everything you need to know about job references

usnewsWhen an interviewer asks you for a list of references, are you confident about the names you hand over? Do you wonder what kind of questions they might be asked, or whether you’ve picked the right people? Are you supposed to list your current manager, or is it okay not to?

At U.S. News & World Report today, I answer a whole bunch of questions about managing your references. You can read it here.

{ 68 comments… read them below }

  1. Sunflower

    So I was the LW in this post- https://www.askamanager.org/2015/03/should-i-be-worried-that-my-manager-doesnt-return-calls-for-references.html

    I’m in a new job and not job searching yet but I am updating all my documents. At my last job I had 2 bosses- one I got along with really well and supervised me on an everyday basis(the one who wasn’t returning calls) and the other I got along with but really didn’t like. He was super shady with a lot of business practices but we are on good terms. Either would give me a good reference.

    However, there is someone at my last company who I know would give me a glowing, outstanding reference. She was as director who didn’t directly manage me but gave me assignments and I worked with a lot. She didn’t directly evaluate my work but my bosses(and others above them) would ask her for input on my work.

    I may not have a choice here as I know the one who didn’t return calls is the person I have to list as my last manager on apps but what would you guys do given this situation? Who would you put as your reference at the company?

    1. BRR

      If they ask for managers I’d put the one who doesn’t return calls. If you just need to provide a list of references I’d put the director (and possibly both your manager and the director). There might also be a situation where you can somehow say he doesn’t return communication and you’ll try and offer the director as an alternative.

    2. Ask a Manager Post author

      You’re better off listing managers, but you can note that one of them tends not to return calls and that if they need an additional person from that job, they can also contact Jane Smith, who didn’t manage you but assigned you work and worked closely with you. In other words, give them fuller info.

      1. Sas

        Where would you put this, though? I don’t think there is space on most “applications. Thank you Aam.

        1. Ask a Manager Post author

          If you’re filling out an application that requests the info, you can put it in any line where it fill fit (like a street address line, which they often have).

  2. She doesn't even go here

    What about when they ask for references and then don’t call them? I had this happen, still have no info on my candidacy except they’re “wrapping up” the process, and I alerted my references and now look like a jerk because they haven’t been called. They made this ask 4 weeks ago.

    How do I manage this with the references? Feels like I have egg on my face.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      That’s pretty common and it doesn’t make you look bad. Sometimes it’s because they’re collecting references from all finalists but only calling the final-final candidate’s references. Your references understand that you can’t predict that.

    2. BRR

      It does not reflect poorly on you at all. If anything it reflects poorly on the company but this isn’t supper uncommon.

      PS nice name

    3. Jamie

      I can’t tell you how many times I’ve rolled my eyes because people didn’t call references for key positions. Sometimes they just don’t and it happens a stupid amount of times ime (and it wasn’t the only thing wrong with the hiring process of those companies.)

      For my current job I gave three references, but since one was my current (at the time) boss and it was extensive they didn’t call the others.

    4. She doesn't even go here

      Yay thank you. That makes me feel better.

      I have no idea if i’m still in the running. This is a Fortune 30 company, I’ve had 11 interviews, and i found out from the recruiter that they don’t formally check references–only if the hiring manager wants a personal feel for the candidate.

      All mine are former managers who are also current coworkers.

      My application status is “under manager review” so who knows what that means.

  3. F.

    I don’t know how I’d handle the problem of references, since all of my past managers are long retired. My current manager, for whom I have worked for over nine years, would give me a good reference, but other than that, I am at a loss.

    1. Nan

      Me, too. I’d like to know that. Or, without giving my current boss, who really likes me and thinks I do well.

    2. Jamie

      Is there anyone up the chain or lateral to your manager who could speak to parts of your work directly? I try to avoid managing direct reports like people in the 14th century tried to avoid the plague but I happily give references for people who have been on my teams, whose work I can speak to as having audited them for years, etc.

      1. F.

        No, because I was an administrative assistant directly supporting these managers, and the next level managers (boss’s boss) are retired, too.

  4. learningToCode

    What should you do as a mid-20s person with only one “real” job?

    If/when I move on from my first job out of university, my only manager would be my current one. All my peers have higher seniority and their opinion of me affects my reviews, but is that enough to count?

    1. automaticdoor

      Yes! I was going to ask the same question. My problem might be even worse–I work for a one-man company and have for almost five years now as my first job. I have plenty of colleagues and clients in the field who could speak to my work, and I have old internship/fellowship managers from years ago, but do those count?

    2. Ask a Manager Post author

      Employers will understand that this is if your first post-school job, you’ll be in this bind. Do you have any jobs at all before this one — summer jobs, internships, retail, etc.? You can offer those up.

  5. Nadia

    I’m in a weird position in that my manager has never actually worked directly with me. He can speak to my work only because the various people I’ve actually worked with tell him good things about me.

    When I’m giving out references for this job, I’m going to go with the people who were responsible for giving me work and providing feedback to me on a daily basis, I think. They’ll be much more useful than my manager, who will just say “everyone always seemed to have fantastic things about her, but I never worked with her at all.”

    1. Josie Prescott

      I see comments like this every so often, and wonder if folks are misinterpreting what “manager” means. It’s not the person with that title, it’s the person who directly supervises you and your work on a day to day basis. They may not have hire/fire authority, but do have the authority to critique your work and the obligation to report issues with your performance up the chain.

      If you report to the spout supervisor, who is one of four supervisors reporting to the teapot manager, that spout supervisor is the person you want to give as a reference.

      For a real life example, I worked fast food in high school. When I applied for part time jobs in college, my references were the shift supervisors. The store manager only worked when I was at school, so she would have been able to provide only the vaguest of second hand references.

      1. Nadia

        It’s a little muddy in my particular corner of the world–for instance, my manager is the one who would be able to confirm my hire date and all of the various HR things. I work with a spout lead and several whole-teapot managers who would be able to speak to my work, but none of them would be able to confirm my hire date or whether I was eligible for rehire, and they’re officially peers rather than managers. The company as a whole has an extremely flat power structure.

        (And yes, people in my corner of the world almost always ask references if the candidate is eligible for rehire and try to confirm hire and leaving dates. It’s important to be able to provide references who can confirm these things if possible.)

        1. CAA

          Does your manager really know the exact dates you were hired and left? I give a lot of references for former employees, and while it’s true that everyone asks for dates, they are always totally fine if I say “let’s see, he worked on project x, and I know we started that in 2010, and I think he was with us for about 3 years…” Nobody actually expects me to go look up the dates that someone was hired, especially when the reference is for someone I managed at a previous company so I no longer have access to that info. If they really needed exact dates, I’d tell them how to contact HR, who is used to providing that for people trying to get security clearances or mortgages.

        2. Josie Prescott

          Interesting. To me, that sounds more like a background check than a reference.

          I don’t believe any of my former supervisors work at the companies where they supervised me. I don’t expect they’ve kept a file with my hire dates, nor would they have current information on my formal rehire eligibility.

          For a reference, I’d expect no more than vague employment dates and a statement on whether the manager would want the candidate to work directly for them again. If someone wanted “HR things,” I’d transfer them to HR.

      2. Tau

        This is a real headache for me because I work at a company which supplies… professional services? Is that the term? Which means that by that definition, my manager is the senior coworker who assigns me work at the client I work for, in other words not even employed by the same company as I am! My actual-company-manager, in the mean time, probably knows my name but I wouldn’t be completely surprised if he’d forgotten who I was. And he wouldn’t give a reference anyway since it’s company policy to only confirm hire/end dates, which I’ve heard he won’t circumvent.

        1. CAA

          Ask the people who assign you work and evaluate your performance to be your references, even if they don’t work for the same company. This is totally normal. It helps if your resume says you work for Agency X and then lists Client Y — job accomplishments; Client Z — job accomplishments; etc. So then when you hand over references where you have people at Client Y and Client Z on the list it makes sense.

          I just gave a reference on Friday for a contractor who worked with us on a six-month project. It was a call out of the blue, and it would have been nice if he’d given me a heads-up via email, but it wasn’t a problem for me to talk about when we worked together, what were the circumstances and how did he do in his role.

          1. Tau

            Thanks, this is good to know! I was definitely planning to ask one of the people here and am glad to have confirmation that isn’t unusual.

            The main issue is that I’d like to find a new job well before my contract here runs out… I feel I can’t ethically tell the client I’m leaving if I don’t tell my actual company I’m leaving, especially since by right they’ll have to make plans around the fact that they won’t be able to have me as long as expected. I might feel differently if my supervisor was another contractor, but he’s a full-time employee of Client Z.

    2. commensally

      My job previous to this one was essentially short-term temp coverage for a large organization with many locations- my “manager” was the person who handled hiring and put up the “temp needed these days” postings on the website, which we could then claim. I don’t think I interacted with them after I signed the hiring paperwork, and unless they were soliciting feedback from managers at the sites where I was working day-to-day, they knew nothing about my work, either. (I don’t even remember their gender, that’s how little we interacted.) Individual on-site managers only saw me for at most five days at a time a month or more apart, and usually less often, so they wouldn’t really work as a reference, either.

      I got my current job using volunteer work managers as references and putting “N/A” under manager for the temp jobs, but I have no idea if that was the right choice.

  6. Jamie

    I’ve worked for two companies in the past who had “no reference” policies. Position/title, dates of employment, ending salary were all that was officially allowed to be given and that required signature of former employee.

    In both cases if tptb were okay with how the person was leaving/left people were free to give good references and they did it themselves. If they weren’t okay with them leaving/how they left it was clear that no reference policy was in full effect.

    In those cases I’d tell the person needing a reference to use my cell and I’d do it anyway. I know, I’m usually a policy wonk but when a policy is clearly being used to punish people for personal reasons I had no problem with this for people who deserve a decent reference.

    And if I can’t honestly give a good reference I’ve told people that when asked. I don’t want to give a bad one, but I won’t lie so don’t put me in the position to be all name-rank-serial number which won’t help you.

  7. JanMA

    Yup, my last manager fled the state. The one before that is dead. The one before that I haven’t seen/hear in over 15 years. It’s getting harder and harder to find references.

    1. k

      My first job out of college was at a retail store (graduated during the recession), and my manager was a bit of a conspiracy nut. He was very private and wouldn’t tell us his last name. Not really usable as a reference.

    2. Manders

      Yikes!

      My former manager is still very much alive, but he wasn’t a very good boss and seemed offended when I moved on to work for someone he dislikes on a personal level. He owned the company and used his equally unprofessional kids as managers, so even though I had a few different supervisors and I did great work for them, they all have a history of getting weird about perceived disloyalty and badmouthing ex-employees.

      Before that, I did have some bosses at part time/student-type jobs who liked me, but they tend to be flakey and they didn’t work with me for all that long.

      What do people think about taking on some freelance clients on the side and then using them as references? The last time I switched jobs, some of the clients at my current job were able to speak to my professionalism (and one even tried to recruit me when she found out I was leaving) but now I don’t have a client-facing role.

  8. Chickaletta

    How far back can you go for a reference? I’ve been freelancing but want to return to the job market, but my last employment job was over six years ago. The one before that was about ten years ago. I haven’t been in touch with my previous managers because these jobs were in other states and there was no reason to stay in touch. Is it normal to reach out to people that far back to ask if they’d be a reference?

    I can come up with a list of other people who would be happy to serve as a reference for me that I’ve done volunteer work with, but they weren’t managers.

    1. Emac

      I have the same question. I left my last employer almost 5 years ago and the one before that would be going back 10 years. I’m still in touch with two managers from the one 5 years ago, but not the one before. And even if I could contact them & they agreed to be a reference, how much would they really remember about my skills and abilities?

    2. Aglaia761

      Former government contractor/freelancer here. To get the full time job I’m in now, I used my contract administrators or whomever my contact was at the job as references. Basically if they had any reason to oversee my work, I considered them a potential reference. If there were multiple people then I went with whomever I had the closest working relationship with.

    3. H.C.

      I think the longer they’ve managed you, the longer you can use them. I’ve listed a manager from 5 years ago when applying for my CurrentJob, but that manager has managed me for almost 7 years as we both progressed into higher positions (longer than any since…) and we still kept in touch occasionally.

      I don’t think it would hurt to ask the manager from six years ago to see if he/she will be your reference. Ten years might be pushing it if you haven’t been in touch otherwise.

      Also, if you’ve been freelancing, you can use clients as a reference too.

    4. CAA

      Yes, I sometimes hear from people I haven’t talked with in 10 years asking me to be a reference, so people definitely do use older contacts. I have been honest with them and with the reference checkers that it’s been a long time, and this person was really junior when I managed him, so while I can talk about his work ethic, professionalism, interaction with coworkers, etc; I can’t really talk about his current technical skills. Usually the former employees say they are being asked for at least 3 managers and they don’t want to use their current boss, so they need to put me down anyway and I say ok. The employers who call a manager from 10+ years ago for a reference are mostly just checking a box on a form so they can say they followed their company’s process and they know they’re not getting current info.

  9. Leigh

    I fell into something along these lines when I was offered a position and during the background check, they couldn’t locate my predecessor employer, a single-owner, small consultancy, to verify employment. I’d worked for him for 13 years prior to 6 years with my current company, so I was asked to produce W-2s to prove that employment.

    I’d thought of using this person as a reference if ever asked, but what do you do if you want to use a person as a reference and he ghosted? Do you get references from the clients during that tenure, or just keep references more recent?

    1. k

      Before listing them as a reference you should contact them yourself. Verify that you have the best contact information for them, and give them a heads up of which company will be calling (and time frame if you have that info). That way even if they aren’t a person who normally answers the phone, they’ll recognize the name or number on the caller ID and know to take the call.

  10. Sabine the Very Mean

    What happens if you worked for one manager for three years and it was the best three years of your professional life only to have a professional gaslighter take over at the end? In my situation, Boss A simply stopped working–told no one really–and Boss B just kinda showed up one day. He would say things like, “Hire a full time mechanic” and I would. Then next week he’d say, “why did you hire a mechanic? I DID not tell you to do that?! You’ll need to tell him what happened” When I would go back though clarification emails, I’d notice he was speaking to me in very half-truths. Easy-to-get-out-of type stuff. I quit after working with him for two months. It wasn’t contentious but it wasn’t pleasant. I’m still eligible for re-hire and have that in writing. Who do I list as my manager?

    1. Sabine the Very Mean

      To clarify: not for purposes of a professional listed reference but for purposes of simply answering on the application who my supervisor was.

      1. Josie Prescott

        I’d use the first one, as that’s who supervised you for the majority of the time you were in the position.

        1. Emac

          I would agree. Even if the 2nd manager wasn’t horrible, the first one will have a better idea of your abilities anyway from working with you longer.

        2. Any Moose

          Ditto. I was in a similar situation. My supervisor of 10 years left and they brought in an a’hole who forced everyone out. I give my former supervisor with the statement that they were the one who knew my work and that the manager I had when I left, I hardly worked with. So far, it has worked.

  11. Augusta Sugarbean

    This is a timely post for me, or possibly timely I guess. I may be at the reference-checking stage soon. This is one of the more frustrating aspects of a job search. One job wanted seven! references. I came up with seven but that was only including two people I haven’t worked with in 5-7 years AND two of my longest-term friends. Two other jobs at a community college that I was qualified for required three letters of reference at the time of the initial application! Silly. I think they were aiming at hiring recent graduates.

    I’ve been the shift lead for most of the people who best know my work so I can’t put them down. My current manager will definitely stick to the company policy of “refer to HR”. My previous manager who moved up a step has been acting questionably so I’m not sure anymore what she’ll say. It’s probably okay and I think I have to risk it since I’d only have two references without her. I’ve been at this job for twelve years so even if I could find my previous manager, he’d have a pretty dated picture of my work.

  12. Alex

    I am applying for a job at my current organization, in the same department I currently work. Would it be weird to list as references people who will probably be on the hiring committee?

      1. light on references, heavy on teapots

        If it’s not your current organization, but you previously worked there, still OK to list people you previously worked under that are part of the hiring process? I’m guessing it’s not ideal, but maybe fine if you’re early career?

  13. writelhd

    This topic is timely, I see a lot of angst here about unreachable/unreasonable/unavailable references for a host of perfectly understandable reasons, and I share that angst. Is there any general guidance on explaining unique situations to employers so that holes in references that look like red flags get the understandable context? or is that just one of those “luck of the draw things” like having a perfect work history with logical advancement within the same field vs…how the real world actually ends up unfolding for many otherwise deserving people.

    In my husband’s situation, he had just one entry level job in the industry he’s now trying to continue in, as his first job closed down because the owner fell into poor health and couldn’t keep up the business. Owner was his supervisor and sole co-worker, and the poor health is such that it permits him from being reliably reached (and more to the point…reliably lucid when reached…so *that’s* interesting…) Husband has tried to wade through this by using an outside consultant they used to work with as one reference, but that’s limited, and some people will want to know why the can’t have the manager. Which it gets into an interesting question about disclosing even very general information about a health status a former manager may prefer to keep quiet.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      He just needs to explain it! Not with a bunch of health details, but just “the owner shut down the business and is difficult to reach because of health issues.”

  14. Hates To Lie

    What do you folks think of stealth-checking your own references? A friend once asked me to call her former boss and pretend I was screening her for a job, to find out what her boss would say in a reference check. I felt reaaallllyyy uncomfortable with the idea and had to tell my friend I wouldn’t do it. Is this something people actually do? I understand the thought process behind it but it felt super-shady to me.

    1. Uzumaki Naruto

      I think it’s sketch. Ask your references if they can give you a positive reference — but if you don’t trust them to do it at that point, they shouldn’t be your references.

    2. Cassandra

      Mostly I see this practice when there’s a suspicion that a reference is being two-faced (telling the applicant they’ll say one thing, then saying something altogether different and more negative to the ref-checker), lying about the applicant, or otherwise unreasonable. It shouldn’t be necessary as an ordinary thing, but sometimes it’s smart self-protection.

      1. Ask a Manager Post author

        Right, exactly. It’s not something you’d do as a matter of routine, but it can be useful when you have reason to think that your reference isn’t being up-front with you about the type of reference they’re giving (which can be a thing that happens).

  15. Wendy Darling

    I left my last job without another lined up because my manager was HORRIBLE. I actually left on good terms… ish, by which I mean I left voluntarily and it was my idea. But one of the major reasons I left was that she was totally unsatisfied with my work because she had completely unreasonable expectations (and it’s not just me — I’m the first person to make it more than a month in the position).

    I’m concerned that this manager would give me at best an unenthusiastic reference and at worst a bad one. In contrast, I have three references from my last job who will happily sing my praises to anyone who cares to listen. How bad will it look if I only offer references from the job before last?

    1. Chickaletta

      I wonder if it’s worth leaving that job off your resume altogether. It depends how long ago it was, how long you were there for, how much you accomplished there, etc. If you were there only six weeks (you say you made it longer than a month, but not how much longer), and the job ended a week ago, leaving it off would look like you’ve been unemployed for less than two months which is pretty normal these days. If you really think leaving that job on your resume is worth it, then hopefully someone else here can give you advice because I don’t know!

    2. Barney Barnaby

      In this situation, list at least two other people at your most recent job, regardless of title, as well as the references at the former job.

  16. CP_Canada

    Well, this post is timely!I have a question about references for self-employed individuals who are planning to go back to being a regular employee. So, here’s the situation:

    I used to work for a couple of companies early in my career and I only worked for about 1 year for each of these companies (so overall, I worked for about 2 years as a regular employee just fresh after grad). One has a “no reference” policy, but I can still get a former coworker to be my reference even though it would have been better to get a manager, but this is the best I can do for now. The other one, I think I should be fine because my boss and I had a good working relationship and he was a great mentor to me. Then, I fell sick and took about 6 months off to recover (it was depression and anxiety disorder). Afterwards, my family decided to make a big change and so, we moved to a new province instead (equivalent to going to a different state in the US).

    In the new province, we started running a family restaurant. I basically do all the admin, supply chain duties and also help out in the kitchen occasionally. It was definitely a big move from a regular office job but I learned a lot from basic duties to managerial type of duties. But now, we’re going to be selling the restaurant soon, so I’m planning to go back to being a regular employee…the problem is, wouldn’t it be kind of weird that I were to list a family member as a reference? He’s my brother and the general manager of the restaurant…and I’m the owner.

  17. Lablizard

    What do you do if your old manager will give you a good reference, but is a bit…..strange? I have an old boss who would give me a great reference *IF* he could stop talking about himself long enough to talk about me. I know his reference giving style because he took a call for one when I was in his office. He said maybe 2 sentences about an old employee and then talked for maybe 45 minutes about himself and how awesome he was. Very, very awkward!

    Since then I have wondered if I ever leave this job if I should use him as a reference (he would be my next most recent boss) because I am not sure if a good reference from someone so odd would be a good or a bad thing.

  18. A Bag of Jedi Mind Tricks

    Wow! I was waiting for this topic. What do you do if all of your colleagues from your previous place of employment have either retired or have been laid off? Can/should I still put them down as references? (I have their personal contact info)

  19. Anxa

    “May we contact this employer?”

    So, one issue I have is with electronic applications. Sometimes they ask if they may contact an old employer, and I want to say yes, but I find it really rude to put yes. If I were to have an interview first, or some point of contact it wouldn’t be a big deal, but the idea of this company calling a former employer/org during peak hours for a non-essential call about me gives me shudders.

    This goes doubly so in jobs where I am pretty sure they wouldn’t remember me by name right away.

    I’ve had interviewing companies contact references/application points of contacts before me more often than not, so this really irks me.

  20. Anxa

    This is less of a job search advice question and a bit more of general life question, but I have a really hard time with references.

    I can have a cover letter, resume, application filled out, and I’ll hem and haw for days on the references. I am trying to get jobs in about 3 fields right now, none of which I have 1-2 years regular full-time employment in, but all of which I have some degree of experience with. For some of those fields, the most relevant references are from about 10 years ago! I am so ashamed of my underemployment and struggle with reaching out to some of these people AGAIN and asking for updated contact info, since yes, I still am looking for a job. I can’t help but wonder if they can’t help but wonder if they can really recommend someone like me after all.

    Does anyone else struggle with this?

  21. emma2

    I just have a question about hiring managers that call references that are not on the list. 1) Do you only do this if you already know the reference and, 2) If you don’t already know them, isn’t it possible you might annoy them, and their response will end up reflecting badly on the candidate?

  22. SusanElle

    I wanted to weigh in on my recent hiring experience as it pertains to job references. In May, I was offered a great job and I really sweated the job references part of it. This company asked for professional references along with 3 personal references (that couldn’t be relatives or previous supervisors). I was a little worried about what previous employers and supervisors might say about me, yet never worried about the personal references, because they were friends. I got hired but my new employer NEVER contacted any of my previous employers or the professional references I provided. They did, however, contact every personal reference I listed (remember, they weren’t relatives or previous supervisors). They either asked, or emailed them, a lengthy list of questions that should have been directed at previous employers not acquaintances. My personal references were very annoyed. The same exact thing happened to me during a hiring process 5 years ago. Some of my friends were kept on the phone for 45 minutes and asked employment questions that hey couldn’t answer. They were very annoyed.
    I’ve never worked in HR,so I may not get it, but there is obviously something wrong with the hiring process. Is it because hiring managers are afraid of the legalities as well as the intimidation of contacting previous employers? Are they choosing the path of least resistance? I guess my point is, that maybe you should pay more attention to who you pick for personal references and less about your previous employer.

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