, of which I have only 2, would be able to give a more accurate reference than my boss (who barely comes in for longer than 15 mins, if he comes in at all). I would like to think my coworkers, one of which who I consider more of a supervisor than my boss, would give an honest reference on my work style. I don’t have any reviews (that I know of) on record anywhere from my job and I have been here for 10 years. So I can’t even offer those up. I’m in a weird situation, I know, and when it comes times to look for a new job somewhere I freak out a bit.

  11. Ann O'Nemity*

    All of the reasons for using a manager as a reference hinge on the manager actually doing their job. The manager *should* be able to assess performance, *should* be able to see the big picture, and *should* be better positioned to know certain things. It all falls down when your manager sucks. At that point I guess you just hope that you’ve had a decent manager at some other point in your career.

    1. Just Sayin'*

      Exactly! This is why I do not automatically give a candidate the side eye if their reference list includes more peers than supervisors. I’ve had supervisors who were not in any position to assess my work for one reason another, so, I get it.

  12. No Recent Managers*

    What happens if you own your own business and do not have any recent managers? I do have a few before I started my own business, but they are from long ago and do not know anything about me now. Is it okay then too just use peers? Also should I put down on my application why I have no mangers when they say I am required to give them a reference from the most recent manager or will they be smart enough to realize why I do not have a recent manager?

    1. AVP*

      If you’re going from running your own business to a staff position somewhere else, most likely you’ll have fully discussed that change with the hiring manager already, so they should expect that situation…

      1. No Recent Managers*

        My issue is in the application phase when they they have it required before I have a chance to talk to them.

  13. PEBCAK*

    If you do have to use peers, try to at least use peers who have managed projects you’ve been on or at least have relied on deliverables from you. If they can speak to some kind of output that they had to use, it will be more useful than just someone else on your team.

  14. ScaredyCat*

    Hmm… interesting.
    I for one, have always had more critical feedback from my peers than from my manager (i.e. anonymous feedback, during the yearly evaluation). Even if my manager did have a bigger overview of things, when it came to the actual work being done, he was still relying on peers’ and/or clients’ feedback.

  15. crrr*

    When asked to provide references and I can’t give my current supervisor, and I haven’t been able to get in touch with a past manager (though not for lack of trying) should I mention that? I’ve tried several times to stay in touch with the manager I had before my current position, but can’t get a response from her–though she had provided a recommendation in the past.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Yes, although be aware that some reference-checkers will wonder if that fact reflects on you at all — like that there’s a reason she’s not getting back to you.

  16. Mike*

    Really, I have little value for references manager or not. Unless they are are totally out of it will an applicant give you someone who will give them a bad reference. I wouldn’t require someone to have their present manager as a reference because that would put them in a bad spot if we didn’t hire them. You never really know who is behind the phone on the other side.

    That being said, I do think background checks and education/employment verifications are a good idea.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      That’s why you don’t limit yourself to the references on an applicants’ list. If you want to talk to specific people, you say, “can you put me in touch with your manager from your last job?” or whatever.

      And you do things like calling the company’s switchboard rather than a cell phone, so that you know you’re getting the real person.

    2. Zillah*

      I don’t know – that’s certainly true if all you’re asking are fairly generic questions, but I’d think that references could be an excellent source of more nuanced information that didn’t have an easy yes/no (or similar) answer.

      1. Mints*

        Yeah, that was really illuminating for me (when AAM has talked about this before). My manager might have an overall amazing glowing opinion of me, but if asked “What does Mints need to keep working on professionally?” or something, he might say being more assertive with coworkers or something. Which wasn’t a big negative in that job, but it could be a deal breaker in the job I’m interviewing for, or not at all.

    3. Lindsay J*

      Some people are just idiots as well.

      I had somebody call me for a reference for an employee who was fired for the theft of several thousand dollars.

      I don’t know if she listed me as a reference, or simply listed the job and the reference checker tracked me down, but either way I don’t know what good she thought would come of somebody calling us.

    4. Jamie*

      Even without going outside the list (which one should do) references are still valuable beyond whether they are good or bad…keeping in mind good and bad isn’t always a blanket statement about the candidate but a reference can be good for somethings and not others.

      If you were a manager giving a reference for a hypothetical employee you could say some pretty glowing things about aspects of their work which speak to technical expertise or attention to detail – written communication – things the employee knows from every review are areas in which they’re particularly strong. If asked what kind of outside of the box thinker they are, big picture visionary type stuff – there would be a lot of hemming and hawing and not a whole lot to say if it’s just not what they do.

      So that would be a good review if the job was heavy on crafting and implementing policy and procedures, technical details, etc. and a really bad review if they were up for a role where more visionary stuff was needed.

      The truth is good or bad depending on what they want to hear – which is why it’s so important because it helps assure a good fit.

  17. Betsy*

    This issue always confuses me, because I don’t feel like my situation is too uncommon, but I always feel like my references are a bizarre cluster.

    I worked temp jobs out of college for a while, then took a job in my industry with a company where I worked for 6 years. That was a smallish company, so there was my direct supervisor, the CEO, one other management type, and then… a lot of peers. One of the above people is someone I don’t want to give as a reference for personal reasons, and another has asked that I not give them, because they really dislike giving references to anyone.

    I have a different job now, and am looking for another after a few years in my position. Since I don’t want my manager to know I’m looking, I can’t list him. I have one legitimate management reference, two that I can pretend are sort-of-managers if you squint at them funny, and then I’m tapped out. When an automated form is asking for 4 manager references, I’m just stumped. I end up putting in peers because even after 10 years in the industry, I haven’t had that many managers.

    1. CAA*

      That’s totally fine and it’s pretty much the same grouping I see from most candidates. Most people I hire don’t have 3 former managers they can list as references. Neither do I.

  18. Anonymous*

    At my previous job, my manager didn’t speak English very well. I spoke with her in my native language. I want to list her as a reference but am worried about miscommunication. Any advice?

    1. Joey*

      List her with a note of her first language. They probably won’t call her but it looks better than not providing it

  19. Jake*

    My manager knew I was job-searching, so I just used him as my main reference. I also used 3 other references, but none of them were my managers. They were all senior employees that I worked with hand-in-hand, with one of them being a team member for the client. Did I cherry pick? Of course, but I also gave 3 references that I knew would honestly discuss my weaknesses, along with my strengths.

    This was only my first full-time “career job” so I didn’t have a bunch of former managers to list. My internship manager has been fired for sleeping on the job after being warned 6 times in less than a year, and I don’t want to list former professors that I did research for, even if they were my employer, since I was being paid.

    My references earned me a substantial upgrade to my offer, so I can’t complain.

    1. Tina*

      I know this wasn’t the point, but I’m trying to get over the sleeping on the job 6 times (assuming it wasn’t medical related, or it probably wouldn’t have been so easy to fire him/her).

      1. Jake*

        Nothing against government workers here, but… he was a state government worker.

        I’ve worked for a state government agency, a 60,000 employee company and just started with a 120 employee company. Of the three, the only one where that could have possibly occurred was at the state agency.

        The best part was WARNED 6 times. I found him sleeping 5-6 times where he wasn’t warned during my 3 month internship.

  20. Citizen of Metropolis*

    The whole reference system drives me crazy, because it’s so open to abuse. One person – like a boss who really resented you for leaving – can impact your professional life for years afterward. It’s a subjective opinion that can be based on many factors that have no bearing on whether or not you can perform well on another job. Frankly, I find it a violation of privacy, and when I hire, I do so on the basis of a skills assessment and my gut feeling. I trust those far more than I do some random stranger(s) on the phone.

    1. Joey*

      Gut? Please. Gut can be overly affected by recent experiences. And gut subconsciously takes into consideration stereotypes and familiarity.

      In essence when you rely heavily on gut you’ll hire people who remind you of yourself in every way.

      1. Citizen of Metropolis*

        True, Joey, gut instinct can be overly affected by recent experiences. But so can the person who answered the phone when I called to check a reference. I have no real basis to trust them either. Even if I know something about them, they might be having a bad day, or disliked the candidate for reasons far removed from job performance, or even dislike me because I’m a business rival. I have a feel for my shop, and understand my needs for the position – they don’t.

        1. Joey*

          Isn’t it better to decide whether the information is credible than to not consider it at all?

          1. Citizen of Metropolis*

            Certainly, provided I find it to be credible. A stranger listed on a reference form may or may not be, but I have no basis for evaluation.

      2. Danno*

        Please read the point that it’s open to abuse……. I had an employer that was more than happy with my work performance. Then I decided to leave. I left in good faith, gave them proper notification. They handed me some nasty letter on my last day that completely contradicted every review I had during my employment there. And this has certainly haunted me for years.

        You seem to ASSUME that all managers are ethical, have integrity and do the right thing. That is a seriously flawed view of the actual reality in the workplace.

        In fact, this organization is a municipal government and because they are large and have some reach in the community, I have had to consider legal action to stop the defamation that continues to this day. I left there 8 years ago. Is that right? Should I use them as a reference? What recourse to I have?

        Bad managers can be a serious problem for employees and assuming they are all “top notch” just tells me that you are part of the good old boys management camp. You know…. don’t want to criticize your peers. Right?

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          I don’t think anyone here is assuming all managers are ethical and do the right thing. In fact, I noted in the original post that of course that’s not the case. That’s why reference-checkers talk to multiple references and look at the overall pattern.

    2. Joey*

      I wonder if you make other really important decisions with no research on past performance. Investments, large purchases, school choice, etc.

      1. Citizen of Metropolis*

        Those things are not as subjective. They require factual information drawn from research. And even then, it all comes down to personal taste. I know someone who hated Harvard, despite it being regarded as a world class institution of higher learning. I hated a high-end car I inherited despite it’s fine German engineering. Success – in hiring, and most other things – is always made up of many factors, that each person defines for themselves.

        1. Joey*

          But questions like these aren’t real subjective either:

          1. Was he fired or did he quit?
          2. Did he do xyz tasks?
          3. Did you ever write him up or counsel him about performance?
          4. Did you ever give him raises?
          5. How did he score on his evaluations?
          6. Does he use xyz skills?
          7. What kinds of mistakes did he make?
          8. Did he achieve the goals you set for him?

          1. Anonymous*

            1. Was he fired or did he quit? 

            Employee turns in 2 week notice, boss fires them on the spot, boss says they were fired.

            2. Did he do xyz tasks? 

            Employee started to do xyz tasks, boss changes them to abc/def/ghi, depending on the day without updating the employee of this, employee finds out from other coworkers about the change, boss says they never completed xyz tasks due to employee having to scramble to complete the other myriad tasks.

            3. Did you ever write him up or counsel him about performance? 

            I’ve seen people written up and eventually forced out of jobs for such egregious things as; taking FMLA covered maternity leave (this has happened more than once), coming in late during a blizzard that dumped more than a foot of snow, catching the boss in flagrante delicto, not psychically knowing that the approved department font has changed to Tahoma due to no notice being given, etc. Just because someone has been written up doesn’t mean that they; did what the write up stated OR that the boss didn’t tell the employee to do this and are now trying to cover their rear OR the write up wasn’t motivated to cause death by a thousand paper cuts OR the boss is trying to get rid of a certain demographic of employees.

            4. Did you ever give him raises? 

            Some companies don’t give raises for a variety of reasons, which may or may not reflect on the employee’s performance.

            5. How did he score on his evaluations? 

            Boss never gives more than a 3 on a 1-5 scale because they expect great things from all their employees so being great is average (3), being superhuman is a 4 and living in your office is a 5.

            6. Does he use xyz skills?

            Employee never gets to use xyz skills due to having to use abc/def/ghi skills because of poor planning/short staffing/broken equipment, so boss states they never saw the employee demonstrate these skills and is unsure if they have them.

            7. What kinds of mistakes did he make? 

            Unable to react to minor changes in daily schedules (aka boss routinely changes projects and job functions without informing employee, then is upset at the lack of psychic skills). 

            Unable to get along with coworkers (aka employee and the mistress of the boss don’t get along so the boss gets an earful of this all the time, this actually happened at a one job: all the coworkers the mistress hated also became the ones the boss hated). 

            Employee doesn’t complete tasks in a timely manner (other coworkers half-assed the work and when this employee tries to do it correctly it takes much longer).

            8. Did he achieve the goals you set for him?

            Boss changes the goals midway through the year or doesn’t even give the goals until the end of summer but keeps the EOY deadline the same. Employee is unable to complete said goals due to the laws of time and space getting in the way.

            I’ve worked in some pretty shady places…

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              Sure, that can happen. But candidates can give misleading answers to questions too, or see things through a deluded perspective. It makes sense to get as much info as you can about a candidate before hiring them, and that includes talking to people who have overseen their work.

              If you were hiring a nanny for your kids, wouldn’t you talk to people she’d worked for before?

              1. Anonymous*

                Oh I agree it has to be done, I just disagree that even the most basic questions can’t be answered subjectively. It’s frustrating to see that in some cases whatever the former manager says is considered to be carved in stone and there can be no other opinion or viewpoint, as if the manager was simply a robot regurgitating facts.

                In one of my former places of employment the manager required certain employees to check in with the manager as soon as they came in the door to prove what time they had arrived. This check in was not based on position/title or a previous history of time issues, it only applied to certain demographics. The manager wouldn’t pull the door scan in times as another coworker could have scanned you in, another employee couldn’t vouch for you as they could be lying and the employees weren’t allowed send an email saying “Here” as an email program to do that. (These were real answers given by this manager)

                Magically this manager was never available for about 30 minutes before until 30 minutes after the scheduled start time. So unless the employees got there consistently early every day without fail they were noted as being at least 30 min late. It was designed to make them fail and be marked late, go on a PIP and then be fired with proper documentation of “attendance issues”. HR was in on this and backed the manager 110%.

                When I left this job the manager and HR were debating on firing all of a certain demographic in my department and giving them each a mid 5 figure severance if they signed a general release. Numerous EEOC filings and under the table settlements later this manager is still there. Really.

                I understand my experiences are far outside the norm, but after spending the majority of my career at several dysfunctional companies I’m very sympathetic to what can happen to someone’s career if they end up with a boss that’s out to get them. I unfortunately can’t think of a better way to provide references. I’m changing industries as this behavior appears to be rampant in my field and I’m over having to deal with it.

                I just wanted to provide an opposing viewpoint about how some managers are out to get certain employees and it can completely screw up that employee’s career for the next five or even ten years.

                1. Joey*

                  References are sort of like reading customer reviews. Most people would still buy a product that had mostly good reviews even when there is a terrible one in the mix.

            2. Joey*

              Every single one of those can easily be explained in the course of explaining your work history before references are even done.

              1. I was fired when I turned in my notice.
              2. I was hired to do x, but the job turned out to be y.
              3. I was reprimanded for being absent during protected fmla.
              4/5. There weren’t any opportunities to progress.
              6. See answer 2.
              7. I was doing the jobs of three people and had to sacrifice my normal quality standards in order to meet tight deadlines. I explained this to my boss.
              8. When I realized there was not enough time or resources to meet the goals I attempted to provide feedback and recommendations to my manager. Since no one provided direction after continual follow up I let my boss know I was making an executive decision to move forward with x unless he told me differently.

              Guess who I would and wouldn’t believe if all of my other reference and research led me to believe you were good?

              1. Anonymous*

                I love being proactive instead of reactive and those are all good answers, but if I was interviewing someone who gave me their references and then busted out 2 pages of reasons as to why anything reference #1 said beyond employment dates was a pack of lies I’d be side-eyeing them like no other. It’s unfortunate that things end up that way.

                The employees that work for dysfunctional and crazy managers suffer the undeserved consequences even after they’ve left. In turn it almost makes that employee look like the problem. Would I ever believe a manager would intentionally try to fire more than one coworker for being pregnant/taking time off after? Not likely. Would I ever believe a female HR manager would support this plan? Never, their job is to stop the company from being sued not help the future case gain plaintiffs. Would I ever believe a manager would believe the best course of action to stop discrimination and harassment is to considering firing and paying off those that were being discriminated and harassed as opposed to stopping the discrimination and harassment? Never.

                But I’ve witnessed these actions and way, way worse. People who work for sane companies would most likely think the person explaining all this in an interview has some credibility issues or is looking for any excuse as to why they were let go or labeled a poor performer.

        2. Joey*

          One more question: have you ever checked your gut to make sure you’re making decisions based purely on job related criteria and not things like age, race, sex, etc.?

  21. Bailey*

    Unfortunately I’ve had to use co-workers for references. My last employer had a strict rule — under threat of instant dismissal — that managers or anyone else were NOT allowed to give references or recommendations.

    Potential employers and landlords were required to pay a fee and go on the company intranet to get our “reference” — which only listed the years worked. I guess they were afraid of lawsuits, besides which they made money off of the fees.

    If anyone was found to give a reference they were fired immediately. So most of the managers absolutely refused to do it on the sly. They were scared of losing their jobs.

    However, most of the non-managerial co-workers made deals with each other that we would give each other references if needed. Yes, we risked our jobs.

    We had to give them our co-workers phone numbers or personal email addresses for references. We had no work emails, and even if we had, we wouldn’t have dared use company emails for references, since we were always scared of being fired.

    1. CAA*

      Any former manager who has left that company is no longer bound by the “never give references” policy (assuming the fact that you worked there isn’t classified info). So if any manager you knew there has ever resigned, they’re a potential reference for you.

    2. Ann O'Nemity*

      I had a previous employer that had a policy against giving references beyond confirming dates of employment. I never heard a good explanation of the policy; it’s not like the work was top secret by any stretch.

      1. Tina*

        It’s been over 10 years now, but I once spent a few months temping as a reference checker for a large urban hospital. It was very common for people to only tell me dates of employment and title. I think Alison’s addressed the topic in other posts, how some employers don’t give references as a way to avoid potential liability.

      2. Anon1*

        One thing I’ve wondered about is whether places like this demand references from their interviewees. Because hypocritical then comes to mind.

        But I agree keeping in touch with old managers is important as they do move on and may no longer be caught by the no reference rule.

    3. Tina*

      I can’t imagine a potential employer or landlord willing to pay the fee, did the potential candidate/renter/buyer have to absorb the fee?

  22. Anonymous*

    man, I’d be so screwed by that… I’m in My second job after college in a field unrelated to my major. my first job (related to my major) actually gave me an injury and I quit largely because of how badly my ex job handled the whole thing (and they knew it was why I left). they said they’d give me a reference if needed… but I frankly don’t trust them. MMU current job is a super small office and there’s no one management level to give me a reference (just the owners) and I’m not close enough to my only coworker to ask her.

    I understand the practice. but when I leave this job, I’ll be screwed.

  23. Lindsay*

    My old supervisor listed me as a reference, which really weirded me out. I’ve been reading your website long enough to know that it’s just a bad idea, but he gave my information without asking me (ugh). I didn’t know what to say when the woman called, so I couched all of my responses in, “as a supervisor, he …” I didn’t want to jeopardize my own reference with my old supervisor, but I’m kind of annoyed he provided my contact info.

  24. E*

    I am getting reference-checked right now for a position. I am in my first out of school job. I was willing to offer current managers if we were at the offer stage, but the hiring manager was very willing to work around that. He got a current coworker at a higher level than me, a former coworker who filled several roles in our department, and a former supervisor (from an internship). The first two can speak very well to my work quality and skills and the last has been a manager. It’s imperfect, but I think it’s okay.

  25. Ashley*

    Yeah – I am SO WORRIED when a candidate I really like gives me a bunch of managers who weren’t references. A lot of people think they have a really good idea of which of their peers are good workers – and some people do. I know that my staff often think that people are good workers because they are nice, helpful, and easy to get along with. Those are great qualities, but some of those nice, helpful, easy to get along with folks are great employees and some aren’t. Peers value different things. I want to hire people who can get along with their peers, but that’s not enough – I also need people who can meet goals and accept feedback – things peers often don’t know.

  26. J.2014*

    Perhaps I miss some points about the importance of personal references.
    Has this changed? This is more likely in US?

    I was never asked for a reference person and also never did myself.
    It is more common to ask for an interim report.

    And the only case I know where a former manager was contacted before hiring failed profoundly.
    If I am not sure if I should hire a person or not I would rather NOT hire.

  27. Bess*

    Speaking of references, I was rereading The Gift of Fear, and in the section on how to hire someone who is unlikely to run amok and shoot people, de Becker recommended asking the question, “Who is your best friend?”, following it up with, “Is that person listed as a reference?” and if the candidate says no, following up with, “Why not?” His point, of course, is that those who run amok generally do not have strong social ties, and often have no one they consider a ‘best friend’.

    …Except that I would never list my best friend as a reference because that’s a personal reference, not professional, and if I was asked this series of questions, my reaction would be exactly that: “WTF, listing personal references isn’t done, why are you even asking me this”. (Obviously I wouldn’t say it that way, but that’s what I’d be thinking.)

    I am generally fully behind all of GdB’s advice, but this one just strikes me as weird.

      1. Jamie*

        Yes – I would find this question ridiculous if asked…as ridiculous as seeing a best friend listed as a reference.

  28. heyyou*

    Agree with others that this system is frustrating. I look back on my past managers and don’t see a lot of very good ones. All the more reason to hope that my next job will have a good manager. As others have said, you don’t quit a job, you quit a manager. (They said it better.) Boy is that ever the truth!

  29. CyndiL*

    I don’t list managers since they are unable to comment per company policy. All references are to be done via theworknumber.com – what would you suggest in this case?

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