we hired someone without talking to any references … and it went badly

About a month ago, a reader posted this in an open thread:

Does anyone have any experience hiring someone when you couldn’t get in touch with any real references? We recently interviewed some one who seemed okay but I had reservations. We didn’t have many good options, so we asked for her references. The only one we got in touch with was someone who worked with for 3 months 15 years ago and who is now her friend. We tried calling more recent employers and no one returned our (multiple) calls. Anyway, my boss was desperate and hired her.

I get that there might be some innocent explanation, but it’s a major red flag to me. Any stories (whether with good endings or bad) from similar situations?

At the time, I responded there with this: “It’s a major red flag. Can we use this as a test — will you report back to us in a few months about how she turned out as an employee?”

She did, and here’s what happened:

In an open thread a few weeks ago, I asked for experiences other commenters had with hiring someone when you couldn’t get in touch with any of their references, and you asked to report back with my story. Well…

Backstory: We were searching for someone for a position that required relatively difficult-to-find skills. The search went pretty poorly. At the interview stage, we had one candidate who I would categorize as “not great, but could work.” My manager and I agreed to move forward with her.

But then … we tried contacting her references. She has 10+ years of work history and we could not get in touch with anybody. When we went back to her asking for help, she provided references who, no joke, worked with her for 3 months 15+ years ago. We had been clear that even providing coworkers from her more recent jobs would have worked.

At this point, I was blinded by red flags and rescinded my support of her candidacy. Nevertheless, my boss offered her the job.

So … it’s been 3 weeks, and we’re letting her go tomorrow. It’s nothing egregious, but she lacks certain skills/personality traits (like resourcefulness, flexibility, etc.) that are necessary for the job. She’s also someone who I could definitely see being an “okay” employee in other jobs, but not someone who I would want to give a reference for.

I don’t know whether to consider this a “lesson learned” in terms of the references, because I’ve always known (partially from being a religious reader of this site) how important they are. But I’m a new supervisor, and I have learned that I need to put my foot down on hiring decisions when I will ultimately be cleaning the mess. I’m not sure how successful putting my foot down will be (since my manager is “involved” to say the least) but I will at least speak my mind.

Me again.

Yeah, it’s a lesson learned.

It’s not that there’s no conceivable situation where someone could have legitimate reasons for difficulty in coming up with references. Stuff happens — managers die, go off the grid, whatever. Or for people who are in their first job, it can sometimes be hard to figure who to use (since they usually won’t want to use a current boss who doesn’t know they’re looking). But that’s not what happened here. In this case, she didn’t give an explanation that made sense, and she didn’t take you up on it when you offered to let her use coworkers rather than bosses. There’s a reason for that.

And someone who’s a good employee with good judgment isn’t going to suggest references they worked with 15 years ago for three months.

So, the lessons to draw out for the future:

1. When someone can’t give you suitable references, have a conversation with them about why. You’ll get more insight by talking with them about it.

2. When you have reservations about a candidate, take those seriously. “Not great, but could work” is not enough to hire someone in most situations.

3. When you have reservations about a candidate but are considering hiring the person anyway, then you really, really need to speak with references to learn more. If you have reservations and the person can’t produce any references, that’s pretty much always got to end up with not hiring them.

4. When your boss wants to hire someone who you don’t think is the right choice, speak up. Ultimately your boss may overrule you, but it’s good to be on record clearly saying “I think this person would be the wrong hire, and here’s why.” (And I don’t think you managed this person but if I’m wrong and you did, then you have standing to push even harder.)

But also … experiences like this tend to be how people learn these lessons. I think everyone who’s been managing and hiring for a while has at least one story like this — so I wouldn’t beat yourself up over it too much.

{ 220 comments… read them below }

  1. alter_ego*

    I’m starting a job next week that did not ask me for, nor, as far as I know, call any references for me. I know that my references would be positive, and given how much my current workplace has emphasized that they’ll miss me and that I’m welcome back at any time, I know I’m good at my job. So I’m not worried about that. But it does make me nervous that they didn’t even ask me about references. They don’t know that I’m well liked at my current or previous jobs. They didn’t even ask them!

    So yeah, on the other end of things, I’m also concerned it might be a red flag.

    1. V*

      This seems to be common in my part of Europe. Reference checking is kind of unheard of. I had one potential employer ask me for references when I was a graduate, and I was lucky to have a great manager at an intern program who gave me a stellar reference, but nothing since. I’m wondering if I’ll be asked the next time I switch as I’ll then have previous managers that I can ask but it really seems to just not be done here. Which is strange considering how much harder it is to replace people here compared to the US.

      1. MrGreenHRM*

        If you don-t mind answering, where in Europe is this? #curious

        Is there anything to replace that? Like, do recommendation letters hold *a lot* of weight?

        1. V*

          I’ve interviewed throughout the Benelux area.

          And bizarrely, no, they don’t do anything like that. I’ve interviewed with 3 of the Big 4 and none asked for references or included any kind of technical test (I’m in IT). Perhaps it was because I was coming from another consulting company that they didn’t worry about that, but I’ve asked a dozen colleagues who’ve made hiring decisions over the years and it seems like reference checks haven’t even occurred to them.

          Recommendation letters don’t exist here either. Cover letters aren’t even really a thing.

          It’s a strange and mystical place. :)

          1. LS*

            I’m in South Africa and it’s the same here. In 25 odd year of working I’ve been asked for a reference once. No recommendation letters either. “Technical” tests or rather skills assessments in my field (UX) are starting to become a thing though, which is good.

        2. Jen RO*

          References are not commonly checked in Romania either and I’ve never heard of recommendation letters being a thing. We hire based on interviews and skills tests.

          The only reference check I had contact with was a form email when one of my reports quit. It was a weird situation overall – he wasn’t a stellar employee, but he had already handed in his resignation and honestly I wanted him out. In the end I gave him a “Good” rating for all the criteria and didn’t add any comments. I don’t think a lukewarm reference would have hurt him much, but it still caused me a day of internal struggle.

          1. Jen RO*

            Oh yeah, and cover letters aren’t a thing here either. I haven’t seen one in years.

            1. neeta (RO)*

              Hah, I think I tried to write a cover letter just ONCE in my life, to contact a friend of a friend on hear-say of an open position. Didn’t hear back anything. :P

              I know this probably sounds horrific to Alison. Sorry? If it helps, I do think that IT is a “category of its own” when it comes to the lack of cover letters. I heard of plenty of other jobs where they’re still very much a thing.

        3. neeta (RO)*

          I wouldn’t go as far as saying it’s unheard of, and I’m inclined to think it depends on the industry.

          I work as a computer programmer in Romania, and I’ve only had to provide a reference for ONE single job in 10 years of working. Even then, a letter of recommendation was enough.

          On the other hand, informally contacting people from one’s current/past companies is a much more usual practice. I actually found out, that while I was interviewing for my current job, the recruiter was friends with a colleague as previous job, who then provided an informal reference.
          The conversation where I found this out was kind of funny:
          Colleague: So how’s it going?
          Me: Fine. Well, I just gave my two week’s notice… but yeah, fine.
          Colleague: Oh yeah. Actually I kind of know.
          Me: You do?
          Colleague: Yeah… I was asked for a reference.

          Cue me having a mini-panick attack… what if my boss had been the one to ask for a reference. I guess that’s the risk in working for smaller companies.

      2. Snowglobe*

        Flip side: I’ve been a manager for over 15 years and have had many former employees move on to bigger and better things. I’ve only once received a reference call. Most former employees have every reason to know I’d give them a positive (even glowing) reference. I can only assume there are a lot of companies out there that don’t check references.

        1. designbot*

          So many hires in my field are based on referrals that it’s unnecessary. When someone already at the company is vouching for the person, calling around to others doesn’t seem as important. My current company still does it anyway, but previous places I’ve worked have counted that reference as the only one necessary.

      3. K*

        Actually that’s pretty much the same for the countries I worked in so far (Germany, Japan). In fact, in Japan I worked in recruiting and never asked for a reference even once because it’s completely uncommon. The only exception I know of seem to be jobs in academia, but of course there might be other industries as well. Usually I got good insights into the applicant’s personality with more open questions and of course the way they behave, but of course there’s never a guarantee.
        In Japan, there’s usually an approbiation period of 3 – 6 months which gives enough time to check whether an employee is actually suited.

        1. neeta(RO)*

          Probation period in Romania is generally 3 months, but I recall reading that the law allows employers to extend it to 6 months. During this time, the employee can be fired at any time, without notice. After this, it’s much more difficult, requiring lots of documentation for poor performance etc etc.

    2. Antilles*

      I wouldn’t get too worked up about it, since it seems like many times when employers don’t actually call references,
      it’s because you wowed them in the interview enough that they decided not to bother.
      It isn’t the proper way to handle it since after all, plenty of people can pretend to be great for a 45- minute stretch. But it’s common enough that I wouldn’t consider it a huge red flag for the employer.

    3. hayling*

      Eh, my last company didn’t check references for me, and it wasn’t a red flag as a candidate. It just means that the company hasn’t had any horror stories yet. :)

    4. Coming Up Milhouse*

      I didnt have reference checks either; I did have a really rigorous background check for my current position that was like duplicate work because I got married last year. So I had to provide extra documentation on my marriage and name change.

    5. Malibu Stacey*

      My reservation would be that my coworkers were hired without references and won’t be good workers or difficult to get along with.

    6. Victoria Nonprofit (USA)*

      In my husband’s field (corporate strategy), he’s never been asked for references. It blows my mind, coming from a field (nonprofits) where references are taken very seriously.

    7. periwinkle*

      I was pretty confused when my now-employer (Fortune 50 company) did not ask for references. My offer was contingent on passing a thorough background check, which included former employers, so maybe they verified employment and re-hireability that way? That would not have clued them into my performance or attitude or tendency to rip paper cups into tiny shreds during long meetings.

      Luckily for them I’m a regular AAM reader and follow her advice on how to be a good employee. I also switched to a water bottle.

      1. Natasha*

        Lol, I couldn’t tell if you were joking about the paper cups until the last sentence. I do that with styrofoam, another quirk I didn’t realize could be irritating to others.

        1. JessaB*

          Styrofoam, the wrappers on straws, bubble wrap and those little paper strips they put around pre sorted silverware in low to mid range fast food type places. I am so with you on the stuff to fidget with.

        2. Anion*

          OMG I would have FITS. I can’t stand the sound of styrofoam breaking/rubbing against other styrofoam or cardboard.

          I seriously would freak out a little if you were making styrofoam noises near me in a closed room, and would ask you (in a friendly, self-deprecating way) to please stop it. Inside I’d be dying.

    8. Jady*

      I’ve worked at 3 different jobs across 10 years. No one has ever even asked me for references. So it just seems normal for me.

    9. AP in Tennessee*

      I was told on my first day of work at a new job that, although I provided them, they did not check my references. I was actually super thrown off by it. Honestly kind of wish that had since they were expecting the person in my role to have very specific personality traits that I certainly do not possess!! Oh well.

      1. Elfie*

        I’ve had 7 jobs over 18 years (UK, in IT), and whilst I’ve got references lined up all the time for new jobs, I don’t think they’ve ever been contacted. I do get in touch with them from time to time to check up. I’ve also not written a cover letter for a job. I get most of my jobs through recruiters from my LinkedIn profile (it’s been very successful for me). Then it’s usually just sending in a current version of my CV, which is all they seem to want. For reference, I’m not even in London!

    10. Not Rebee*

      My current employer (2.75 months now) didn’t call any of my references and didn’t even submit my background check until my first day of work. I gave my previous employer a full 2 weeks notice, so this current company had plenty of time to get that done. To top it all off, when my background check came back it was all messed up and said that I hadn’t attended my university for 4 years (making it seem like I lied about my degree) and listed a different graduation date than I listed on my resume. I called the Registrar to confirm that their records showed I had attended all four years (went something like “I know I attended in 2009 because I was living in an on campus dorm that year”) and get an explanation in case it came up, which it hasn’t. Perhaps some companies just don’t care as long as you’re competent? I do find the whole experience a little odd, but so far it’s worked out. So I don’t know that it’s worth a huge concern to you if your employer doesn’t contact references for you, but as the employer, I can see why I would think it’s a red flag if I couldn’t get in touch with your references. Guess this is another one of those weird hiring double standards.

  2. The OG Anonsie*

    This is interesting, because I would think that someone being at a “not great, just ok” three weeks into a job would be pretty expected. I wonder how exactly this went from the big boss saying they were desperate enough that “just ok” was fine to letting her go within three weeks if there was nothing egregious.

    Not asserting that this was the wrong choice, I’m just curious how it went full cycle so quickly.

    1. Antilles*

      It’s nothing egregious, but she lacks certain skills/personality traits (like resourcefulness, flexibility, etc.) that are necessary for the job.
      I think this is the key – the boss thought “just OK” meant that it was someone they could mold over time into a good employee. But then once they got in, they realized that her personality and skills are so far away from what they need that there’s no feasible way to pretend that “maybe we can fix…”.

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      They thought she was “not great, just ok” as a candidate. Once she was on the job, they saw she didn’t have necessary skills/traits. (Not being resourceful or flexible can be really big deals in some jobs.)

    3. Manders*

      Sometimes it’s clear early on that someone doesn’t have the critical thinking skills or ability to work independently that they need to do certain jobs.

      I’ve had the displeasure of working with a few people like the candidate OP hired. They had weird job histories (lots of short stays, jobs that were actually only a few hours a week, long stretches of unemployment during times that the economy was doing OK, etc) and the hiring manager didn’t do a thorough job of checking references. They would have done well at jobs that needed someone to do the same simple task over and over, but they couldn’t solve complex problems on their own or follow procedures with many different steps. I did feel bad for some of them, because they would have done well in something routine like factory work, but so many of those jobs have been outsourced.

      1. Bea*

        “Sometimes it’s clear early on that someone doesn’t have the critical thinking skills or ability to work independently that they need to do certain jobs. ”

        This just put all my frustrations with a recent new-ish hire into words I’ve been struggling for because when trying to explain to anything, I just start trying to not go into a rant about how they aren’t good at the job we need them to do but can’t sum it up tightly. I’m so glad this post happened.

        1. nofelix*

          Sometimes people just need permission to use their own judgement, especially if their previous bosses were very untrusting. I’m not saying this must be your situation, but it could be. Does the employee understand that taking the time to work things out for themselves is okay, vs. lacking the ability to work things out.

    4. The Other Dawn*

      It’s been my experience that one can generally tell within the first week if someone has what it takes to do the job. I’m not talking about things like learning the intricacies of a system or learning the more advanced functions in Excel. More like common sense, and the things OP talked about, like flexibility and resourcefulness. It’s happened to me a few times in my career; I just knew within a week that it was a bad hire and it turned out to be true, so the company let the person go within a few weeks or months.

      1. Toph*

        Yep. Even things like, what sort of questions do they ask while getting used to stuff? That’s one for me that’s always been very revealing. It can be too early for someone to have done much of anything (well or poorly) but the common sense indicators and general levels of inquisitiveness or lackthereof speak volumes.

    5. Letter Writer*

      I meant “nothing egregious” in the sense that she didn’t misbehave or do anything outlandish, but it was still clear that she wasn’t able to do the job.

        1. designbot*

          oh ha, I didn’t even notice this was the LW I was replying to. Of course they’re right, it’s them!

      1. The OG Anonsie*

        Aha, so the assumption is she would be passable but she turned out to be actually non-functional in the role. That makes sense.

    6. LBK*

      I found that a little odd at first, too, but I actually had a coworker like that where it was clear early on she wouldn’t be able to do the job. She’d come from a role that had extremely structured procedures into one that required a lot more synthesis of information and organic conversation. After a week or two she was asking if there was any kind of script for those conversations or a database of answers to common questions, but every conversation and situation was unique so there wasn’t really a way to do that – you’d have to write 500 different scripts or a database that basically just said “read the notes on the case” for every answer.

      It just made it clear that she wasn’t thinking about the job the right way and that the kind of collection of information and problem solving based on past solutions she’d need to do was beyond her. She struggled through it for another 9 months or so before we finally fired her.

      1. Rocky*

        Ooh we have an employee exactly like this. She’s a lovely, kind person, very positive and keen to learn, but the role we have involves a LOT of initiative and ability to move swiftly between issues. She was a good solid performer at her previous process-oriented role, but she’s honestly struggling to learn with us (and it’s reached the stage where she’s pretty clearly not ever going to get it). It’s heart-breaking when you know she really is trying her best.

        1. LBK*

          Yeah, as frustrating as she was to work with I felt pretty terrible when she got fired, because performance issues aside we got along well and she was genuinely trying as hard as she could. She just didn’t have it in her.

      2. Bea*

        Oh thank goodness I’m reading all these comments right now. I had an experience trying to train my replacement almost a year ago and she was exactly like that. I couldn’t explain to my boss right out of the gate what was going on because words get lost when I’m frustrated (working on that!)

        Thankfully for the lady in this situation was let go within a week of me being gone not coaxing her along every step of the way because it was an absolute no script, fly by the seat of your pants environment whereas she came from a long line of call center like jobs. She was all about memorizing things but you have to tell her what to memorize and give her many weeks to do so. Not just take some notes and shadow a person for a few days like the job really required.

      3. ceiswyn*

        Yes, this is very familiar.

        My current role requires a very high degree of technical comprehension, initiative, and problem-solving. The company is constantly doing new things and introducing new products, so while we can create some general processes we can’t pin down details. It’s a high-pressure environment where everyone’s always at full stretch. And I’m the senior (was previously the only) technical writer, so if I can’t solve a technical writing problem it just doesn’t get solved. And that isn’t an option.

        Getting answers from a nice document somewhere is not a thing, and asking other people for help is not encouraged. In addition to being expert on the product and the domain, I’ve spent the last four-and-a-half years or so doing things like getting access to the development repository and learning to read our application-specific code, or in one memorable instance writing the installation guide for some software by trial-and-error installing a beta release on a customer system on another continent via nested remote desktop sessions.

        I’m now trying to help find my replacement, and while we’re seeing plenty of good writers, we’ve yet to run across anyone who can synthesise and investigate at the required level.

  3. Stephanie the Great*

    So I have a quandary about references that I am hoping you all could help me with.

    I’m 28, I’ve been in the work force since I was 24. Before that, I was in undergrad and grad school. Those references, while fine for a first job, are definitely stale at this point, as they’re from my time of being a research assistant and lecturer — not exactly relevant to corporate HR. My first job was with a recruiting agency and I did really well there, but my former boss has since been fired from that job, and I don’t really know where he went, as I couldn’t use him as a reference when I was applying for my current job (you know, because I was working for him). He was also a colossal jerk about me moving onto corporate from the staffing environment, and I wasn’t really eager to use him as a reference. I do have a reference from there, a senior staffing consultant who I worked with at the time and can attest to my work.

    Now I have my current company. I’ve been promoted once, and have had two managers. One of those managers now works in another division of HR, and my current boss is a VP HRBP. The company policy here is no references EVER. So even if I wanted to have my old boss (who still works at the company) give me a reference for a job at another company (which would be awkward to ask, because she’d know I’m looking to leave the company, and still works with all the people I work with), she most certainly wouldn’t, as she was adamant about enforcing that policy. Which leads me to now — I have one reference who was a Director that I supported in my time with my previous boss who no longer works here (I am a business manager, so I support a number of people, but obviously only have one direct supervisor, but I did “work” for him), and another reference in the company who does work here but is trustworthy and wouldn’t jeopardize my search or my position at the company.

    TLDR – I don’t have any true supervisor references, and I wonder if it would be a red flag in my job search?

    1. jess*

      I have never heard of a company policy that refuses references!!! Other folks, is that .. a thing? Is it about trying to discourage employees from leaving? It sounds extremely inhospitable.

      1. Here we go again*

        I don’t think I have had a single professional job where company policy didn’t haven this policy! Ironically, none of them have a problem asking for references.

        It’s really a Catch-22.

        1. Optimistic Prime*

          How can a company be so astonishingly hypocritical that they will forbid their employees from providing references but will then request them for job candidates?

          1. chicken_flavored_deodorant*

            Many companies are deeply engaged in far larger hypocrisies every day; a little one like this could entirely escape their notice.

      2. DecorativeCacti*

        Our official policy is no references. That just means when you call HR, they will only confirm employment but (at least here) people can be personal references. So even though they are my colleagues or managers, they are speaking as a private entity on their own time and not for the company.

      3. Antilles*

        It’s a thing. Most companies with this policy at least are courteous enough to confirm employment dates, but some won’t even go that far.

        1. Stephanie the Great*

          We have a third party that does verify that information, and we’ll provide official HR-y letters if that isn’t enough (normally for like, adoption or other serious things). I’ve written dozens of them.

      4. Stephanie the Great*

        It’s wrapped up in our confidentiality policy to not provide individuals external to the company the confidential employment information of current or former employees. Interestingly enough, this applies to former employees themselves — we are not authorized to provide them with copies of their performance reviews and compensation statements after they’ve left the firm. Basically, because employee performance reviews etc are considered confidential, and if a former manager tells a person conducting a reference check something that would be found in those reviews, it puts the company at risk to be sued by the former employee, for either stating something that wasn’t in the performance review, or for sharing information they thought was being kept confidential, etc. It’s additionally complicated because my company’s industry is financial services, and pretty much all of our employees are participants in our services, which adds a whole other level of confidentiality concerns.

        Essentially, it’s safer to not say anything.

      5. General Ginger*

        My company won’t do it either, and I am basically in the same boat as above poster.

      6. Nan*

        It’s a thing. We are allowed to provide start and end dates. And they come from HR and only HR. No references.

        I did recently term someone, and in the term meeting she asked if she could use me as a reference. What the what? You clearly didn’t perform to my expectations. No. Just No.

      7. The OG Anonsie*

        The place I spent most of my early career at forbade employees from being references. You’re required to send people to HR, who will confirm dates and standing and all but that’s it.

        It hasn’t been an issue for me yet, but I am afraid of it becoming an issue in the future since the bulk of my working years were for this network.

      8. oranges & lemons*

        A company I interned for recently adopted this policy and they enforce it in a pretty draconian way as far as I can tell–my previous supervisor told me that she wasn’t allowed to speak about anything I had done on the job at all, and could only be a personal reference based on our (extremely minimal) interaction outside of the office.

      9. Trig*

        My company doesn’t. They go on about how good working at Teapot Inc. will look on your resume but decline to mention that they don’t provide references.

        ‘Lucky’ for me (and this is putting a positive spin on something awful), my manager and several colleagues of four years were laid off recently in ‘restructuring’. So, hey, they’re no longer with the company and can provide references when I’m ready to move on! (Restructuring sucks, I really liked my manager.)

      10. KR*

        Ugh, that happened with a previous job of mine. Also the HR manager at my location wasn’t allowed to confirm the dates of my employment either. They wanted my current employer to make an online account with someone then “request” my dates of employment from them. Wtff

      11. Creag an Tuire*

        I feel like we need to start a movement to Glassdoor the heck out of any company with this policy. Both as verification to skeptical hiring managers and because these companies deserve shame.

    2. V*

      Have a look in the archives because as I recall Alison covered a similar question in the past regarding companies that prohibit employees from giving references, of which she’s obviously not a fan. She indeed recommended asking people who had already left the company as they can safely give a reference.

      As far as I know it’s common that people have to use suboptimal references and as Alison said good hiring managers will work with a candidate to understand the reasons behind it and to work out a way to check your references that will satisfy them.

  4. This is me*

    My next question is did they even have any on linkedin? Two of my references are academic and if you even attempted to contact them in the summer, it would be next to impossible. They have, however, both written recommendations for me on Linkedin. Would this have even assuaged your concerns?

    Personally, in this situation I say no. If you were already on the fence, I don’t think a reference would have made a difference . I personally believe going with your gut on this.

  5. AnotherAlison*

    So, this may be an armchair diagnosis of a business problem, but I would suggest looking at why the job is so hard to fill. Is there a way to restructure the work to attract candidates who are better than, “Not great, but could work” who don’t even make it a month?

    Several years ago, my bosses wanted to hire a temp with advanced Excel skills to help with some reporting in the department, and the person would ultimately be earning something like $11/hr from their agency. We had two horrible candidates, one who “could work” and was hired, but was not kept on past her 3 month temp contract.

    Great candidates with advanced Excel skills aren’t looking for $11/hr jobs, so I’m curious if there’s a parallel situation in your company.

    1. K.*

      Yes – the fact that the role is hard to fill struck me too. If the entire candidate pool is poor, it’s worth trying to figure out why. Are you working with a staffing agency that doesn’t understand the job and is sending poor candidates? Is the salary commensurate with the description? Is the description written clearly? Etc. In a more extreme example, I once met someone who moved his smallish company because he couldn’t recruit in the area in which the company was located (it was a small town exurb of a big city; he moved to a much-closer, more active suburb of the same city).

      1. fposte*

        Actually, region was the first thing I thought of since it’s an issue at my workplace. Even with a decent salary we just may not have many applicants to choose from for positions that require specialized skills or knowledge (or we may already know all of the applicants and think they’re not right).

        1. Shadow*

          I’m always curious when people say decent salary. Do you mean decent compared to other salaries in the region or decent compared to the options that qualified candidates that aren’t in my region have?

          1. fposte*

            Usually I mean decent for the region. even for higher stuff, we’re competing in a national market (higher ed) where a lot of big players in higher COL areas don’t have much money either, but mostly I’m talking about jobs that people are unlikely to relocate for.

        2. Anon Anon*

          Agreed. Where I work it can be very challenging to hire, because we are a niche within a niche industry that is primarily based in DC and NYC. There just aren’t a lot of people with the right set of qualifications and so our candidate pool is always quite small to start with. You can only hire from the applicant pool that you have. You can do things to try and expand that pool, but sometimes where you are located, the industry that you are in, and the time of year can all limit that.

      2. all aboard the anon train*

        Region can be a big one if you’re trying to recruit people who live in a city to go work in a suburb (or vice versa). I’ve had my fair share of employers/recruiters from the suburbs telling me that my reason for turning them down is a reason they get a lot (outside the city, no public transit so I’d need to buy a car, it’d be an hour to hour and a half drive which is a lot compared to my current 20 minute walk/10 minute subway ride).

        Even with a very large salary that would be a huge pay bump, I’m not willing to commute outside the city and off public transit.

        1. K.*

          Yeah, I’ve said here many times that a long commute is a deal-breaker. When this person told me where his company used to be, he asked me if I’d have applied for jobs out there and I said “No way, unless I could work 100% remotely.” It’s a good 50-60 miles from home. I worked in an area with no public transportation (you could reverse commute on a train but that would get you about two miles from the office on a road with no sidewalks) and I hated it.

          1. all aboard the anon train*

            Definitely. I moved to the city for a reason, and it’s so I wouldn’t need a car. Having to buy a car to get to a job is a deal-breaker for me.

            What annoys me are recruiters who try to be coy about location and say the company is in the city and then it’s outside the city and off public transit lines. I’ve just started asking upfront where the company is located.

    2. Bolt*

      Amen to that.

      My boss believes he can find an accountant to join our team that is fine with minimum wage and well below our own wages. I tried warning him that he’d get what he paid for (likely applicants with no education or the relevant skills who are just looking for “a” job) but he is convinced there is some genius out there willing to work for nothing.

      1. DecorativeCacti*

        Many people are convinced of this. I’m trying to find an admin/support type position and the requirements are insane. They’ll want an accountant/HR/receptionist/office manager for barely above minimum wage.

        1. paul*

          there’s an agency in town that tries to pay minimum wage for LMSW people. It…doesn’t work well for them. Their last one literally left to go work at WalMart because it pays substantially better.

      2. JeanB in NC*

        He wants a degreed accountant for minimum wage?! I’m just a bookkeeper and I don’t even apply to anything for less than $15/hr.

        1. Jadelyn*

          I love finding postings for “HR Assistant” or “HR Clerk” that…want candidates to have a PHR or SHRM-CP certification. Nobody who has sufficient experience to have gotten that certification, is going to be looking for an entry-level position for $14/hr.

          Same for receptionist positions that want someone with a 4-year degree, for $10/hr. Good luck with that.

      3. chocoholic*

        My husband ran into this years ago. He is a licensed architect and was interviewing for a job that turned out paid a lot less than he was expecting. The owner of the firm said that there were lots of licensed architects out there who were willing to work for whatever it was, $15-20/hr, kind of implying my husband should be grateful for an offer. He declined the offer.

    3. Myrin*

      I read OP’s “a position that required relatively difficult-to-find skills” as “a position that requires skills that off themselves are already hard to find and even harder to get by in combination”. So like “needs to be fluent in [rare language], have a good grasp of [specialised and complicated computer program], have worked [obscure field] for five years minimum” etc. Pure speculation, of course.

        1. Stellaaaaa*

          That’s where salary comes in. You basically need to pay enough to make someone risk leaving their current high-level job to work for you.

        2. designbot*

          My only exposure to training employees is references made on this site. Every job I’ve ever been in, they give me a computer, show me where the files are at, drop me in a kickoff meeting, and I’m minimum 90% billable first week on the job. Some industries just don’t do it, like we’ve forgotten how, or that it’s even a thing.

        3. Toph*

          In some cases, the need is for someone who can do the work NOW or very-close-to-now. So someone who needs to be trained/learning-on-the-job for more than 30 days might be less helpful than leaving the position vacant for longer in order to find someone who can hit the ground running on the software or the language and all they need to get up to speed on is New Employer’s Practices. I’ve worked places that sometimes tried to save a buck by replacing an expert with someone who would be trained, and once in a while you find someone great, who learns fast and becomes a superstar. But far more often, you either don’t have someone there who already knows The Thing to train the new person, or you do but they’re already so overworked they don’t have time to train someone and the point of hiring the someone is to make Existing Person less overbooked. So it might be a calculated risk to burden them more with training in the hopes that once new person is trained they’ll be good enough fast enough to lighten the load.

      1. AnotherAlison*

        I did think that could be the case, too, although I thought of it from the angle that they may have the person wearing three vastly different hats (Excel guru, social media manager, and caretaker for the office ferret). In that scenario, maybe what you need is a part-time person or contractor in different roles.

    4. Letter Writer*

      The difficulty with this job search is that is requires fluency in a particular language. Beyond that, the person needs to be decent at computers, good at communicating, able to google/ask questions when they don’t know something, etc, and the job pays more than double minimum wage. We actually aren’t asking too much (in my opinion) but there just aren’t many bilingual people (with the needed language) in the local job market right now.

      1. AnotherAlison*

        But if that combination of skills is rare in your job market, then it is automatically more valuable, even if it seems like these skills are not a big deal. If you’re competing with other businesses for good people who already have $15/hr jobs, then you may need to offer more to get those people to come to you, or you have to find bilingual people who can be trained in the business skills you need. That’s a cost to you, too. Or make it a remote job so you have more access to people with the skills you need. You have to do something different to get different results.

      2. Stellaaaaa*

        “More than double minimum wage” is like $17/hr where I live, which IMO is way too low for someone with full fluency in another language and the other baseline skills you’re looking for. If I spoke that language, I’d look at your pay rate and apply for a $40k teaching job or $35 entry level paralegal job instead.

      3. all aboard the anon train*

        I have fluency in a second language and I wouldn’t even look at a job that only paid double the minimum wage, especially since the language I have fluency isn’t a common one for my location.

        I personally look at fluency in a second language the same as people who have certifications or skills they had to undergo intense training to receive. It’s more than your average candidate, and deserves to be compensated accordingly.

      4. K.*

        Respectfully, on its face, $15-ish per hour doesn’t sound like a lot to pay a candidate who must be bilingual, particularly if the required second language is uncommon for the area.

        1. zora*

          Remember minimum wage varies a lot based on the location. In my city double minimum wage would be $26/hour which is decent. But I agree that still might not be enough if they are not getting qualified applicants.

          1. teclatrans*

            Yea, I was confused because I first thought double minimum wage was quite respectable (I was thinking $25-30 per hour), but commenters here have reminded me that most minimum wage is not even in sight of a living wage.

      5. paul*

        If it’s a rare or in demand language, be ready to pony up the dough :/ We’ve tried to hire a Farsi speaker with those skillsets and can’t get one for what we can afford to pay (almost exactly what y ou’re offering by the sound of it). Language line it is…sadly.

        1. chicken_flavored_deodorant*

          Have you tried looking at former military? They may be more willing to relocate.

        2. lill*

          Oh the differences between the US and Europe.

          Here almost every college-educated person speaks two foreign languages very well. I speak three but it hasn’t been an advantage in searching for jobs, because, as I say, it’s so common.

      6. NoMoreFirstTimeCommenter*

        I get this. I currently work in a temp job in a field I didn’t have previous experience in, only because I’m fluent in a rare-ish language. The company needed a dozen of fluent speakers, for a relatively short time, and the job can’t be done remotely so you need to live in the area. I believe they hired pretty much everyone who passed the language test and didn’t seem completely awful in the interview. Luckily we all seem to be doing a decent job – the job itself is relatively easy for a native level speaker – but I can see how this kind of situation can lead to problems as well. Especially as our pay is, though acceptable, still not great.

      7. Letter Writer*

        According to glassdoor, our job pays $6000 more a year than the average for similar jobs (including the bilingual part) in this region, and is closer to 3x minimum wage than 2x. Unfortunately, significantly increasing the salary is not possible at this time, and distributing the tasks to current workers is more likely to be the result if we can’t find anybody this time.

        1. paul*

          Is there a way to hire for a different position to help with redistributing the load? Reassign some duties to the new position?

          It sucks not being able to fill a position but sometimes you really just don’t have the money to attract a good candidate; we’re largely grant funded at work so I get budget constraints can be inflexible.

      8. Anne (with an "e")*

        I am fluent in another language and I turned down a job just last month that needed someone who spoke my other language. One of the reasons that I turned it down was because the pay was insultingly low. An acquaintance of an acquaintance reached out to me. I sincerely doubt that the job has been filled.

    5. AnonToday*

      So much this. I worked for someone who actually said he was fine with hiring “desperate recent college graduates” for various positions. He didn’t care if they stayed 6 months or so – he said he knew there’d always be another one there to take the last one’s place. His rationale: recent grads who don’t have jobs are desperate for any job they can get so they’ll work for almost nothing. And if one leaves, there’s always another one. I left the room before I smacked my own forehead. Argh.

    6. Justin*

      It’s like my last job. Every even entry-level admin job (not that these are easy!) required a Masters and they never posted a salary but it was probably mid30s in NYC, and then, hey, months would pass.

      And so they always ended up hiring people from wealthy backgrounds “somehow.”

  6. Zahra*

    I don’t know what kind of references you were given, but I can think of a few alternatives to contact the references:
    – Find them on LinkedIn and go through that
    – Contact HR from those companies (not all jurisdictions allow you to contact outside the reference list, though)
    – Find anyone from those companies on LinkedIn and contact them

    1. Caro in the UK*

      I may have misunderstood what happened here, but it seems like she did list references, but LW couldn’t get a response from them. I interpreted this as the references getting LW’s voicemails and emails but not responding to them (obviously some may have moved on and have different contact details, but all of them?)

      What this says to me is that the references provided didn’t want to give a reference, probably because they felt they couldn’t give a good one (much like the LW now feels). This is a MAJOR red flag for me, and I don’t think going through LinkedIn would have helped elicit a response (although it might have made the issue more obvious to the LW).

      1. Zahra*

        But… HR would be able to at least verify employment and say whether it is policy or not to give references. I don’t have emails for my references and I can easily see them forgetting to return a call in a timely manner. I would put it as a fluke unless I wasn’t able to get anyone from past companies to tell me a single thing about the candidate, not even dates of employment.

        1. Optimistic Prime*

          But the OP wasn’t concerned about whether or not the candidate had worked before; the OP had concerns about the candidate’s skills and personality/work style. HR verification of dates of employment wouldn’t have helped them assess the candidate the way they wanted to.

    2. all aboard the anon train*

      If someone comes from a very large company, I think just randomly searching for people from that company on LinkedIn could be a huge waste of time. I’m just thinking of how if I didn’t have LI someone would try and find someone I worked with at my huge company. It’s be a nightmare.

    3. Observer*

      Where is it illegal to contact references that are not on the list?

      I’m pretty sure that that concept is an urban legend.

        1. Observer*

          The OP is from the US. In any case, it seems to me that even this doesn’t mean that it’s illegal for the employer to call anyone but the list of references that the candidate supplies, it just limits what some people can say.

  7. hayling*

    I think for the OP it’s a lesson learned in speaking up and trusting your gut.

    I had a similar experience when I was first involved with hiring. We were looking for a part-time admin for a chaotic office, and were considering this one recent college grad. She was friendly, outgoing, and full of personality, but I had a nagging feeling that she wasn’t organized. I didn’t press the issue, and everyone else liked her, so we hired her. It became clear *very* quickly that she was super disorganized. We felt bad because it was just as much our fault as hers in making a bad hire. We transitioned her to a different role for a while, and then she found another (full-time) role and left on good terms. But looking back I wish I had been more confident and objected to the hire in the first place!

    1. Betty Cooper*

      I had a similar experience. I was part of a hiring panel, and the rest of the panel really liked one of the applicants. I had a gut feeling about the person, but I couldn’t really put my finger on what the problem was. Since everyone else was really excited and I didn’t have anything more substantial to say than “I have a bad feeling about this,” I ended up just going along with the crowd. I really wish I hadn’t. Once this person was hired, they were not only bad for the job, but also really bad for morale with our other staff. They didn’t end up lasting long in the position.

      So now I know that even if all I have is a bad feeling, it’s worth speaking up about.

      1. selenejmr*

        Oh my gosh, yes! We had to hire a new person to take over for an employee who left who did the receptionist/church bulletin/deposits duties. For the first time ever, me and my co-worker, ‘J’, were helping the manager with deciding on a replacement. I had a bad feeling about one candidate, “C”, but didn’t say anything because the other two people seemed to want her and I didn’t have anything concrete as a reason not to hire her, so she was hired. (Turns out ‘J’ just wanted anyone there because she had taken on a lot of the former receptionists duties in addition to her own job and was ready for anyone!) Big mistake. The bulletin, which took the previous person six hours a week to do, took ‘C’ 30 hours to do…..even after working there a whole year. She took so long with that task and with each phone call that came in that she was never given the deposit duties. We had a change of management after C had worked there one year and her duties were changed to a different department. But she was still super slow. She got super paranoid about making mistakes and would take forever making spreadsheets, or doing any of her duties. After a year in that position she got moved to another position and it was more of the same. Took four more months before she was let go.

  8. AdAgencyChick*

    Oh man, OP. Been there. You have a position that’s hard to fill for whatever reason, you or your boss is tired of doing the work that would normally fall to that position, so eventually you or your boss start rationalizing why a “meh” candidate should get a yes.

    It never works.

    This is especially frustrating if you know that the reason the position is so damn hard to fill is that whoever sets the budget refuses to pay market rate for the job.

  9. Danielle*

    Just reinforcing that you need to be sure you’re hiring the right person, since you’ll be the one managing. I once went with the candidate my boss preferred for an opening. I was on maternity leave, and I came in for the interviews and had discussions via email/phone. I preferred candidate A, while my boss and one of my direct-reports had a strong feeling about candidate B (whom I thought was fine, but had mild reservations about). We hired candidate B.

    Fast forward 6 months, and candidate B is clearly unhappy and leaves the position. I ended up being able to hire my original candidate A, so it was OK. But it really reinforced to me that I needed to go with my gut in future.

  10. KateT*

    Ready for this one? Candidate walks in for a specialty retail sales job, does a great job selling himself for the job. We wanted him right away. All his references checked out with wonderful feedback except his most recent employer, who was in the process of shutting down his business (a local children’s department store) and couldn’t get back to us in time. Someone told me Candidate was great but sorry, Boss was too busy/stressed to discuss.

    Six months later, he is excelling in his position and all is well. Then one day he comes in to my office and tells me that he is about to plead guilty to three felony counts of possession of child pornography. He admits that he was fired from his last job when Boss found out he’d been arrested. I fired him for misrepresentation on his application for lying about the reason he left his last job.

    1. Here we go again*

      What if the guy was innocent though and boss fired him for not believing him? Obviously, that wasn’t the case here, but it could be a possibility elsewhere. This scenario just seems like a slander case waiting to happen.

    2. RVA Cat*

      It’s scary to think how well his sales skills might help him attract victims…. :(

    3. KateT*

      The employee told me flat out that he was guilty. His case officer called me to ask me if I would be willing to consider to keep him on for the good of society (better to have him gainfully employed and on good behavior). My industry (automotive) is mostly adults, so I get it. I may have put more thought into it but the employee had already told me, “Don’t worry, I won’t go to jail. I’ll disappear if I have to.” Yeah, I could not have an employee who was at risk of becoming desperate and disappearing with whatever he could carry.

      1. Observer*

        Did you tell his case officer that? That’s really important information. Because, aside from your very legitimate concern for your business, someone like that DOES need to be locked up, or they will continue to victimize kids.

        Whatever you may think about porn, it is NOT possible to create child pornography without victimizing children.

    4. ThatGirl*

      A decade ago, I was still working in journalism and we hired a new copy editor. He’d apparently aced his editing test and had previously been working at a different paper in the area. I have no idea if references were checked, but what happened later made me suspect they hadn’t been.

      Because for starters, he was bad at his job. OK, he knew the basics of editing and fact checking. But we were also page designers, which he was painfully, painfully slow at. He barely knew how to use the standard software. We averaged 5-6 pages a night, I’d say, and he could barely finish two.

      But ok, slow is one thing. Perhaps he could have improved on that. He was also kind of…off-putting. Liked to talk about guns. Seemed like a nice guy and then would get really angry about something out of the blue.

      I knew someone at the paper he used to work at, so I asked her about him. She told me he had been let go after failing to show up for work one day, and when they finally got ahold of him, it turned out he’d been in jail on a domestic battery charge. Oof. I told a couple of my (also young, female) coworkers but didn’t take it to management or anything.

      Then suddenly he got let go from our workplace. Why? Because he’d rammed someone’s car door with his in the parking lot, then moved his car to make himself look innocent. But there were cameras. So when he was confronted, he got very loud and aggressive and security had to be called…

    5. Jesca*

      Didn’t anyone run his criminal record? Or are you in one of those states that don’t allow that? I know where I live, criminal records are free. If you were even arrested for a crime in my state, any old person with internet access can look that up. I’m talking even driving offenses. So did no one look to see if he had a criminal history or had been recently arrested? Unless you live in a state where they have made at illegal, I thought that was pretty standard practice.

      1. Jess*

        Would a recent arrest show up? Obviously different justice systems do things differently, but I’m pretty sure that when we submit a police check form, we’re only going to get things that have been processed through the system and resulted in fines/convictions, not recent arrests.

        Plus, we have two levels of police checks – there is a “Clean Slate Act” which allows certain categories of convictions over a certain number of years old to fall off the police check results. Only if you are employing for certain jobs (e.g. caring for vulnerable people) can you run a check with a Clean Slate Exemption, so you might not be getting everything anyway.

  11. Tricia*

    I had an issue when I applied with my current employer. I had worked for several years and did have a couple of former managers who could give good references; however I had left to start my own business in a completely unrelated field (a bakery) and when that closed (after 2 years I was just paying my bills and then my new landlords decided on the maximum allowed rent hike each year for the next 3 years of the lease so it was a no go and I closed down). Govt jobs have very detailed reference requests (please provide a detailed example of a time where the applicant exhibited good judgement – along with 4 or 5 behaviour indicators) and my previous managers couldn’t answer those questions with any detail. Thankfully I had scored high enough on the written and service tests and done well enough in the interview that they decided to proceed without the completed reference check. It did pay off for them as I’ve been with the government for 16 years and progressed up through multiple jobs at a decent pace.

    I can also understand a red flag though if you just can’t get in touch with provided references – that screams to me that they are avoiding providing any reference because they are probably under the assumption that they can’t give a negative, factual reference.

  12. thevekuc*

    So much this — speak up!

    A couple of jobs ago, our great manager quit at the worst possible time. My VP was panicked to find a replacement. We just couldn’t find anyone suitable. Finally, the located someone several states away. He came in & there were immediate red flags. We were a very collaborative environment and I don’t remember the specifics, but I remember realizing he was must more used to a command and control type environment. I raised my concerns, my VP agreed, but time passed & no other candidates were found. Finally, my VP said he was bringing in red flag but promised to work closely with him to make sure he successfully adapted to our environment.

    Between then & when red flag was hired, my VP decided to leave (unbeknownst to us) & basically “checked out”. So red flag started and was every bit the wrong fit I feared he would be plus (so much plus).

  13. Coming Up Milhouse*

    Interesting. My past 3 jobs in 15 years have not asked for references. I did have to go through a rigorous background check and drug testing but not one employer had requested references.

  14. LabTech*

    Can I just say, I personally hate providing references? I get why it’s important to get the perspective of former supervisors, since I can’t assess those characteristics objectively myself, but having had an objectively bad boss every other job (think, screams at people, throws tantrums, insults and bullies subordinates), references are hard. And while the solution to this is to screen out bad bosses, I don’t have the luxury of choice when I’m dealing with sparse references and a spotty work history as a direct consequence of those terrible managers. It’s a vicious cycle.

    I’d love to be able to say, objectively, that my strong work ethic, dedication, and empathy make for a great employee, but after so many bad experiences, it’s getting harder to separate the circumstances from the outcomes. They start to bleed together, as burnout, abusive management, and defensive maneuvers become more familiar than a healthy work environment.

    I don’t have any alternatives to giving references, but felt it important to give an alternate view from someone on the other side of the reference barrier.

    1. Manders*

      Same! I worked at a medical office and then at a law firm–not places that are known for having bosses who are good at managing admins or understanding what their staff is doing day to day. I agonized about providing references when I switched jobs recently, and even did some free work for small business owners I knew so they could speak about my work to reference checkers. And after all that, I wasn’t even asked to provide references.

    2. Stuff*

      I must, unfortunately, +1 this. I wish the circumstances weren’t so, for both of us.

    3. AndersonDarling*

      I had the same kind of awful, dysfunctional boss. When I interviewed at my current employer, I had to explain it and explain why one of my manager references was from 15 years ago. I didn’t have many jobs, and I wanted managers as references to fill the gap from my last bad manager.
      It took so long to track down one manager, I ended up calling the hotline of some big companies and finally found her in a directory. (It’s a small industry, so there were only a few places the manager could have been working.) I was trilled when she called me back!
      But if I move on, I’m going to be back in the same boat trying to find references to fill in for that one bad employer.

    4. M-C*

      A good point LabTech. 90% of the time when I leave a job it’s because of bad management. Then people expect me to hit up those same managers for references? Managers whose main problem was that they never bothered to find out anything about the work, and were totally bamboozled by people who did no work or crappy work? How can this really work for either side?

      1. neverjaunty*

        What’s the alternative?

        Yes, sometimes past references are going to be jerks – which is why it’s a good idea to ask why someone isn’t giving a reference rather than assuming. But the solution to that is not to skip checking references.

        1. LabTech*

          I guess if there were more flexibility regarding who is provided as a reference, that would be a start. Currently, I have 4 positions, including my current one, with impressive experience. Current employer can’t be used as a reference for the time being, position #2, and #4 can be, but position #3 absolutely not. Which is, I think, is pretty glaring omission in my references, since the only supervisor to be my reference before that is from 9 years ago in a tangentially-related role. (And for #3, I’ve asked every other senior personnel there that’s overseen my work, but they all refused, which was really jarring because I thought I had a fairly good rapport with all of them.) Also, for the record, the references I do provide are glowing.

          So, to answer your question, a good start would be employers having a better understanding that if a work history isn’t all sunshine and roses, it’s not necessarily on the candidates’ shoulders.

          1. JustaTech*

            What about co-workers? There’s one place I worked where I would never ask my boss for a reference (even if I could remember his full name and the place hadn’t closed), but if I needed to I have one co-worker from there who would give an honest reference.

            1. LabTech*

              For that particular job, the only other options besides the more senior staff/co-workers that already declined to be a reference were the two people who quit and vanished without a trace, and the boss’s son.

  15. Mallorie, the recruiter*

    I’m curious on others take on this. I work for a company that has a strict no reference policy. However, I work in hr where that policy is followed and enforced. I know it’s been said on this site that people often ignore those rules, but in hr here, they don’t as we can get in major trouble and hr employees tend to be rule followers.

    How would you explain this? I’ve been here 10 years, do if I were to leave, I would literally not have references.

    1. Dave*

      Hi Mallorie,

      Are there people that have left your company that you can use as a reference because I would assume they are no longer bound by company (your current employer) policy?

      Also, I think part of these reference checks are to verify that what someone says/puts on a resume or application is true so even a “title and dates” can be helpful.

    2. The Resource for all Things Human*

      We have hired several former employees from a large company in my city that does not allow references. It is well known by most employers, and we do not hold it against applicants from that company. Our workaround for some of our employees has been to ask for references from former clients or customers. In your case I would

      1. The Resource for all Things Human*

        Hit submit too fast. In your case I would not hold your employer’s policy against you.

    3. Optimistic Prime*

      Mallorie, do you know why your company has a strict no-references policy? I’ve always been curious about why companies would have those policies in place.

      1. NaoNao*

        I have worked for companies with “no-reference” policies and it’s to protect against lawsuits. Basically, in many cases, if you give managers or other employees their freedom to say whatever, they could say damaging or even libelous things or things that break confidentiality rules/laws “Well, she has XYZ disability and she missed 60 days of work, but other than that, she’s great!” That type of thing.

    4. Chaordic One*

      I suppose this won’t work for everyone, but in the past I was always able to find former managers and former co-workers who had left the employer that did not allow them to provide references. I kept in touch with them after they left and provided current contact information in my application materials.

      Since they no longer worked for the employer that did not allow references, they were no longer obligated to refrain from providing professional references and they were happy to vouch for me.

  16. Hiring Mgr*

    Couple of questions for the OP after reading this: Are the “relatively difficult to find skills” that you were looking for in a candidate the same skills she turned out not to have? If so, why did you think she had those skills in the first place? Was it just that she said she did? If so, how bad were the other candidates? Finally, can you really know for sure she doesn’t have them after just a few weeks? Might you be biased since you didn’t want to hire her? Just food for thought–good luck!

  17. chocoholic*

    I have run into this before where I can’t get references to call me back. I am willing to call twice and email once before I give up. But I put it back on the applicant to provide me with references. If they want the job, they will get me references.

  18. Jaguar*

    This always frustrates me. Currently, my job history is:
    – Long stay at reputable place: good references but almost ten years past now
    – Long period caring for sick dad: I mean, my dad would give a terrific reference, but…
    – McJob I was miserable at but was doing because it was graveyard (so I could still care for my dad) and I wouldn’t know how to reliably contact people at even if I wanted to use references from here
    – Professional job that was a nightmare: they told me they would give great references but I don’t trust them at all
    – Long stay at current job: will give great references, but that doesn’t help me right now

    The idea that I would be disqualified because of these circumstances really gets under my skin.

    1. Referenceless*

      Yes, if I were to job-hunt right now I don’t know what I’d do for previous job references. I’ve been here 12 years, the job before this, maybe someone might remember me. Before that I was fired from a call center that went belly up 10 years ago. Before that was a different hotel-I know management has changed. Before that was 17 years ago.

  19. NoHose*

    Years ago, I provided references. I was offered and I accepted the job and I did very well. I asked the recruiter later if she called the references. “Oh, no, I rarely need to. I usually get a good feeling for these things.” And in my case, it worked out.

    These days, however, with how easy it could be to steal a resume online from someone else, I would prefer to have references provided and called.

  20. Amber T*

    When I was interviewing for my current job, I had asked my last boss (from ToxicJob, who was a decent enough manager) to be a reference for me, and he agreed. So when I got to the reference checking stage, it was a bit of a surprise (and frankly, I was mortified) when my interviewer told me she had called my old boss, but that he had provided his work cell (he never told me work provided it, he called it his personal cell) and that he had been fired and left no contact with the new manager. Thankfully she had been able to get in touch with my other reference (from college), and I offered to put her in touch with either someone else at ToxicJob (technically a peer) or another supervisor from college job, but to my knowledge she never reached out to either.

  21. Agile Phalanges*

    Heh. I was hired because my predecessor had stolen from the company after being employed there for 15 years. It had apparently been going on for some time before being discovered, but not the entire time. Fairly frequently when I was new, my boss would bemoan his dismay that someone who had worked for him for FIF-TEEN years could do that to him, and on and on… One day shortly after I had started, when it made sense in context, I asked him if he had contacted my references, he said he hadn’t, and I asked him why, since that was pretty unusual, and he said it was because I’d worked at my prior company for fifteen years, so clearly I was doing something right. Headdesk. (He also never calls references on our production workers with significantly dodgier work histories, so clearly it’s just something he doesn’t do.)

  22. Not So Bad Candidate*

    I’ve been asked for references, but they’ve never been contacted. Other than to verify employment as part of a background check. I just started a new job 3 weeks ago and they didn’t ask at all. Though I was referred by an existing employee, so maybe that was reference enough. Unless I’m the one getting fired tomorrow…

  23. Winger*

    I had a great job (#1) a few years ago in which I was extremely successful. My boss has given me at least one great reference. Unfortunately he recently died.

    The job I had right after that one (#2) didn’t go so well. I did fine, but I had a not-great relationship with my boss. She was totally blindsided when I gave her my 2 weeks notice and behaved unprofessionally, and it was very clear to me that I would not be able to list her as a reference. I even asked a board member (a professional recruiter!) if she thought I was being crazy, and the board member said “I would go with your instinct here.”

    I’ve been at job #3 for some years and am currently interviewing for something new. I can’t offer my current boss as a reference, and I can’t use boss #2 as a reference, and boss #1 just died. There’s always boss #0 but I had job #0 almost ten years ago, and it was a super junior role. I’m interviewing now for top positions. I’ve given a bunch of former coworkers and subordinates as references but I am in a really shitty position at the moment!

  24. Emily S.*

    Under her answer in #4, Alison wrote “I don’t think you managed this person but if I’m wrong and you did, then you have standing to push even harder.”

    It seemed to me, judging from the letters, that this LW did at least supervise (if not manage) the employee — given that she was the one “cleaning the mess.”


  25. Misclassified*

    On the flipside, how would I handle references?

    I’ve only had one full-time professional job, which is where I was for about 5 years. It was a small business with two owners who were my direct supervisors. I quit it earlier this year for many reasons, but the main thing was they were misclassifying me as an independent contractor (as an aside, that has been all handled through the SS-8 process and resolved in my favor). The job was quite… Angry that I did that, even making comments on my last day that I “left them with an office full of employees.” I did good work, but knowing their personality types, I am about 99% certain any reference they give would be quite negative (I am 100% positive about that for the managing partner and 98% certain for the other partner).

    I worked with a professor and a private employer one semester/summer back during graduate school, but that was six or seven years ago. I also have two people from outside firms I worked with closely on a couple of projects while at my misclassifying job. Would it look odd to use outside people I worked with on a multiple employer project? And what would be the best way to indicate that my ex-job would have a very negatively biased attitude towards me?

    1. Toph*

      Assuming that before you get to the reference-checking stage, your discussions with potential-employer involve the “why are you leaving previous position” question, they’ll already have the very reasonable explanation why you don’t have a reference from your most recent, I would think. So using the clients will be a logical replacement and not at all a red flag. (Not that you’d get into anything dramatic in the why you left, but some nutshelly, professional, simplified version that gets the point across.)

  26. Letter Writer*

    Hi Alison, thanks for your response. This was indeed my direct report, but my manager was involved in the hiring process and ultimately made the hire. (This was shortly after a re-org, so hopefully next time I will be the hiring manager. I plan to discuss this with her soon.)

    There have been a lot of questions about the skills needed. I’m trying to avoid sharing too much details, but basically this is a bilingual role for a phone-based job that is sort of customer service, but more providing expertise and advice over the phone. We were willing to train on the subject matter but obviously needed the person to have language proficiency (which was by far the hardest part of the search), plus basic computer skills, and most importantly an ability to learn and ask questions. It turned out that she lacked both of the last two. For two weeks, we had her answering some of the most basic calls, and if a customer asked a question she didn’t know the answer to, she would either say she didn’t know or just make something up. I had a few serious meetings her about how crucial it is to ask questions when she doesn’t know the answer, that I’m always available to help, I provided reference sources, etc. Yet continually I would listen to calls and she would just not provide the requested information. There were more issues with her, but I can’t list them all, and her inability to respond to coaching and find answers to questions was important enough in this role to let her go.

    Another lesson learned is that the next round of candidates will need to take a computer test.

    1. Letter Writer*

      PS Just to be clear, when I said “most basic calls” I meant scheduling appointments, so she wasn’t expected to be an expert on anything yet. But if someone asked what a fee would be or what to bring, she wouldn’t even find out the correct answers to those kinds of questions.

    2. paul*

      The making stuff up….yikes. That’s legitimately awful and depending on your field can have horrible real world consequences. That really sucks.

  27. Erin*

    Did she have a job when you interviewed her? If so, here’s what they did at my current job: They basically offered me the job saying it was contingent on talking to my current boss (bosses, actually, I was dividing my time between two neighboring offices at the time). That way, you’re not throwing them under the bus so to speak by alerting their manager that they’re job searching, but if you learn something alarming during that conversation with their current boss you’ve given yourself an out with hiring them.

    1. Steve*

      As a candidate, I might not accept such an “offer.” Of course I can’t really stop any employer from rescinding an offer or even firing me the day I show up. But if you make the offer contingent, you are making the risk to me more obvious. You, as a potential employer, would have to make sure to reassure me that you liked the other references you talked to and that only if something surprising comes out of the conversation, would you rescind the offer.

    2. N.J.*

      I’ve always wondered though…so if the offer is contingent on speaking to the current employer and you do and they don’t give a great reference and you don’t hire the candidate…then that candidate is now in hot water at their current job because that job now knows they are looking. It doesn’t seem like a very fair situation to me, though the employer objectively should have the right to speak with whatever reference they want.

      1. Justin*

        Yeah, that’s exactly how it worked out for me. If I hadn’t gotten the other job I probably would have had to leave the other one or had my hours cut.

    3. Justin*

      Well that happened to me, actually. I had to ask my boss at the time to help me, and she said they couldn’t provide references, and so therefore I was sort of damned in two ways.

      They ended up giving me the job without the reference, but they scrutinized me very very careful for months, which was a headache. I mean, I get it, but it wasn’t really my fault. I made sure not to burn that bridge so I never have to ask a current boss again.

    4. all aboard the anon train*

      I’ve pulled my candidacy at such “offers”. I think it’s unfair to job candidates and it risks them losing their current job if the job they’re interviewing falls through or if they have a company/boss who fires them immediately for even interviewing.

      1. N.J.*

        I have a story related to that, kind of. In my first post-college job I was underpaid and bored out of my mind and my boss wasn’t really all that good at providing direction or mentoring but it was a decent job otherwise. I applied to another job at a related branch of the same organization after a year or so. The HR rep called the current boss to verify employment, so not really a reference but still a lot of questions about my job tenure etc. He told me directly he got a call to verify my employment and I was somehow able to spin it that it was a verification for a mortgage to buy a house, as I was doing this at the same time as house hunting, but I always thought that maybe he could see through my lie and just didn’t have the energy to question it.

        The HR rep had the gall to be surprised that I was not very happy about her calling my current employer but she had the wherewithal to express mild chagrin I guess, though I wasn’t really good at conveying what problem she had caused me. I always hoped that I embarrassed her enough for her to think twice about doing that again. The kicker? If she had called to give me a heads up, or ask if she could do this or if the hiring process would have communicated they would do thus, fine, but I didn’t get a warning at all.

        1. all aboard the anon train*

          I actually expect for people to call your current boss if you’re looking at a different job internally. Everywhere I’ve worked, your current boss was required to be in the loop if you were looking to make an internal move.

          I don’t agree with it, but I figured that was just the way things were. But your story is why I don’t give any names at my current organization or don’t list the actual department’s name, because I’ve had a few interviewers press the “we need to talk to your current boss” and I don’t want them going about it on their own. My boss would flip if that happened.

    5. Letter Writer*

      No, she wasn’t employed. Which was another reason references were important–she had a spotty work history and an explanation for each one (“it was temporary”, “family issues”, etc.) which I was willing to accept because I get that life happens. But not having a single employer verify her reason for leaving was suspicious.

    6. Stop That Goat*

      I’m on the fence about this approach. Ultimately, you end up vulnerable either way.

      I’ve considered providing a few years worth of reviews but I’m unsure whether that’s a faux pas in and of itself.

  28. B Check*

    For Allison/AAM:
    How does this work for large corporations (fortune 500,100+ employees, multiple locations)? We dont check references, we have a third party do a background check going back ten years.

    1. Mrs. Badcrumble*

      I was hired within the past 3 years at a Fortune 50, and they used an online tool almost like a cross between evite and surveymonkey. I had to send links to my references — a minimum of 10, if I remember correctly, max of 25– then they filled out a survey. I’m fairly certain there wasn’t direct contact between the hiring manager and the references, however. I’ve been on some hiring committees since then, and I always make the recommendation to talk directly to references, but I have no idea if that’s an option under our system. That being said — with regard to the 4 or so hires I’ve been involved with, they have all turned out really good, so something must be working.

  29. Steve*

    If you are desperate for someone with specific skills, but you can’t find the right person, you might be better off hiring a contractor/consultant. If the person turns out to be great you can probably convert the role to full time. If they turn out to be just OK or worse, you can get rid of them a lot easier.

  30. PNW Jenn*

    Years ago I burned my brushes when leaving a job. As in “liberally applied gasoline” on them.

    Fourteen months later, the job I’d taken to get out of a desperate situation turned out to be, itself, another desperate situation. I got let go and it was both the best and worst thing that happened to me.

    I had no references from 2 previous supervisors covering 6.5 years of employment.

    So I improvised. I reached out to the board chair instead of my previous boss. I asked a colleague to be a reference. I cultivated another previous supervisor to be a reference.

    I eventually got another job but learned the valuable lessons of having an broad network of supervisor-ish people for references and not lighting fires under bridges.

    1. Manders*

      When I was in a similar situation (didn’t burn bridges on purpose, but had some unstable bosses I didn’t trust to speak fairly about my work), I reached out to some clients I had a good rapport with.

      One tried to hire me when she found out I was looking! I didn’t take the job because I desperately needed to get out of that industry, but it made me aware of the importance of making a good impression on your network beyond your immediate supervisors.

      1. MissDisplaced*

        Also sometimes you can use vendors you’ve worked with. Especially if you were ordering high dollar amounts of goods. Maybe this wouldn’t be your #1 reference, but it can be a decent backup.

    2. Letter Writer*

      Yeah, I left my previous job on not-good terms with my manager. And I maintain that she was the crappy one, so I’m definitely sympathetic to the fact that not everyone will have a great reference from a direct supervisor. But at that job I still have multiple contacts who think highly of me and could be a reference if I needed it.

  31. Jadelyn*

    I feel like a lot of the lesson that needs to be learned here isn’t for the LW themselves so much, but that the LW’s manager needs to learn to defer to the LW as the actual hiring manager. Hopefully when the LW talks to the boss about it, the boss will have actually absorbed said lesson.

  32. MissDisplaced*

    I think even more than the references here is the: “We had one candidate who I would categorize as “not great, but could work.”
    Not sure what the skills were, but if the fit wasn’t great to begin with, any amount of even good references probably wouldn’t have mattered.

    I don’t mind giving my references out. But the thing is, it seems to be getting harder and harder to keep up with people, and when they leave companies what are you supposed to do then? It’s not like I have their personal mobile phones or emails every time (I do for some, but not all). I’ve even had one or two reference who actually died!

  33. Variations on a theme*

    Real talk: what if you’re a candidate that can’t find decent references?

    I need to work. I think I do good work. But I have had pretty severe personality clashes with previous bosses. I feel like this isn’t unexpected — I work in marketing, I’m a woman in a male-dominated field, and I have had some mental health issues interfere from time to time — but I also don’t think it’s something that means I can’t fit in at the right place, or that I don’t deserve to work at all.

    While I am very sympathetic to hiring managers, and I know ultimately they can just choose someone without complications, how do I navigate this?

    If you contacted my previous manager, for example, they’re going to say that I didn’t have the right personality to manage relationships between departments. The reality of it is that I was a woman, all of my coworkers were men, and I refused to go to a strip club for a business meeting outside of regular working hours (and no, that is not a normal setting for meetings in my industry) and that I wouldn’t “take back” what I said to a coworker when I asked (ASKED) him to keep me in the loop on project changes.

    If you contacted my current manager, he’d say that I am terrible at project management and communicating this to other teams. The reality is that THEY are terrible at project management and communication and take it out on me because I’m in marketing. No, it’s really not within my capabilities to understand that this project we discussed last week went from “it’d be nice to have next month” to “WHY ISN’T THIS LIVE NOW” in a blink.

    And yes, I am sure I have my failings. But even considering that: does it mean I shouldn’t work?

    1. Jaguar*

      A few disclaimers on my advice:

      1) I think Alison has advised against this tactic in the past.
      2) It may speak more to the way I tend to present myself in interviews that I’ve found it successful, so definitely gauge it against the overall product you’re presenting as a candidate.
      3) I’m male and everyone who has ever given me a job has been male (outside of phone screens, I think at least 80%+ of the people I’ve interviewed with has been male as well?). I’m pretty skeptical of the gendered angle on this, but I know that people take that into consideration often on this site and you’ve made a specific note of gender, so you can factor that in if you want.

      Be as honest, open, and forthright (and confident) as you can throughout the entire interview – not just the discussion of past supervisors – without outright trashing your former managers. My preferred language is something to the effect of, “To be honest, I don’t trust my former manager. If you want to talk to him, I can supply you with his contact information, but I also suspect I know what he will tell you.” The idea is to present yourself throughout as honest and reliable and poison the well against an unreliable reference and it will make the interviewer have to choose between their impression of you and the dubious impression of someone else. This will still cost you, of course – some interviewers seem to put more weight on other stranger’s judgement than their own or people they’ve met for whatever reason – but you already know you’re in a bad position. Hopefully someone else has an even better solution, but I’ve had encouraging results this way, including on-the-spot job offers.

      I would try to reframe how you think about this as a means of reframing how you discuss it, though. “Personality conflicts” reads as no fault to me, which in turn reads as a euphemism for “I’m at fault and want to lampshade it without technically lying.” Given what you described, you were in an insane environment that was going to lead inexorably to a poor relationship with your boss. Don’t paper that over with euphemisms in your own thoughts because that stuff will come through in how you describe it to others. But at the same time, really try to get past any anger or baggage you have, because that will come through as well. If you’re being honest about the situation, you don’t want to read as angry or bitter.

      1. Lynne*

        I’m pretty skeptical of the gendered angle on this, but I know that people take that into consideration often on this site and you’ve made a specific note of gender, so you can factor that in if you want.

        ..you don’t think the strip club thing was gendered??? Hard to see how it’s not.

        Actually, Variations, I think that would be a useful example to give in an interview as a reason why you’re looking to move on – I’d frame it as wanting to move somewhere the culture is a better fit for you, and mention the strip club example in fairly neutral tones. That should also help with filtering for jobs that DON’T have a toxic culture like that.

        But mostly, I like it as an answer to “why do you want to leave your current job” because I think the interviewer will remember that and totally get why you’re not giving anyone from this job as a reference even though your reference list is not strong. You don’t have to be explicit about it.

        As for your reference list itself – I’m not clear on whether there is literally no one you can use (coworkers? boss from a previous job?), or whether you just don’t have any supervisors you can list. I don’t think it’s useful to dwell on the unfairness of your situation; just focus on what practical steps you can take to get out of it. Maybe there is someone you collaborated on a project with who would say great things about you? If not, maybe you could get onto a project like that in future with a colleague who you consider a good bet for this, and lay the groundwork for being able to ask that person for a reference later on?

        Maybe you could do some good volunteer work for a community organization? References for your work as a volunteer are much much better than *no* references. You might even make connections with someone (or someone who knows someone) whose company is looking to hire for your skillset, and get a personal referral.

        If you do good work and are reasonably easy to get along with*, there should be a way you can scrape up references *somewhere*, even if it takes pre-planning and several months of working toward it. And if I were you, I’d start working on this ASAP, because the longer you stay at your current job where you’re not valued, the harder it’s going to get to change your career trajectory to something more positive. Not impossible, just harder. Plus there’s the fact that you sound pretty unhappy where you are.

        *One note about this: I absolutely know there are times when “it’s not you, it’s them” is the truth. But if, looking back, you can see a pattern of problems working with others that long predates your current situation, it might also be useful to do some introspection and maybe even counselling regarding this, because you don’t want to carry around unconscious behaviour patterns that will hinder you in your career. I, a stranger on the internet, have no idea if this is the case for you. All I know is that I’ve seen people who didn’t have good relationships with their managers, and sometimes it’s the manager’s fault, and sometimes it’s the subordinate’s fault. But in every case, the subordinate would have said it’s the manager’s fault. You don’t want to be one of those people who blindly blame others like that, because it’s such a hole to dig yourself into – you *can’t* improve if you can’t recognize the areas where you need to do that.

        (I really can’t judge if that last paragraph applies to you or not. But in your shoes, I would want to do my due diligence and give it some thought to be sure I’m not shooting myself in the foot in future jobs. And you will have future jobs! Don’t feel you will be stuck in your current one forever! You can get out of it, it’ll just take some work.)

    2. Jennifer*

      No advice, but a friend of mine has similar issues. She is all, “I wish I’d gotten written recommendations from the bosses who loved me, because now they’re dead.”

    3. lill*

      I have similar issues. Also my field is male-dominated (management consulting and IT). So much sexism I have to put up with just to get my references…

  34. Jules the First*

    I genuinely thought no one had bothered to check references or ask for a skills test when I started my current job. And I made an offhand comment to that effect to our head of HR one day…and he told me that they actually worked their network and tracked down a whole bunch of people who knew me and got references. They even managed to get their hands on a ton of (super confidential) work I’d done in previous jobs to check out my skills.

    Part of me is flattered that so many people said such lovely things about me, unprompted, but part of me is astounded that no one so much as dropped me a text to say ‘hey! exciting things happening!’. What’s the etiquette here? Should they have told me they were seeking informal references? Should the people who gave references have let me know they’d done that?

    1. SignalLost*

      I had someone give me a heads up that they’d provided a reference for me, and I got all excited that I was going to get an offer at a place I really liked. Then it turned out that they adhered to a policy of checking references for their top three finalists, so a) I wasn’t offered the job and b) I feel like my references’ time was wasted. With the ones I actually provide, I know that isn’t really an issue, but I always wonder if they went off the list and talked to either of the previous two supervisors who I would never in a million years list as a reference because they’re garbage people who have both been documented as lying about me.

  35. Anna*

    Once we were checking references for a potential new hire and the first reference I called answered very casually and I could hear music in the background. He seemed like he was confused by my call and then all of a sudden had an AHA moment… ohhh you call calling about THAT oh ok and then he started to give a rather fake/weird sounding reference. After we got off the phone, I called the company he supposedly worked at as a manager and they said that they had no employees by that name. So I did the same with the other two references and had the same results, the companies that they worked for and supposedly supervised the applicant at, had never heard of them. They were fake references! When I called her out, she made up some story that made no sense. At that point I just told her that we were going with another candidate and that was it. Unless someone has never had a job before or hasn’t worked in ages, they should be able to, at the very least, find former coworkers who can provide a reference. In all my years of hiring that was the only time that someone was not able to provide references without a really good reason.

    1. Jess*

      *gasp* That’s terrible!

      I do always wonder slightly about references we’re given that only have a mobile number, and not also the company’s number (assuming they’re still currently employed at that organisation). I think there’s been once or twice in the past when I’ve been a bit suspicious and ignored the supplied cell to call the company’s reception and ask to be put through to the person, but it’s never actually borne out… I think the closest was when we realised someone who was given as a manager was actually a peer and a friend, so not an objective reference at all.

  36. Green Goose*

    This is why performance tasks/culture fit questions are so important. When we hired for our interns, their references all gave them great “personality reviews” but we needed them to complete the performance task to know that they could complete the work.
    At an old job, we had a really hard time filling the office manager position and we needed someone who could use QuickBooks. One woman had as absolutely glowing recommendation from her former boss, who assured my boss that the woman knew how to use QuickBooks and was “so great” and they were so sad she was leaving. Unfortunately, it was obvious, quite quickly that the new hire had exaggerated her experience and was also not a quick learner and she ended up quitting on the spot a few months in when my boss eventually said she would need to take a course to get up to speed. We always wondered if the “former boss” that had given her a glowing reference was just a friend pretending to be the boss. After that we put a much higher emphasis on performance tasks.

  37. Quickbeam*

    I have made it a practicevto offer my services as a reference to many prior employees and co-workers. No time limit. I had a horrible time as a career changer when my long term prior supervisors died, went missing or went into the convent! It can be a real bind so I’d like people to remember to pay it forward.

  38. ST*

    I’ve been at the same job for 15 years, and have started applying for something else. My company has a no-recommendations policy, and everyone who supervised me still works there.
    Before that my supervisors were:
    my Father
    dropped out of society to live off the grid somewhere out west
    sold the company and doesn’t show up on Google
    retired, moved away, no forwarding address

    That takes me back to 1990 or so.

    1. ST*

      I’ve been listing some of them anyway, including former numbers/addresses, just to have something to go in the forms.

  39. Seen the same*

    I observed a somewhat similar situation at my high school many years ago. A teacher was hired (I think out of desperation to fill the particular need) and the only reference HR could find was from one of my then-current teachers who had known her more than a decade ago. The reference said that yes, she had written the letter for the candidate but it had been more than 10 years ago (they also hadn’t kept in touch) and if that was the only reference they could find that should be a red flag.

    My teacher was popular/had been teaching for decades so I guess whoever the hiring authority was felt it was enough. It wasn’t.

    I never had the new hire as a teacher but I had close friends and several classmates that I knew fairly well who were completely at their wits end by the end of that single year. Yeah we were all teenagers and hormones and all but they were really frustrated. I think the teacher was let go at the end.

    I’ve had jobs that never contacted my references or they were fine if they only got in touch with one person. It happens and it’s not necessarily a reflection of you or them. It could be that they felt the other pieces (the interview, resume, etc.) were all great.

  40. De Minimis*

    They got off somewhat easy if it was just a case where the person wasn’t the right fit. We had a similar situation last year–candidate had references, but not from any managers or even co-workers…just people from organizations with whom she had worked at her previous jobs [but not anyone from her actual employers.]

    But the position was hard to fill, so she was hired. Big mistake. Turned out she was a major con artist that basically got six months of salary and did little or no actual work—she was on leave much of the time [people even donated sick leave for her] because of a string of illnesses, family deaths, and major health events, some if not all of which turned out to be fraudulent [we discovered a lot of info on her social media after she resigned about where she’d been when she was allegedly caring for loved ones.] She resigned when she got to the point where she was going to have to return to work. People donated money, food, etc. It makes me ill to think about how she took advantage of everyone’s good will.

    We also found out she was apparently employed in multiple locations at the same time she was working for us. I knew she was gone for long stretches of the work day but I’d thought that was something she’d worked out with her supervisor. What I hate about it is that we have super generous leave policies, and I’m afraid that there might eventually be a move to reduce some of that due to this. The only good part is that once we decided to fill the role again the following year, we found an awesome candidate who had interned years before, so I guess we’re in a better place now.

  41. The blanket of Linus*

    Oof! OP, I am sorry that you were forced into that. Not great but could work is exactly how we felt about a recent interviewee. No offer was made, whew.

    On the flip side, my manager didn’t like the candidate I did and it’s still bugging me that we didn’t bring her back in for a round 2, so, I’m feeling the same type of lesson learned. (Also a new manager — all the empathy!!!)

  42. Matt*

    Regarding the “multiple, not returned calls”: having read quite a lot of the phone culture – phone vs. email persons – etc. pp. discussions here, I wonder how these calls were initiated – did you just call out of the blue multiple times, did you leave a message, did you try to set up an appointment for the call via email? I guess every “referenced” manager will have another things to do than to make themselves available for reference calls at all times … and maybe they even go on vacation, so “multiple not returned calls” wouldn’t be that big red flag for me …

  43. Anon for this*

    I worked in a company where a highly educated specialist teapot consultant was once hired from a competitor teapot company, at great expense, to be an in-house expert consultant to give opinion on difficult and technical questions our teapot engineers might ask. Our business was excited to get someone with so many letters after their name, and I can only assume they did not check references or things might have panned out very differently.
    This person was egotistical and vindictive, and refused to deal with anyone who wasn’t a middle manager or above. The highly experienced and educated teapot engineers, with the authority to make the final decision in teapot design matters – were not to contact the person hired to help them. Referrals for opinion had to be escalated through management only. If an opinion was sought, but ultimately a different decision made (for various reasons), then this would be taken personally by the consultant and escalated beyond all reason.

    They were eventually let go for cause. And then they turned nuclear with retaliation, going public with accusations about the company that resulted in an independent government enquiry and all hell breaking loose. Business was lost, media scrutiny was intense and staff morale affected before the company was eventually cleared of any wrongdoing.

    I don’t care how excited you are about a hire or how good they are on paper – always check your references!!!!

  44. neeta*

    This is completely off topic, but I initially read “religious leader of this site” instead of “religious reader”. I actually did a double-take, while picturing Alison in a Greek priestess-like robe. :P

  45. Drewby80*

    I had a similar experience with a colleague at a job back in the early 2000’s. This woman started in our office who seemed really nice, outgoing, and willing. She did her job well and was basically a good employee. About a month or two later after her starting with us, one of our team leads showed up to work with a look of shock on her face and immediately pulled in our office manager into a closed-door meeting. Soon thereafter, my colleague was pulled into the same meeting and was dismissed within the hour.

    Turns out that my team lead was reading the morning paper before coming in and saw that my colleague was listed in the crime report section under the upcoming court date portion. Turns out my colleague in her previous job at a bank up the street from us was fired because audits discovered she was stealing from general ledger accounts, customer accounts, and created fake accounts from stolen identities. The sum of her actions was somewhere to the tune of $17,000. When we all found out what happened, I asked why didn’t something show up during the background check. Turns out that we were only able to get in touch with one reference from her former job and that was it. I was also amazed as to how she didn’t show up in a criminal background check, but given that this was over 15 years ago, the process may have been very different than it is today. If I I had to put a “bright side” to this situation, I was a business major in college at the time and was struggling to come up with a topic for my senior research project. After this situation, I was inspired to research and write about the background check/pre-employment screening process.

    Lesson learned – go with your gut and don’t let the absence of references deter you from making any sound decisions no matter how desperate you are for help.

  46. HR Recruiter*

    In the 10 years that I have been recruiting I have never not hired someone based on what their references said. Basically because I’ve never had a reference say anything really negative (not saying it never happens, just hasn’t happened to me).
    I have not hired someone for the following reasons:
    -Every single phone number was incorrect (even after contacting the candidate about incorrect contact information)
    – All of the phone numbers they gave me were incorrect because of typos (position requiring attention to detail)
    -They couldn’t give me anyone that wasn’t family
    -They couldn’t give me anyone they have worked with in this decade
    -Reference don’t call back, and candidate cannot reach references either
    -Candidate is contacted about references not calling back and has “friend” call back and pretend to be reference
    If someone can’t find at least one person to be a reference for them, that’s a pretty big red flag. Either they really don’t want the job or no one has anything nice to say about them.

  47. Bad bosses*

    I have a related weird reference question here and I’ve been wondering if it’d raise any flags: I’ve been working for nearly a decade in a bunch of jobs and every single one of my bosses with the exception of one has been fired. Like, bad performance issues fired. I have no way to get in contact with them, and they were horrible bosses regardless (for the most part). I’ve had a lot of shitty luck with jobs, but I’m hopeful about a couple of opportunities in the pipe and I’m wondering if not being able to give supervisor references will be an issue going forward. I’ve gotten by with project manager and freelance client references so far but I’m not sure how long that’ll last for. Also is it scary to tell a future employer that all of your bosses have been fired?

    I actually wrote Alison about this question, but I know she gets tons of questions and it seemed relevant here.

    1. JustaTech*

      That sucks. Could you try for your boss’s boss? Or someone on your boss’s level that you collaborated with/knew? Or even peers? I would hope future employers would be willing to accept peers/non-direct supervisors if the problem is “Bad’s boss is doing 15 in the federal pen for embezzlement, but Bad was fantastic to work with (and totally cleared by the investigators).”

      I would think that as long as all your former bosses weren’t fired for the same thing (embezzlement, fraud) that could reflect on you, it’s so far outside your control no one should hold it against you.

      1. L.J.*

        get WRITTEN references will you’re on the job. from coworkers, from supervisors, supplies, manufacturer’s reps, etc – be creative. also, use copies of your performance reports, awards or recognitions, if your firm utilizes those to recognize work well done. if you take company sponsored classes, print those out and use those. if none of these satisfy you, your paycheck, and how long you’ve been getting it is a type of reference. what’s stopping you from contacting your former bosses? I’ll bet they are more likely to produce one after they’ve left the company-it’s up to you to obtain contact info for them. and tell the truth to every prospective employer. reasons should be obvious in this age. in the end, WE are responsible for monitoring, tracking, recording and developing our own working future NOT the employer.

  48. JustaTech*

    Cautionary tale about not checking references:
    I worked in a lab with scientist Bob who was a perfectly nice person but infuriating to work with. Disorganized, a hoarder, used up reagents like water, wrote bad experiments, etc etc.
    One day Boss is complaining about Bob’s latest muck-up to lab manager Barb. Barb (who had spent the morning trying to fix Bob’s mess), snaps at Boss that if only Boss had checked any of Bob’s references, including herself, he would have known that this is how Bob is. Boss says “But Bob’s boss said I should take him!” “Of course he did, he was trying to get rid of Bob.”
    Boss had not checked anyone’s references, or asked or listened when people told him about his potential new hires. So we were stuck with Bob and then later grumpy Bill because Boss wanted to believe that his judgement of character was better/more relevant than the thoughts of people who had actually worked with these people.

  49. lill*

    “She’s also someone who I could definitely see being an “okay” employee in other jobs, but not someone who I would want to give a reference for.”

    This suggests that only exceptional candidates get references. That’s simply not true. References only mean that the person has managed to find 2-3 friends during their previous employments. Totally unreliable.

    For me the situation described in this letter is understandable. Based on her competencies, it was clear from the very beginning that the candidate wasn’t very good and was a risky hire. The company decided to accept that risk. Then it turned out she was precisely that – not very good, a slightly less qualified than expected. This actually confirms that the company’s initial assessment of her was correct and references don’t have anything to do with it.

    Personally I haven’t been given references because of:

    – a boss who was furious that I was leaving. The environment was toxic and I felt the job was turning me into a person I didn’t want to be, so I really had to leave
    – leaving my long-term traineeship early. I was planning to stay two months longer, but I was paid poorly in a very expensive city – had to count every penny to, you know, have money to buy something to eat. Also I was feeling I was wasting time as I didn’t learn anything, which made me doubt the point of the whole traineeship.

    I’m now about to quit, have been applying intensively and hope to find something very soon. In theory I’m in a junior position, so I’m paid on a junior level (i.e. dramatically underpaid). In practice I’m significantly overqualified compared to other people and taking on roles on a manager level. I’m sure my employer won’t be happy about my leaving, as the new person will insist on being paid according to their responsibilities, which will impact my references.

  50. Anony*

    I could see myself being the un-referenced employee in this scenario, who was ultimately let go…….I left a career in nursing that I hated about five years ago and now I’m a 38 year old stripper and sex worker, living at home with my mom. Dropping out of an Ivy league grad school happened in there somewhere as well. No one will hire me with resume gaps and lukewarm references, and nobody understands why I would turn down “opportunities” like a great nursing career and an Ivy league education (even though I believe I have sound reasons for doing both of those things). My next move is to blow the joint, stopping my payments on credit cards and student loans so that I can get by on a minimum wage job. At least I won’t have to sell my body anymore to pay my debts. Just remember…….these are people, humans, not commodities. Those who don’t do well in a particular role might excel in others. It easy to end up in a job that doesn’t fit you well at all, and then end up in a bad spiral.

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