stop saying “no” when job applications ask “can we contact this manager?”

Aside from your current employer, do you ever say no when a job application asks, “Can we contact this manager?”

I’ve heard from a few people recently who report that they answer no to that question not because they’d object to a former manager being contacted, but because they think the logistics will be difficult — the person is in a foreign country, or they don’t have their current contact info, or the employer doesn’t give references.

But this is the wrong thing to do. The question “can we contact this manager” is about your permission. It’s not about the reference’s availability.

Preemptively saying that former managers can’t be contacted is a big red flag for employers. It signals “I left this company on bad terms,” and/or “this manager will say terrible things about me,” and/or “maybe I never even worked there and don’t want you to find that out.”

To be clear, the rules are very different when we’re talking about your current employer. In that case, it’s both normal and fine to say no, because alerting your current manager to your job search could jeopardize your job, and sane hiring managers understand that.

But checking no for former managers? Huge red flag. Don’t do it.

{ 140 comments… read them below }

  1. 42*

    This is a great reminder, and thank you. But how and at what point would an applicant expand on the fact that the former manager is unreachable? “Yes, you may contact Former Boss, but I have no idea how one would locate her.”

      1. Sunrays*

        I had a problem some years ago when the small business I worked for (3 people including the owner) closed when the owner went to jail for tax evasion. That made some difficult conversations trying to explain why he could not be contacted for a reference. I worked there for 8 years so I could not airbrush the job from my resume. Eventually I got an offer from an employer who accepted my explanation that I did not have current contact details, and accepted a personal reference from the other employee on condition that I provided references from the first 15 years on my resume. So glad that phase is (hopefully) done and dusted. I was worried that I might get tarred by the same brush if I was upfront about the Ex Boss’s whereabouts.

    1. Susan*

      I think I was part of the conversation that happened here on a recent post, and what I’ve decided to do is if they ask for a number for a manager on an actual application (where you can’t talk to anyone), I’m just going to put a mainline to the office and have the secretary or whoever let them know that person doesn’t work there anymore. In my case, they would definitely still remember this person because she was very high up.

      If they ask if they can contact your former managers after you’ve had actual contact via a phone interview/actual interview or even email exchange, I feel like it’d be reasonable to say something like “My former manager no longer works at Teapots Limited, but I’d be happy to put you in contact with [some other senior person who you worked with], who I worked with in [whatever vicinity]. (I feel like that last part might be a nice touch to show it’s not just a peer, but someone with a little authority.) In my case, I was low on the totem pole, so there were actually plenty of people senior to me, who weren’t technically the head honcho. Other people probably have other advice!

      1. AB Normal*

        “My former manager no longer works at Teapots Limited, but I’d be happy to put you in contact with [some other senior person who you worked with], who I worked with in [whatever vicinity]. ”

        But what’s the problem with letting the interviewer contact your former manager even after he left the company? All my past managers are working for different companies now, but that doesn’t change the fact that I reported to them and they can speak to my abilities, strengths, and weaknesses.

          1. Anonsie*

            I don’t know where my former managers went after they left my former companies, so there’s that.

              1. Anonsie*

                No? Almost no one I’ve ever worked with has been on LinkedIn, to the point that I often consider deactivating my own profile since I have six connections and only one has actually worked with me. The others are former classmates from college.

                1. Zillah*

                  Interesting. In my line of work, I’ve been able to find most former coworkers/managers on LinkedIn. I guess it’s very industry (and region?) dependent.

                2. Tris Prior*

                  The best manager I ever had (and the one who likely would give me the most glowing reference) had some sort of a midlife crisis a while ago, left his wife, quit his job, moved to rural…. somewhere (KS, I think?) and I guess is now living mostly off the grid. He is barely online. Did finally connect with him via mutual contacts, but it took months for him to get back to me simply because he literally goes months without using the Internet. I can’t count on him to be reachable by a prospective employer, obviously. And he’s not on Linkedin at all as he’s completely opted out of traditional working life.

                  So, this does happen! Mine is probably an extreme case, but I do know other folks who do not use Linkedin or are not on social media much.

                  I do have other references I could use if I needed to, but it does suck to lose that one.

          2. I had to pick a username I guess?*

            What would your recommendation be if you have had two different jobs for the same place? I had one job as a student, left for another company for two years after graduation, then was hired back as a permanent employee. I usually check “no” for my previous position with this company, because I’m worried that if people call and say my name, it will not be clear that they want a reference from my old position here and not my current one. I don’t mind them talking to the person who used to be my boss, I’m just not confident it wouldn’t mess things up.

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      how and at what point would an applicant expand on the fact that the former manager is unreachable?

      Employers usually don’t call references until near the end of the hiring process, so I’d mention it at that point (after what seems to be the final interview or at least a late-stage interview) and offer alternatives if you have them.

      1. 42*

        Thank you. This actually happened to me, and I have absolutely no recollection of how we navigated through that.

        1. JM in England*

          At my current job, the reference form stated that if {former manager} no longer worked at {former workplace} that made them invalid as a reference. How bizarre………………

  2. Cristina in England*

    Gah! NOOOO! I just did that this weekend! I did it because my former company went out of business. I did explain that in some other field on the page, but now I am worried that I’ve been auto-ejected. Damn damn damn damn.

    1. Ruth (UK)*

      What’s done is done Christina in England, don’t stress about it (and I’ve accidentally replied to the wrong part of threads before too).

      If your application is otherwise strong, you probably won’t be rejected purely on the basis you ticked no to this (and if you are, then.. well… again, it’s in the past now), and since references are usually contacted in a later point in the hiring process anyway, if it gets to a point where they are wanting to contact your references, you can mention you’re fine with them being contacted.

    2. bkanon*

      I always want to put “you can sure try!” on mine. Employer A doesn’t keep employee records past the minimum and that has long passed, Employer B’s manager retired and I never met anyone higher up the chain, Employer C’s manager went back to her home country, Employer D was an amusement park, so TALK about turnover, and Employer E went bankrupt.

      Just try contacting one of my former employers. Have fun with that.

      1. Sunrays*

        bkanon – that puts my criminal employer in a kind of perspective. I mean, at least I only have the one unuseable reference if it looms up again.

    3. HR Manager*

      None of the systems I’ve seen ever auto-reject anyone because they check a no for a reference contact. You shouldn’t worry.

  3. Adam*

    Yeah. I’ve done this once with a former job that thankfully is way far down my resume now. I didn’t leave on bad terms per se. I quit of my own volition and there was no drama involved but oh man while I was there…To describe what this environment was like, one day after my shift I walked home to my friend’s condo that I was renting a room in at the time. He had just moved in that year and was having his housewarming party. I walked in, waved hello to the guests, and went to the cooler and pounded the first beer I could get my hands on. That generated some chuckles…

  4. Katie the Fed*

    Oh good, I’m glad you finally posted this! I need to send it to my friend who didn’t believe me when I told her it looked like a huge red flag.

  5. AnonieGirlie*

    I’m curious what you do if a company has a no reference policy. When I left my old job, HR made it clear that managers and coworkers were not allowed at all to give references (either personal or professional) and was advised that HR could only verify employment not discuss performance. So in his instance saying yes you can contact my old company would be a moot point.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      You still say yes. Again, it’s about your permission, not about the company’s stance.

      Also, many, many managers in that situation still give references; it’s often only HR that refuses.

      1. hayling*

        Yeah OldJob’s official policy was that they only confirmed dates of employment but both of my former bosses provided references for me.

    2. AdAgencyChick*

      I would check the “yes” box, then make sure that if you’re getting close to an offer, you let the hiring manager know that the company has this policy. Then, if your reference is a stickler about the policy (which, as Alison says, she might not be), the hiring manager won’t interpret this as “candidate is a terrible worker and this person just doesn’t want to say anything.”

    3. Koko*

      There’s also I think a distinction between “list your former jobs/supervisors, and can we contact them?” part of the application and the “references” section. Because of your employers’ policy you wouldn’t list them in the references section, but you would still list them as a contactable former supervisor. I think the reason they have both section is because they do want to verify employment from previous employers whether or not they are giving a reference.

    4. I'm a Little Teapot*

      I once had an employer with a policy that they wouldn’t even verify employment. And I worked there for two years. Considering that I’ll be job-searching soon, this is….worrisome.

    5. AnotherTeacher*

      I worked for a school with this policy. What to say in the following situation? — My former supervisor has been gone for a few years. She and I did not get along and have not been in touch. She even lied to about why I left that position. (A mutual contact at another school told me.) I have plenty of collegial references from there, though.

  6. NJ Anon*

    We recently interviewed for a position and asked for 3 references. None of the 3 were this person’s direct supervisor at their most recent job but this applicant doesn’t work there any more. I realize we didn’t specify. Should I go back to them now and ask for that person’s contact information or should I go ahead and contact the company on my own? They don’t work there anymore so I am not getting them into any trouble that I can think of.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      It’s fine to contact the company on your own, but I think it’s better to ask the applicant about it: “I’d like to speak with your manager at your last job. Can you put me in touch with her?” That gives her the chance to tell you if there’s any back story there you should know about (which you can bring your own judgment to bear upon, of course).

  7. Ali*

    I’ve had applications where I’ve had to list my whole job history, including some jobs that I stayed at for less than a year because of layoffs or seasonal work. I don’t list those short jobs on my resume, but at a couple of them, the people that have managed me are no longer with the company and I didn’t keep in touch with them.

    One of the managers I’m not concerned about because my work with her was outside of jobs in my field, but the other was somewhat in my field. Should I at least try to re-connect with the second boss, even though I didn’t even work at that company for a year? It’s been almost six years since that position, so I’m not sure if it’s worth it…

    1. Ali*

      If it helps, the second job I talked about has pretty much had complete management turnover since I worked there. I looked up the contact info one day for the department I used to work in and didn’t recognize any of the names, except that of people still working there who aren’t managers.

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      You’re not listing them on your resume and you didn’t work with her for long, so I don’t see a lot of benefit to tracking her down unless you specifically want to.

  8. illini02*

    What if you actually did leave on bad terms, or you and the manager don’t get along. I’ve had one job I left on not great terms with (gave only a few days notice).

    1. MK*

      The problem is that you are taking the risk of the perspective employer imagining much worse things than workplace drama. You might be refusing to allow them to contact your ex-boss because ex-boss is a malicious lunatic, but they have no way of knowing that and may worry that you were let go because of performance issues or some serious wrongdoing.

      1. Helen*

        But if ex-boss is a malicious lunatic, isn’t there a significant risk that she will speak negatively of you?

        1. MK*

          Yes, but it’s probable that the craziness will show. What I am sayimg is that you come across like you are trying to hide something, and the person doing the hiring may well assume that it’s worse than it is. Unless you think their talking to your previous employer will ruin your chances, it’s probably better to say yes.

          By the way, I think I have read in this site before that they don’t actually need your permission to contact anyone but the current employer. In which case, this question is what? An attempt at politeness? It enables them to say to the previous boss “yes, candidate said I could contact you”? A psychological test?

        2. Taylor*

          I hear you. My last boss was fired and put the blame on me after I was promoted to her position. I had nothing to do with this. From what I hear, she is bad-mouthing me to anyone who will listen. Sure, the crazy might show, but if I was hearing just her side of the story, I wouldn’t hire me either (FWIW, I don’t say anything negative about her except to personal, non-industry friends).

          Besides her, nearly every company I have resigned from politely and appropriately changed their tune about me as soon as I turned in my resignation. They’re mostly upset that someone would dare leave them. As a result, I only have positive (glowing!) references from my last job (which ran out of capital and everyone was laid off). :/

      2. Lansey*

        My ex employer is malicious and I left due to a hostile environment. My resignation was taken with hostility and threats and treated as if I were throwing a tantrum and would be back after a leave of abscence. No that employer may not be contacted as the owners Father is the office manager and his mother works there. I’m sorry it’s not in my interest and I’ve been slandered since my departure.

    2. BRR*

      1) Is there anybody else who can attest to your work who is higher up? I support other departments and there is a director (while I was an entry-level associate) who I could list as a reference in case I needed to.

      2) There is some advice on here about forewarning that your boss tends to not give good references. This only applies for people who’s manager is unreasonable.

      If you left on bad terms because of your actions alone, that’s a different story.

      1. RO*

        My manager offered to be my reference, but I was concerned about him being contacted because in the past he provided horrible references for departing employees. I used the executives I supported as they could speak to my work and abilities better than my manager.

        1. Jen*

          I just did the same thing recently, where I had marked “no” and then got a response asking why. I had worked at a law firm where one managing partner tended to be unpleasant (about many things) and would not verify employment. So, my response was that it would be easier for them to contact the other partner.

  9. LongTimeFan*

    What if you have multiple references from the same site?

    For instance, when I was an intern at a university, my supervisor oversaw the project (and as my supervisor would be a reference), but I interacted more frequently with the research assistant (and thus he would be able to vouch or my everyday work).

    1. Zillah*

      I think that it depends on the circumstances. Early on in your career, you may have only held a couple jobs, and in that situation I can’t imagine anyone seeing your providing two references from the same job as a red flag. Alternatively, if you were at a job for a long time, it wouldn’t seem odd to me for you to use two different supervisors.

      But there are also a lot of situations where I’d imagine it would seem a little strange.

  10. Elizabeth the Ginger*

    The grammar nerd in me says that applications should therefore ask, “MAY we contact this manager?”

    It’s like the snarky answer my English teacher used to give when students asked, “Can I go to the bathroom?” “I assume so. If you can’t, you should see your doctor.”

    1. Ruthan*

      ahaha, yes! “Can we contact this manager?” I guess that depends on your proficiency with smoke signals.

    2. Anx*

      Except it’s not even a snarky thing!

      The way it’s worded as “can” makes it seem to me like “would we be able to contact this person.”

      From my perspective, it wouldn’t occur to me that a job would be interested in not contacting an employer if I didn’t want them to.

    3. Vicki*

      And in response to the teacher, the grammarian student then replies – “Can” means “able to” and you have the power to stop me from being able to leave this room.

  11. Karen Peterson*

    What if your former manager has died? Or what if the company is no longer in business? I have both of those situations in my work history.

  12. Happy Lurker*

    I am glad to see this because it brings up something that we see in our tiny little office in New England/Mass. Technically, (by law, I have been told) in this state you are only allowed to confirm employment dates, not to offer them, only confirm and that is it. Pay and performance is not to be discussed (again, I have been told “by law”).
    But my real question to pose is if people even call anymore? Fifteen years ago, we received calls about former employees, but no longer. I assume that there is a way to check employment directly through the computer. Does anyone else see the same thing?

    1. Persephone Mulberry*

      Not directly related to your actual question, but the next time someone mentions that, ask them to show you the law.

      1. Payroll Lady*

        And you will see a look of shock on their face! Many people have tried this with me, and they can not show the proof, because it’s not true, it’s an ASSUMPTION that because a majority of company have this POLICY, that it must be a law. I have also had it turned the other way, as in: “there is not a law that does not allow you to give me this verification information, and I neeeeeed to have it.” and my answer : Well, I neeeeeed my job and POLICY is to give only hire dates, term dates and MAYBE salary and only in writing with the employee’s release signature.”

    2. Meganly*

      In MA, it’s actually the absence of a law (protecting employers who give out true but negative references from defamation suits) that leads to such policies. The courts have generally ruled that references are a matter of opinion and thus don’t count as defamation, though.

      1. neverjaunty*

        Whether a statement made in a reference is defamatory or merely prot cited opinion depends completely on what was said.

        That aside, it’s not actually defamation so much as an employer CYA as to future discrimination suits. If Wakeen claims he was forced out because of his age, and his employer says “no, it was because he was a poor performer”, it’s not going to go well for them if Wakeen can show they gave him a glowing reference.

    3. Ask a Manager* Post author

      No such law :) That’s company policy, not the law, and it’s probably based on a misunderstanding of what the law does and doesn’t allow. No law prohibits truthful references about performance.

      In fact, Massachusetts, employers who provide reference information are specifically protected from legal liability as long as they don’t make intentionally false statements.

      And yes, people absolutely still make reference calls — it’s the norm, in fact!

    4. Fabulously Anonymous*

      Furthermore, I don’t believe there is any computer system that provides this information. I used to work as a development/alumni researcher and we would LOVE to be able to know where our alumni were working. Can you imagine how much easier it would be to provide statistics? X% of of our alumni are employed after graduation and here’s how it breaks down by industry would be so much easier to look up in a computer than to send out surveys.

        1. Fabulously Anonymous*

          According to the site, “The data on The Work Number database is provided to us by the more than 3,800 employers who rely on Equifax Verification Services to fulfill their employee’s employment and income verifications.”

          What if someone did not use Equifax?

  13. Jennifer*

    The impression I have of where this is a problem is when there’s ONLY a yes/no option and nobody has the option/place to write in “so-and-so left/the business closed and that’s why you can’t contact them.” Correct?

    1. LBK*

      Reference checking doesn’t usually happen until they’re preparing to make offers, so by then you’d presumably have already had conversations with the relevant hiring manager/HR person and been able to give them a heads up about the situation. I certainly hope there aren’t companies out there call references just based on an application without even having an interview first – seems like a massive waste of time.

    2. some1*

      This is my take on this — obviously you aren’t going to offer a former manager that is deceased, you don’t have their info anymore or who is going to say bad things about you as official references.

      I believe Alison is speaking about apps that ask you to list the name of your sup and ususally there’s a box that says “May we contact? Yes or No”

        1. Vet's Wife*

          I recently submitted a job application. Thankfully it was a pdf and not an online form.

          1) a recent manager has left the place I worked. I listed all the info for the business, but in the side lines made a comment that the supervisor had left, but listing her current contact information.

          2) The application asked if there were any employers they could not contact. I checked yes for my current job. Then it asked for a reason. The only thing I could think to come up with was “Current Employer.” Is that a good idea?

  14. S*

    What if contact info has changed and you can’t get a hold of that employer? Maybe because they’re in another country? If you say yes, and they can’t get in touch with your previous employer, won’t they just think you’re making up that employment? This is problematic if you have to apply using an online form that doesn’t give you room to explain.

    1. Zillah*

      But if you’re at the point where they’re actually calling your references, presumably you’ll have had the chance to explain the situation to them. I can’t imagine a reasonable employer jumping to “They’re making up this job!” just because they have a hard time getting in touch with someone without talking to you about it first. People leave jobs or travel out of the country all the time.

  15. RR*

    What if one’s most recent past manager is a horrible horrible person? I have alternative references (including previous manager for the same position at OldJob), and an excellent performance record, but I don’t trust this individual to be truthful. Fortunately, this person is infamous in my industry and his problematic management style well-known , but as I am now considering moving into an arena where he is not known, this may become an issue for me.

    1. AdAgencyChick*

      Since application forms rarely give you enough space to put more than one manager’s name down per company, in your situation I’d just put the other manager’s name down!

  16. Karen*

    What about when your previous positions are in the same company as your current one, especially if it is a smaller organization? My fear of them contacting past supervisors is that I don’t want word to get out that I’m looking (sure, it would be unprofessional but people sometimes talk) and applications don’t often provide room to explain that you’re fine with it once talks reach a serious stage.

    I realize often prospective employers WON’T contact references out of the gate but it’s disconcerting to provide them with contact info and consent in those situations.

    1. AdAgencyChick*

      I think the fact that you’ll be listing your current company as the employer for all those positions should make it obvious to a hiring manager why she should not contact any of those people.

      However, the more alternative references you can provide — those who’ve already moved on to other companies — the better.

  17. CourtneyH*

    But what if you don’t remember your references’ names? I’ve been at the same company for almost 11 years (in various positions) and am starting to revamp my resume to start looking for a new job. But I honestly don’t remember the name of the person who managed me in the job before this one–and doubt she’d still be at the company anyway. And the same is true for the people who managed me on my jobs before that. How important is it to have references from jobs I had 11-20 years ago? What if I can’t find their names or contact info?

    1. Koko*

      Personally, I would be OK if someone with a 10-year tenure at their current job couldn’t offer up former supervisors from more than a decade ago, assuming they were able to offer up credible and reliable references from the last 3-5 years. I might even be more favorable about someone who found credible and reliable recent references compared to someone who could only offer people who worked with them so long ago in their career that their demeanor and skillset may well be completely different now.

    2. YWD*

      I am in this same position. 10+ years at my present company. The managers I worked for at my previous job don’t work there anymore and I am not connected with them on LinkedIn. I do have two peers I worked closely with. I’m hoping that will be OK. I also am still in touch with my manager from my first post college job. It’s been 15 years since I worked for her and in a very different job than I am currently in so I don’t know how relevant it will be.

      1. KerryOwl*

        You could try asking your former peers; they might still be in contact with your former managers.

  18. wondering*

    what if your old manager left and the person there doesn’t even know who you are. I worked for a non-profit as an administrative assistant and the director (also my boss) left about a month after I did. I never met the current director and I have no contact info for my old boss (not that I’d want people contacting him anyway though I did leave on good terms). I usually try to put a reason why I click no for this contact that I have no contact information for him

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Put the name of the person who managed you while you were there. Again, this isn’t about you doing everything possible to get them in touch with people. It’s about answering basic questions: name of the employer, name of manager, and is it okay for us to call them? (And that last one should be read as: Do you object to us attempting to reach them, whether or not we succeed?)

      1. Will*

        Hi Allison, apologies for digging up the past in this 2015 article, but I am confused. I have been accused of over-analyzing, so feel free to reel me in. I might be overcomplicating this whole thing.

        Now, with respect, I’m concerned about the implication here that as a job seeker I am effectively volunteering someone as a reference without their approval. Let’s say the context is that I worked as a temp for a few months. First of all, how can this manager realistically be expected to accurately remember my performance without coming off as insincere? Secondly, as a manager, I would probably react to a decade-old reference check call with some degree of confusion, and consider the applicant at the very least, a bit presumptuous. (“This is from years ago; people change over time.” “Why are they calling me, out of all people?” “Is something wrong with their other, more recent, managers?”)

        In any case, my testimony as an unwilling reference could be suspect, at best; a liability at worst. Acting as a reference is an honor, in my opinion, and as an applicant, I’m very careful about who I select to represent my case. The fact that someone was my manager does not entitle them to potentially slander my reputation just because someone may have cut them off in traffic that morning. But perhaps I’m missing the point.

        Perhaps the point is that an employer wants a reference that “you cannot control” so they can get a more honest opinion. I can see that in an ideal world, this reasoning might actually be plausible, but I think the reality is different. In any case, I would love to hear the acceptable “exceptions to the rule” for this article.

        Thank you for your time.

  19. bobagator*

    I have a very unusual case where I started at my current company in X position under Boss A. Boss A was demoted from her job and I became her boss via promotion to Y position. Boss B who was Boss A’s boss is now my Boss. The problems that caused A’s demotion did not go away and after some-odd very tense year and a half, I fired A. For a brief time afterwards, A cyberstalked me and I had to get police involved.

    Am I correct in thinking that I can list Boss B (who was always my chain of command, whether direct or next level) for X position? I can’t fathom telling a prospective employer that it’d be ok to contact Fired employee / Former Boss A.

    1. Beezus*

      Yeah, I’d definitely list Boss B under those circumstances! I wouldn’t even bring up Boss A in terms of management history (although she might be highly relevant in terms of your ability to manage performance issues and deal with sticky management situations, yikes!)

  20. Stuck In IL*

    I have a situation where I’m starting to look for a new job after being with my current company for 15 years. I started as an intern/temp summer staff when I was a student, it was my first job out of college, then took a promotion, and then made a semi-lateral move. I’ve been in my current position for 4 years. My current boss has been my boss for about 10 years through all 3 full-time positions that I’ve been in with this company due to the fact that he was the IT supervisor, then the director of just the network support/operations department, and is now the CIO. I basically don’t have any previous managers to list.

    I want to answer no because I don’t want him contacted until I’m at the offer/reference check stage. Is that okay? It’s not that I think he will react poorly, but he will be less than thrilled I want to move on, even though he knows I can’t progress in my career anymore here. I’m also worried this is a huge red flag to other employers that I’ve been at the same company for so long, even though it’s been 4 different IT positions.

    1. Zillah*

      Most people request that their current manager not be contacted; I don’t think it’ll be a red flag to check no here, because most people can understand why you wouldn’t want your current employer to know that you’re job searching until you have an offer in hand.

  21. Noel*

    Well, I am in a quandary regarding references. I have worked at a tiny, family-run business for the last ten years, as one of the store managers. There was originally a district manager above me, but she left a couple years ago, and I don’t know how to contact her. So that leaves only the business owner, and she is a terrible manager and apt to take it personally when people leave, and give them bad references ever afterward. I know my work was good, but I cannot trust her to give me an honest reference about it. Before that, there are only retail jobs during college where I don’t even remember my managers’ names, and the professor I worked under with work study. So, what do I do? I also don’t have coworker references to give; there’s only ever been one other position available other than me (company has never yet been profitable in fifteen years) and I don’t know how to contact the previous ones, and I don’t want them to contact the current one because she will tell the boss I am job searching, and then all hell will break loose. I want to transition into a different field, but am stuck and don’t know what to do.

    1. Zillah*

      This may be a silly question, but have you tried looking for your previous managers whose names you do remember on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, or even just google? Those aren’t perfect, but I’ve found that I can usually find something. And, I don’t think whoever you reached out to would be too taken aback by it – needing to use them as a reference when you’re job searching seems pretty reasonable to me!

      I’d definitely exhaust all social media/google searches to find the distract manager in particular, since she can speak to your recent work. Do you have any coworkers who you might also be able to use, especially if the work study professor doesn’t remember you?

  22. Greg*

    I agree with this advice, but what it comes down to more than anything is that, statistically, it is unlikely that the references you provide to a potential employer will ever be contacted, especially if they’re asking for them at the beginning of the application process.

    Of course, a lot of this confusion would be cleared up if companies followed the advice I’ve seen Alison give elsewhere, namely DO NOT NEED TO ASK FOR REFERENCES AT THE BEGINNING OF THE APPLICATION PROCESS!

    1. Allison*

      Sometimes I wonder if they ask just to make sure the person is worth interviewing. They figure, if the person doesn’t have 3 references ready to go, they either don’t have enough experience or they’re not really prepared to look for jobs, either way they’re arguably not worth the employer’s time. In theory.

    2. katamia*

      I actually disagree with this. I don’t have three professional references (long story, not going into the details here) and nothing is more frustrating for me than to go to an interview and be asked on the way out, “Can you send us three professional references?” Well, no, because I don’t have them. Doesn’t mean I wouldn’t be a great employee, but we all just wasted our time with that interview and I wasted my time writing a cover letter and tailoring my resume to fit the position.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        But there’s no reason for employees to ask for them at the start of the process. This is more of a problem with your particular reference situation and the fact that you’re hoping they won’t ask for something that’s totally normal to be asked for. It would be like going to an interview and then being frustrated that they wanted to know your work history.

        You really, really need to have references — very few legitimate jobs will hire you without them. Have you gotten creative about who you can use — clients, former coworkers, any manager at all, volunteer work stuff? Doesn’t matter how great you are, if you told me you couldn’t produce any references, I wouldn’t hire you — so you’ve got to figure out what names you can give.

        The only time I could see not doing this would be if you were on the run from an abusive spouse situation, had to change your identity, and couldn’t risk anyone finding out where you were. And even then, I think you’d have to come up with SOMETHING, because just not having references isn’t really an option.

        1. katamia*

          Oh, I know it’s not an option and I do know that I need them. I do have one professional reference and family friends who are willing to serve as personal references, but most of the jobs I had were really bad fits so I genuinely didn’t do very well in them (and having undiagnosed depression didn’t help, either). I took those jobs out of desperation, and while I’m trying to be choosier now, it’s incredibly frustrating to be trying to dig myself out of this hole when it feels like I can’t get any references without, well, having references. I haven’t volunteered because I’ve been trying to leave my schedule open in case I got an actual job, and I genuinely can’t think of anyone else I could use at this point. And even if I did find another reference, most places want three and I’d only have two.

          1. Zillah*

            As someone who has struggled with depression as well, that really sucks. You have my sympathy. I’m not sure whether you want advice, so if you don’t, please disregard the rest of my post!

            Start volunteering. I get that you want to have your schedule open in case you find paying employment, but while I hope it happens quickly for you, it could take months, and if that’s the case, building your network, acquiring references, widening your skill sets, and having some kind of regular schedule will all be really helpful going forward. That’s especially true because you’ve had difficulties in the past – volunteering could be a really good way to help iron out the glitches.

            I especially wouldn’t not volunteer because it wouldn’t get you to three references. Potential employers might be more willing to take two references instead of three as opposed to one instead of three, and it’s entirely possible that you would find multiple people through volunteering that you could use as references.

            1. katamia*

              Thanks for the reply. I’ll look into volunteering more to see if there’s something I can get to work.

  23. AB Normal*

    I’m finding it interesting how many people confuse “can we contact your previous employers/managers” with “do you have precise information where to locate them / are your former managers still alive / do they still work for the same organization / will they still remember you”.

    It never crossed my mind that just because a previous manager may fall under one of the categories above it’s OK to answer “no” to the question “can we contact them”.

    It would be very hard for me to move a candidate forward in a hiring process if they said no to a question like that. Leave it to me to figure out how to contact people if you aren’t able to find them (nowadays, with LinkedIn, at least in my industry it’s super easy to find anyone, and reach out to them using LinkedIn’s paid feature if their contact info is not publicly available). And even if they don’t remember you, it’s better for you candidacy that you don’t display any concern of my talking to your past managers, because it shows you are not trying to hide anything.

    1. Sunrays*

      In this context though a plain yes or no can be a bit blunt. For example, if the reference is your current employer no might just mean ‘not yet’ but the application does not give that option, or give a timeline for contacting – and there are some jerk hiring managers who will call up your current job.

      Besides, who on earth would really list references they did not want to be contacted at all, or physically could not be contacted. Problem is that some hiring managers are very specific about who they will accept from previous employers which does lead to questions like these.

      Fortunately most managers I gave met have been great but there have been a few bad apples.

      1. Zillah*

        Most hiring managers are not going to hold a “no” to contacting your current employer against you, and those that do are probably people you don’t want to work for anyway.

  24. Christina*

    What about if your last manager is your current manager’s boss? That’s the struggle I’ve had (though it’s now changing as previous manager is leaving the company so I can list her freely).

    1. AB Normal*

      Christina, if your last manager is your current manager’s boss, that falls into “contacting current manager” and I wouldn’t hold that against you. I’d expect, though, that you said yes to the general question, adding a note somewhere explaining that only for that particular job, you are asking them to contact someone else from the company, because of the same manager being now in your current job. Like someone said above, if the question about contacting employers is being asked at the beginning of the process, it’s highly unlikely anyone will be contacted until you are actually being seriously considered (nobody can afford to contact previous employers of every single applicant).

      By that time, you’ll have had a chance to explain about the situation and ask for a different person from the past job to be contacted instead.

      I’m glad the situation is changing soon, though, so you won’t have to worry about any potential breach of your job search :-). Good luck!

  25. Allison*

    Sometimes I wonder if what they’re really asking is “are we able to contact this manager” rather than “may we contact this manager.” Fact is, I don’t exactly keep up-to-date information about my former managers, and people move around so quickly that if the potential employer were to call the old employer and ask to speak to my former supervisor, they might not even be there anymore, especially I worked there 5+ years go, and I’d be of no help in furnishing their current contact information.

    So my answer was always yes, but I’d always wonder, what if they really *can’t* contact my manager from the bookstore that’s not around anymore? What then??

  26. Fabulously Anonymous*

    I always check yes – and I have worked at companies that have gone bankrupt, where managers have left, and even one where my former manager now has severe dementia.

    1. the gold digger*

      I always check yes as well. The company I first worked at after college was acquired by a competitor and my boss there is long gone. The boss from my second corporate job hasn’t been there in years. The two bosses from my third corporate job are long gone from the company. I just check yes and give the switchboard number. Let HR explain.

      (But I am still friends with all my former bosses, except the mean boss from not-Argentina and the not so bright boss – he kept saying “Slovenia” for “Slovakia” and didn’t understand why this was a problem – from my most recent job. I never want to see either of those guys again. They made me really appreciate all my former bosses and the boss I have now at my new job. I had no idea what it was like to have a bad boss and I never want to have one again.)

  27. Curious Em*

    Oh no! I made this mistake earlier this week. The worst part is that I’m pretty confident the former supervisor in question would speak positively about me, but I wanted to be sure there was time to contact this person so that the reference check wasn’t a surprise (without delaying the application itself). Thank you, Alison, for a correction that will prevent me from making a similar misstep in the future.

    However, the prospective employer invited me for an in-person interview (yet to take place) despite my marking no. Should I let them know, either ahead of time via e-mail or during the meeting, that it actually is okay to contact that reference? Or could the fact that they want to interview me mean it wasn’t particularly a big red flag for their process?

    1. Sherm*

      I wouldn’t assume it’s not a red flag for them. Maybe no one looked yet at that part of the application. Better safe than sorry — I would just shoot an e-mail explaining what you said here.

    2. Zillah*

      I doubt they’ll cancel it over this if they’ve contacted you in the first place, and I think emailing them about it could make you look inexperienced and unsure of yourself. I’d just mention it in the interview, and then in a more subtle way than “I made a mistake!” (E.g., ask when the reference stage is because you’d like to give them a heads up.)

      1. Curious Em*

        Thanks so much for the replies and the confirmation that it’s still relevant. It makes a lot of sense that bringing it up in a subtle way in person is probably the best option.

    1. Marcy*

      I have done that successfully. I also had some letters of recommendation from former managers on company letterhead (not that I couldn’t have forged those, but at least it was something). I worked here in the US through college and then before I moved to Europe, I had my most recent manager provide me with a letter since I wasn’t sure if employers would want to deal with long-distance reference check calls (plus there was time difference making calling difficult). My employers in Europe were happy to have those and they did not contact my previous employer that I know of. There was no email (or if there was, most people didn’t have it yet) or social media back then so there weren’t many options for them. I did the same thing 10 years later when I was about to move back to the US- I had two of my managers there write letters on company letterhead. It was fine. They provided phone numbers and email addresses (email was around by then) in the letters but as far as I know, none of my managers back here in the US have contacted them. They seemed fine with the letters. That said, I would still give them the phone numbers of your former managers and just offer to provide the reviews or letters at your interview. That way they can decide if they want them or not.

    2. Lena*

      THAT is a great idea! I think if you have a good performance review from a current employer you should defintely use that.

  28. Analdi*

    What do you do when the nature of your work is that you don’t have or work under anyone as a “manager”? I’m a chocolate teapot expert. I am usually contracted by companies that don’t know anything about chocolate teapots—wouldn’t know how to make them, wouldn’t know how to manage the making of them, etc. They ask and make the teapots. They like them. end of story.

    The problem with this that it will be one executive who contracts me. Then they will be gone (there’s a high turnover in this industry) and no one left at the companies will know I was even contracted, since I never come into contact with HR departments – only accounting, and usually just to email invoices. Also, such companies are often embarrassed to acknowledge to anyone else that they actually don’t know anything about chocolate teapot making. This is a problem when I might want to work with either a competitive company. If someone were to call that person and ask “Did so and so make your chocolate teapots”? They want to deny it—so much so, that I will have to sign confidentiality agreements. In this niche of my field (I make other things) the norm is to prevent a portfolio or work samples and THAT is what one is judged on – it the work result good or not.

    What I’m encountering now, alas, looking to parlay that expertise into other kinds of opportunities and finding myself coming up against application procedures where no one asks or cares about portfolios and work samples. They want to talk to my managers—and I’ve never had a one! Their electronic application system does not allow for me to explain any of this, so I am losing out big time. *Sigh*

  29. NebraskaLass*

    I have a question about a specific instance. My old manager was sexist and had multiple official complaints about sexism filed against him. I am a woman and was definitely a victim of his sexist ways. I wouldn’t want a prospective employer contacting him because he hated all the women who worked for him and says bad things about all of them. But a prospective employer has no was of verifying that. What to do?

  30. matcha123*

    This is one of the things I worry about when I try and look for work in the US.

    My bosses didn’t really know what I did most of the time, and the people I worked closest with, who also speak English, were not in supervisor positions. The “bosses” themselves wouldn’t speak English well enough to answer questions about the quality of my work, and I highly doubt that someone in the US wants to make an international call to someone who may or may not speak English well enough to give valid information.

    “She came to work and was a nice person,” isn’t exactly a glowing review. And due to cultural differences (people do not ask for references in Japan), I do spend a lot of time worrying…

    1. Lizzie*

      I have also worried about this, since prior to the last two years, most of my work experience was abroad in a culture where references are very, very different from the U.S. I attempted to mitigate this a little bit by making clear to prospective employers that email was probably an easier way to get in touch with my former employers (or that, at the very least, they’d need to email first in order to set up a VOIP call) and by contacting my references myself to “coach” them a little bit on how to respond to U.S.-based employer reference checks. (So, rather than emphasizing my “good Christian values” [yes, really], they could talk about how I trained coworkers on skill X which had long-term impact Y.)

      I did successfully land two part-time jobs (which is what I was looking for) during the time when overseas references represented my most recent work experience. (Although I’m not absolutely certain that one of them actually checked references.)

    2. Fabulously Anonymous*

      Whereas I wouldn’t worry about it. I get where you’re coming from, but I also know that employers conduct reference checks all the time and they (most likely) have a process for handling the issues you describe. And to Allison’s point, the question on the application usually isn’t, “can this person speak English?” or “can this person speak to your past work experience?” The question is usually a more generic, “may we contact this employer?”

      I believe you are confusing the question with, “please provide references that can speak to your past work performance,” which is a different question and one that is usually not asked until further along in the interview process.

    3. Addy*

      I worked in a graduate school of education and we regularly had people applying for jobs who had been teaching in Japan or Korea for the last several years. They often did something that I thought was very successful, and it wasn’t weird at all on the other side of the interview table: they had their Japanese-speaking supervisor write a recommendation letter (I know Alison isn’t into those, but this is an unusual circumstance) in Japanese, had it professionally translated into English and certified as an accurate translation, and then submitted that letter whenever we asked to contact references, with a note explaining that the supervisor didn’t speak English, etc. I also tried to be mindful about cultural norms, and didn’t assume that a lukewarm or oddly-phrased letter meant that the applicant had done poor work.

      Of course, it was helpful if you could come up with at least one reference who we could call and talk to in English, and it was fine if that reference was a little more removed– a professor, for example. And we were a graduate school of education, so we obviously valued teaching work and had experience with people who taught abroad, so YMMV for other jobs/industries.

  31. mel*

    …. Dang it.

    I put “no” on mine because my last job was 7 years ago and I heard my manager had left after I did. If they’re just asking for permission, then why do they say “can we?” Shouldn’t it read “May we?”

  32. Lena*

    I had an employer years ago where I did not have a good relationship with supervisor, and then we both got laid off at the same time. She then retired and moved out of state. I used another Director in the company as my reference, and no one ever had an issue with that. Probably because the reference was a Director. I think I was asked once about my actual supervisor, and I could answer truthfully that I had no idea where she was and she had retired. I think there is almost always a better work around than just “no” to contacting a past employer.

  33. Amanda*

    I have been working a contract job for an in home entrepreneur and was terminated early. I requested a reference letter and was refused. On top of that I have had warning signs pop up for a while but I did some research on the guy and have found out I was working for a scam artist. How do I handle that both in an interview and when they ask for a reference?

  34. Amy*

    I’ve got two former supervisors as references, both of which I know would give me glowing reviews, but none of my former coworkers still work at the company, including them, which is why I usually tick no. They left before me, as well, and I don’t have contact info for the last person who was supervisor, besides being Facebook friends. Should I ask him for it and have employers contact him even though he doesn’t work there anymore either?

  35. Heidi*


    I am applying for a position at large company (through taleo’s online application system) and this sentence is in the blanket disclosure that I am being asked to e-sign: “As applicable in the location(s) in which I am seeking employment, I authorize the Company and its representatives to contact my designated current and/or prior employers, academic institutions, and other designated persons and entities for the purpose of verifying the information I have supplied in this application for employment.”

    There is nowhere for me to specify that they NOT to contact my current employer. Is this now standard? I found your 2012 post that said you do not have to check “yes” on the question, however here it is not a question — there is no “no.”

    I need the job I have until I find something better, and I certainly can’t afford to jeopardize it.

    Thoughts? Thank you.

  36. Kit*

    What would you recommend for a situation where you supported another ex employee in taking a former employer to an employment tribunal and won a case against them?
    I previously worked for a small start up business out of desperation after leaving my studies and consequently endured 4 months of harrassment, abuse and bullying from the director. I handed my notice in much to his dismay as he had me supplied through an agency and had lost all the rebate fee as I had been there too long.
    Despite him telling me on a regular basis I was terrible at my job and threatening to fire me on a number of occasions he was furious.
    My colleague won a tribunal where when posed with numerous email / text evidence of his mis -management and abuse they caved and paid out.
    They know I supported my friend as I was mentioned in the supporting statements. He attempted to contact me on various occasions after I left, calling from private numbers and imessaging from his email to get around the way I’d blocked his number.
    I put the accounts manager (based with the main company) down as a reference contact when I signed up to a temporary employment agency when I was looking for work and literally the day I was offered a job through them, I accidentally picked up the phone to him calling from an unknown number. I can only assume he was told by her that someone had been intouch about me….
    And I’m seriously supposed to put this guy down as a referee??

  37. Lucy*

    What if I don’t have a previous employer, would I just hit the “yes” button anyway or would that be a rare case where you would say “no”?

  38. VX34*

    So, this seems like a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation based on Alison’s advice.

    If I check “Yes” to a box to contact a manager from a job that fired me, and they contact that manager/job and find out they let me go…well, it may not be an automatic DQ, but now they know.

    If I check “No” to a box, etc.,etc.,…every employer is going to assume that the above happened, and it’s bad? I’m out of luck either way, according to this scenario.

    I actually worked for a job where the company I worked for closed down operations where I live…and on top of that, their HR instituted a “No References” policy. So, not only could they not physically contact my old boss…but they wouldn’t be able to say anything.

    I have good (great, even) references, and want to distance myself from the job that didn’t work out. That’s pretty much everyone, isn’t it? Otherwise, who would hire anyone, unless 100% of their former jobs were contactable and offered positive references?

  39. Not working now guy*

    I left a job on bad terms this past year. The roles and responsibilities, and time served at the company, were significant enough that they carry over to future jobs. I do not trust my old manager to not throw me under the bus since that is what he did for a year and a half anyways. I have had several interviews since then, second and third rounds, but can’t seem to get the job. The old job has to be on my resume but how do I know if the new job that I am applying for actually contacts my past employer? If my old manager said something damaging that isn’t true, it is illegal, but how do I know what he would say if they he was contacted?

  40. Morgan*

    The issue I have is that I don’t trust that my manager/boss will give a positive input. Now I am a good worker, have great reviews but the issue is that I do my job too well and I am trapped. I do the job of two assistants and then some. I’ve applied for 50 positions……50 and didn’t get one. Feel that someone is blocking me. Also to verify employment they have to contact job verification instead of contacting a manager directly.

  41. Andrew*

    What about retail positions that seem to have a revolving door of managers? Some job applications asked for work history from the last 10 years, so that includes the retail experience from high school and college. In my case I recall the store changing managers at least once a year the 8 years I was there. I usually put the number of the store, but even then the manager I had isn’t even at that store anymore. I only worked part time during my time there 10-15 hrs a week…

  42. Mary M*

    I recently applied for a new position where the application specified may we contact your former supervisor/manager. I answered no for both my current company (company/supervisor B) and previous employer (company/supervisor A). This is because while supervisor B is aware I’m looking, Supervisor A is now employed by company B and is Supervisor B’s supervisor so he could make things very difficult for me.
    This is also compounded by the fact that I am the only person in the company credentialed to work with a rather unique client and if I leave the company will have to scramble to cover this client. I just keep reminding myself that it’s not my fault Company B hasn’t gotten anyone else credentialed with this client in 3 years.

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