should I be worried that my manager doesn’t return calls for references?

A reader writes:

I’m job searching and once I have an offer in hand, I plan on letting the company contact my current supervisor as a reference. Problem is, he doesn’t seem to care about giving references at all. Another employee, who was not his direct report, has been job searching and my supervisor has been contacted multiple times from his staffing agency looking for a reference. Every time, my supervisor just laughs and ignores it. I’ve told him to fill out the reference form for the sheer fact that they will stop bothering him, but he was always a fan of this employee and they are still friends so I think it’s kind of rude he keeps rejecting it. I’m not sure if this is because the reference is requested by a staffing agency but it worries me a bit. Is this something I should worry about? Is it a red flag to a new company if a supervisor just ignores reference requests?

Well, yes. You want to know that in the future, your manager will be willing to speak honestly of your work to prospective future employers.

That said, this is probably only going to be an issue for your next job search, not your current one. For your current job search, it’s completely reasonable to tell a future employer that you’re not able to allow your current manager to be contacted because it could jeopardize your job. You’re saying that you plan to allow it once you already have a job offer (an offer that would presumably be contingent on getting this reference), but you don’t need to proactively offer that — that’s basically a last resort if the new employer is insisting on it. Your default should just be “here are plenty of references from before this job, but my current manager doesn’t know I’m looking.” And that might be all that you need.

But it will certainly be an issue the next time you’re job searching, when you’re ready to leave the job you take next. At that point, you’ll presumably want employers to be able to reach this guy.

I think it’s perfectly reasonable to address it with him now, especially since you’ve already been talking about his refusal to respond to a reference request for someone else. I’d say something like this: “Our conversation the other day made me wonder: Do you generally not give references for employees? I’ve usually counted on having great references from past managers to get jobs, and I’d worry if you weren’t going to be willing to speak about my work in the future.”

If it does turn out that he won’t give references, you can warn prospective employers about that in the future: “In my experience, he doesn’t return reference calls for any former employee, but here’s his contact information if you’d like to try and here’s contact information for other references who I know will be glad to talk to you.”


{ 41 comments… read them below }

  1. LBK*

    Wow, that’s just plain rude. I hope he at least doesn’t do reference checks when he hires if this is his attitude towards providing them – how hypocritical it would be to blow off someone else’s request if you expect other managers to provide them to you.

    1. short'n'stout*

      And that’s a point that OP might consider bringing to the conversation with their manager, if it can be slipped in naturally.

    2. AdAgencyChick*

      It would also serve him right if HIS bosses don’t answer the phone when he is job hunting!

  2. Sandrine (France)*

    Oh my. Not exactly my situation, but close enough.

    Had a second interview on Monday. Sent an e-mail to two former supervisors from previous job, Rory and Jack. No news. Next morning, my friend Amy informs me that she saw Jack come talk to Rory to mention my e-mail.

    Now, I will admit to something: this was a call center, I did not handle the pressure well and despite all my efforts, I did use a lot of sick leave. Since the “new” job would be salesperson in a cookies shop, it’s 1) not the same context, 2) not even a competitor so I did ask that they not emphasize or mention the sick leave issue “if possible” .

    Apparently, they took it as me asking them to lie. They didn’t ask me, and Rory didn’t even say anything to Amy when she talked to him about it. Because I had told her through messages, she managed to convey that I wasn’t asking for them to lie, just to help me out and not scare the interviewer away. Now, had she directly asked about issues like that, well, they could have told, so be it, life is life, ya know ? But if she hadn’t, well, just don’t do it yourself maybe ? (Sidenote: they claim I was fired because of the sick leave issue, which is 100% legal in France, but the official reason is performance, which is a big pile of BS, and a whole another story) .

    Thankfully, on Tuesday I also had my final appointment for the unemployment mandatory training session. The counselor had to ask me about my job search, and when I told her, she told me to use her as a reference. Since it was work related, I passed her info to the interviewer who seemed quite pleased that I had found someone for her to talk to.

    To reply to OP: I do think it’s a red flag if he won’t consider any form of reference. I find it just rude that he’d even laugh about it. Just like in my situation: we’re not asking for a huge sacrifice, just something quick and simple to help us out get a new job. It shouldn’t be that hard or complicated (in my case, I told my friend Amy I wouldn’t have been pissed if they’d just said : sorry, we can’t do that… at least there would be closure!) .

    1. MK*

      I really don’t think the two situations are at all comparable. The OP is worried about her boss ignoring reference requests; you tried to influence the content of the reference. I think it was a bad idea, especially since it sounds as if you didn’t leave on the best of terms.

      1. Sandrine (France)*

        MK, worst thing is, I did leave on excellent terms, believe it or not.

        Jack was my first supervisor and when I left his team, he said he’d miss me and we saw each other frequently. I had a really good relationship with Rory as well. Since Amy still works there, from time to time she even tells me so-and-so asks about me in a very friendly way.

        The problem about the performance issue is that we all tried to work on it, but in the end, I just couldn’t be robotic enough for them, despite being told over and over and over again that I was just so enjoyable to listen to (since they did record calls for evalutation purposes from time to time).

        Rory and Jack did ignore me, they didn’t even realize Amy could hear their comments. Since Amy sits not so far from Rory and he knows we’re friends, he did mention the whole thing to her in passing and mentioned that he’d do it over e-mail, but he didn’t feel he could handle a phone call.

        By the way, yes, I did try to influence the reference. Given the relationship we’d had up until then, since the new job is not the same industry, not a competitor, and has *nothing* in common, I knew that the context would be different enough that the sick leave issue would not apply (the performance issue doesn’t apply either, actually, since you can’t exactly consider being on the phone answering people and selling cookies to people while also doing inventory from time to time the same thing) . If the interviewer had asked them if I was sick often, being honest wouldn’t have been the problem. Bringing it up if the interviewer didn’t would have.

        Sure, not the best idea in the book, but when you have a good relationship with your boss and team, and get fired because the powers that be decide all of a sudden after two years and a half that they will push people out as much as they can… you’d think that, 7 months later, they’d just help give a little positive kick so I can be employed again.

        (I’m in no way trying to say I was completely innocent, mind you. But the whole thing has left a very sour taste in my mouth and I’m not alone in that feeling :/ )

        1. some1*

          If someone called in sick to work so much that they were let go, I think that would be a concern for any employer, regardless of the industry.

          1. Sandrine (France)*

            It would indeed, but if I work in a call center and cannot handle *that* pressure and the sick leave is linked to that directly, the differences with the new job would make it different enough I suppose.

            Just like I would take sick leave if I lost my voice entirely for a call center job but not for an office job or something.

        2. toxicnudibranch*

          I’m afraid I would be hard-pressed not to see excessive use (or abuse of) leave as part of any performance issue. If someone is gone all the time, it’s difficult for them to do the required amount of work and do it up to snuff.

        3. RFM*

          That’s really not helpful of them. At the very least they could’ve discussed with you what their issues were.

      2. Not Here or There*

        If you’re asking someone if they would be willing to give you a good reference, is that considered influencing the content of the reference? I mean, I completely understand that it would be unethical to tell a reference to lie or tell them what to say, but if you’re asking them would they be willing to give you a good reference, is that considered influencing? I wouldn’t want to list someone as a reference unless I was certain they would speak highly of me.

          1. Rex*

            I would add, if they say anything but an enthusiastic “Yes, definitely!” then it’s probably a no.

        1. Sandrine (France)*

          Not Here or There, in my case, worst thing is we had such a good relationship that I thought that they would at least confirm details with me before I would send their details or just tell me no they won’t do it… but they never said a thing, and I’m SO GLAD that Amy was sitting where she was that day.

          If they’re not positive they can give a good reference, I’m fine with that. I’ll just find others who will spin things as positively as possible (friends offered to be references and I said noooooooooope if the lady does it the American way and calls HR too I’d be screwed so not taking that risk thankyouverymuch) .

          1. Andrea*

            That’s a tough situation to be in all around for you and your references. I’ve given references in the past for someone who was excellent but also had some performance problems – but she stayed in touch since then and I’m able to confidently talk about her strengths and also how she’s changed since she worked for me. This allows me to maintain my professional reputation by being upfront about past problems, but also allows for me to highlight her genuine strengths. I know this employee has been offered excellent jobs after my references and that she does excellent work.

            If your health is better now, and so not a risk of causing you to miss work at the next job, and you are comfortable disclosing this kind of personal information – maybe your referees could mention it but say that they believe it’s since been resolved. That way they can focus on all the good stuff you did when you were able to be there.

            1. Sandrine (France)*

              Thank you Andrea. My health is actually fine, technically speaking. The sick leave was because I was always on the brink of a mental breakdown and while I told my company several times (and did all I could to be transferred to another area where I wouldn’t be pressured as much) they decided that I had to be let go.

              To be honest, at least this experience has taught me one thing: I will not be asking them to be references again, that’s for sure :/ .

    2. Retail Lifer*

      Most companies I’ve worked for won’t give references, per company policy. They’ll verify job title, rate of pay, and how long you worked there, but that’s it. And they usually won’t even do that themselves – they refer you to HR. I would guess they’re afraid of lawsuits over bad references.

      1. Hlyssande*

        Same thing for my company. We use The Work Number, which sucks because it actually costs companies money to check references through it.

        The small rental company that manages my apartment complex (of two buildings) asked for a paystub instead of current employment verification because they’re honestly too small and it’s not used widely enough to make it worthwhile for them to even try to use the service.

    3. Looby*

      I don’t blame them for being :-/ at your request. I’d do that too if a former employee – who I fired! – asked me for a reference and then asked me to not mention the issues that I fired them for. I’d think they were delusional. Especially if they were under the impression they had left on “excellent terms”. As a person, they may have liked you; as an employee? I’m sorry, but you sucked.

      And I know you are arguing about being fired for “performance issues”. If you are constantly on the verge on a mental breakdown and can’t come to work to perform your duties, that’s performance issues.

      And your friend needs to mind her own business.

  3. MK*

    This guy sounds like a colossal jerk and borderline unhinged. Why would anyone “laugh and ignore” a request for a reference? It’s as if he enjoys making things difficult just for the fun of it. If he isn’t willing to be a reference, why not tell the employees, so that they at least won’t list him? Why not send a terse “I am not willing to talk to you” reply to the staffing agency, so that they won’t keep trying to reach him? What in earth is he playing at? And if he behaves like that to an employee who he is friends with, what does he do to people he dislikes?

    1. MissDisplaced*

      Or at the least, he could just refer them to HR and they can confirm the employment dates.

  4. NickelandDime*

    I had someone offer to be a reference for me, and when I called her and emailed her to let her know someone might be contacting her, she never answered me at all. You have to be careful about references. Make sure you have several people you can rotate to use and that will be willing and HAPPY to speak on their behalf. Don’t use anyone you think might be less than enthusiastic about you and your work. I don’t understand anyone that wouldn’t want to do this. I remember once someone told me that they put me down as a reference. I was thrilled. I asked for their resume, and we talked about their interviews. I even had notes down to discuss with the hiring manager. I was really disappointed when they didn’t call me. The person got the job, however.

    1. Jennifer*

      Oh, I rotate references too because sometimes people utterly disappear or don’t respond when you tell them to keep an ear out if they get a call.

      I strongly suspect I’ve never had anyone actually call for a reference in the last few years, but I don’t want to ask and confirm that though!

    2. S*

      One of my references for my current job did the same thing. She agreed to serve as a reference, but when was called, she did not pick up or respond to any emails from my manager. I only found out that she had never replied when my current manager told me that she never answered, but that the strength of my other reference was what sealed the deal for me.

      Thankfully, my current manager felt that I should know this information (she meant it kindly and as help for me in my current job search), or else I would’ve never found out!

      1. ThursdaysGeek*

        When I was unemployed, one of my former managers wouldn’t respond when called. One place I interviewed with told me they couldn’t contact him. I guess he was too busy, and I verified he wasn’t out of town. I didn’t get that job. Hopefully that wasn’t related.

  5. YandO*

    Follow up Question:

    I recently was offered a job without the potential employer asking or checking references. I took it as a red flag. I turned them down for many different reasons, but not asking for references made me feel they don’t vet their employees.

    However, I recently learned that employers may ask for references after they make and you accept an offer. How does this work ? Why do they do that? How does one handle that situation?

    Do I tell my current boss? What if he is bitter and on purpose gives me a bad reference that costs me the offer? how does one navigate this?

    1. voluptuousfire*

      ^ It’s not necessarily a red flag. Some smaller businesses don’t really bother with them due to bandwidth or it’s just not on their radar. With my last job, it was a yellow colored flag. I was hired within a week of my first interview and started two days after I was hired. I felt like they did me a disservice in a way because checking my references (or at least asking me for them and taking a stab at it) would have made me feel like they were more professional/vetted me properly. I know I didn’t ask the questions I wanted and I was booted out of the role 3 months later.

    2. Looby*

      My current employer doesn’t check references. They said they based their decisions on their skills testing and the 90 day probation period. They also had a “business coach” sit in on the second interview to “chat” so I guess that’s their way of finding red flags. I’ve been here for almost 3 years and I’ve only ever known 1 person not to finish their 90 days so their method seems to be working.

    3. Not telling*

      I guess to each his own but I wouldn’t see it as a red flag at all. MANY employers (including myself) think that references are a waste of time.

      Glowing references doesn’t necessarily mean that an applicant will be a good fit for the job. It could mean that the company just isn’t organized about documenting work product or behavior. It could mean that the person I’m talking to never worked closely with the applicant. It could mean that they are eager to offload a terrible employee and giving a good reference is the best way to get them out of their hair.

      Likewise, bad references doesn’t necessarily mean they were a bad worker–it could mean that there was a personality conflict or a bad manager or work environment. Or just that the person I’m talking to is having a bad day.

      And beyond all this, I think I’m a better judge of who will work well on my team than someone else (who is usually a competitor!). Reference checks are time consuming and I’d rather spend my time talking to the applicant themselves. Multiple interviews can tell me more about them (attitude, personality, knowledge, experience) and whether they are the right applicant for the job, than references can. In other words I “vett” my own employees, I don’t rely on other people to do it for me!

  6. CrazyCatLady*

    Just because the manager sounds a little unreasonable, I’d be hesitant to bring this up with regards to myself. I feel it would make the manager think I’m already looking for another job and I wouldn’t want that thought in the mind of an unreasonable boss, because who knows what they would do with that information. If it were me, I probably wouldn’t bring it up until I had already given notice.

  7. Ive BeenThere*

    To the OP: at this point you should be wary about what this nut is going to say about you. I would find a way around using him now or in the future.

  8. tango*

    “Another employee, who was not his direct report” – This is what I noticed first off. Why would YOUR boss have to feel obligated to give a reference for someone who did not directly report to him? Now I get that a person can list other types of references if they have direct knowledge of work ethic, behavior, skills, etc. But maybe your boss is not comfortable with giving a reference since he was not his immediate supervisor. Or possibly, there are other issues he does not want to vouch for with this guy that are unknown to you. Or maybe he’s irked he was volunteered as a reference without being asked first. So he chooses to ignore the reference request than come out and say something that might be perceieved as less than glowing.
    With that said, I’m still 99% sure your boss is being a jerk. But there has to be more to the story…..

  9. hayling*

    I would just look for other people from this company who can give you references. This guy sounds like an ass.

  10. King Calamari*

    “References” should be regarded as an archaic relic from the past. They made sense back when people lived in small, tight knit communities, but they make little sense today. Back then, the idea was that the employer could ask someone – who he/she knew and trusted – if the applicant would be a good employee or not. Think about it, why should an employer care about what some random manager – who might have low standards, or might have an axe to grind – thinks? I suspect that reference checking is still done because “that’s the way It’s always been done”.

    Want some good advice, dear reader? Fake your references. Maybe if enough people start using fake references, then employers will stop relying on “reference checks”.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      What?! That’s terrible advice. Faking your references is very, very easy to detect and will result not only in you losing the offer, but in you being permanently black balled.

      Good employees have good references. They have no need to fake them or fear them.

      And no sane hiring manager would hire someone without hearing first hand from people who know their work.

      1. NickelandDime*

        Allison would probably get less than half of the letters she does now if hiring managers actually checked references and prior work history on the people they hire. I’m not a hiring manager, but I strongly believe people should check references. It can save a lot of heartache down the road.

    2. Lamb*

      Fake your references and maybe if enough other people do it too it will work out?
      If that’s your “good advice”, what would the bad be? Using shoe polish as body paint instead of an interview suit?

  11. RFM*

    That sounds like terrible management and bad for the company in the long run. Once more people find out that there’s someone who doesn’t give references, no matter how good the work is, I bet they’d be hesitant to choose to work there. People generally don’t look for “rest of my life”-jobs any longer.

    As for what you can do now, OP, to ensure a good reference for when you’re looking for your next next job, is to build rapport with one or more other people in your company, preferably people higher up than you and your peers, and make sure that they become reasonably aware of how you’re functioning. Not that you should randomly reach out to higher ups – but if there are other senior employees that you work with (from other departments, maybe) that’s a good place to start.

  12. GovManager*

    I am an executive in a federal agency. I find it incredibly rude when the first inkling I have that a subordinate is a finalist for another job is when I get a call from the prospective employer asking for a reference. Am I off-base in thinking this is rude? In the federal system, we can’t fire someone for looking for another job so I don’t get what issue is.

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