my mentor doesn’t want to be a reference for me

A reader writes:

I am planning to apply for a couple of positions and recently contacted a former supervisor to ask if I could list her as a reference. She was my direct supervisor for a year and instrumental in getting me promoted to my current position. After my promotion, she served as my mentor until her retirement several years ago. Since then, she has worked part-time in our profession and we have stayed in touch. Much to my surprise, she turned me down. She felt that she’s not qualified to be a reference for me because of how long she’s been retired, and thinks that I should use more current references.

The thing is, I do have more current references and plan to use them. The reason I want to include her is that she has always spoken very highly of me and is someone whose opinion I have always valued. Also, I do not want to use my current supervisor for a number of reasons and she is the only other recent supervisor I could use. Although we have not worked together for the past few years, I think she can certainly speak to my strengths and weaknesses. Besides, she has always indicated that she would be happy to help me with my future endeavors and this certainly qualifies.

I am surprisingly upset by her rejection, and have not yet responded to her message. Would I be out of line to ask her to reconsider? Or should I just thank her for her honesty and leave it at that?

I answer this question — and four others — over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

Other questions I’m answering there today include:

  • Employee keeps bugging me to interview someone unqualified
  • I’m doing way more work than I signed up for
  • Did I irritate this hiring manager?
  • Should I mention I don’t have kids or pets when applying for a job that requires a lot of travel?

{ 91 comments… read them below }

  1. Snark*

    I actually pinged harder on the one about “Did I irritate this hiring manager?”

    “After a few days, no one had contacted me, so I contacted the hiring manager and told him that no one had contacted me. He said I should hear something this week. I replied with, “When should I expect to hear, and are we still planning to meet this week?” He said, “Maybe next week.” So I said, “I am looking forward to meeting with you, and I was hoping we could do it this week.” Then the manager replied, “Really – are you questioning me??” ”

    Oh, OP, no. No, no no. Yeah, he was as ass about it, but….oh, OP. You tried to go full gumption. You NEVER go full gumption.

    1. King Friday XIII*

      Half gumption with a twist is really the most you want to go for, or you’ll never stick the dismount.

      1. Snark*

        Never second-guess a busy person about their schedule. If there was time this week, they’d have told you.

    2. k8*

      yeah that was…..awkward, to say the least. I’m pretty sure i would have responded with something equally obnoxious if a candidate said that to me….

      1. Snark*

        I’d have probably said, “No, if I were free to meet with you this week I’d have told you that, so why are you asking?” But yeah, that’s a great way to get someone grumpy at you.

      1. Alice*

        “Are you questioning me” is just under “do you know who I am” on the list of phrases that I never want to hear myself using, however busy I get.

      2. Blue Anne*

        Yeah. I mean, before OP even asked about moving the week forward, they were already being pushy:

        “He said I should hear something this week. I replied with, “When should I expect to hear, and are we still planning to meet this week?””

        You should expect to hear… this week. He already answered that.

        1. Mr McGregor's Gardener*

          Yes, but he didn’t answer the planning to meet question though. Hearing this week could mean Friday morning, and if he is still planning to meet this week, that could make the meeting Friday afternoon. Which may or may not be doable for the OP, unless they clear the time now.

    3. Roscoe*

      This is one of those things I hate. Like don’t tell someone X as a timeline, then get mad when they ask about it when the timeline has passed. Like, I get sometimes things take longer than you planned, but in that case, manager should be apologetic. But I hate that managers act like they are doing you a favor by talking to you, and you should be thankful whenever they get around to it.

      1. OverboilingTeapot*

        They…kind of are, though? They’re giving you a chance to interview, and they don’t have to.

        Unpredictable schedules are par for the course when it comes to hiring. They can certainly be apologetic, but unless they’re actually inconveniencing you and not just making you wait, they are also completely entitled to say “this is the situation” and leave it at that.

        And if you have a real restriction–you’ll be out of town, you expect another offer–you can share that, but you can’t make demands, and you definitely can’t push back on answers you’ve already received.

        1. Jenny*

          I think this falls under the belief that employers are doing people a “favor” by interviewing/hiring/employing them – and while it can certainly feel like way, employees are doing them just as big of a favor by applying/interviewing/being a good candidate. If you’re a hiring manager, it’s literally your job to interview and hire people, it’s not doing someone a favor.

          1. JHunz*

            I don’t think that’s an accurate viewpoint. Most of the time, if you’re a hiring manager, it’s a small portion of your job that overlaps with all of your normal responsibilities, meetings, and obligations. That’s not to say they should be rude if someone asks about a timeline, but continuing to push is pretty much always a bad idea.

            1. Jenny*

              True, I meant that it’s part of their job, not their whole job. And I agree that questioning a timeline is inappropriate. This was just in response to OverboilingTeapot’s comment that interviewing applicants is doing them a favor.

    1. AnotherAlison*

      Yeah, I’m not sure I would push back on this one. It sounds like she gave the OP a polite decline, and that may be the actual reason she declined, but she may have other unsaid reasons, too. She could be dealing with health issues, or traveling frequently and doesn’t want to owe you certain availability to talk to people.

    2. oranges & lemons*

      I think there is a chance that she really doesn’t think she would be the strongest reference, so it wouldn’t hurt to clarify (just once!) as Alison suggests. I had a similar situation come up and in the end my previous supervisor was happy to be a reference, just thought that too much time had passed for the reference to be very strong (which is true, I just didn’t have any other options).

      1. The Supreme Troll*

        Exactly. What Alison is saying is absolutely correct and a good method to re-start the conversation with the mentor. It might all be very innocent in that the mentor doesn’t want to inadvertently hinder the OP in her job candidacy by being what she self-perceives to be a non-useful reference.

        1. InternWrangler*

          I would add in language like, I appreciate your concern about recent references, and I do have some people who can speak to my more recent work. I was hoping you could speak in your role as my supervisor and mentor and then use Alison’s suggestions. But if you are going to go back, I’d address how you would mitigate for up to date references.

      2. The New Wanderer*

        I also had a similar situation – asking someone from the not recent past to be a reference (and potentially write a letter). He mentioned he thought that he might not be the best reference because it had been a long time and he wasn’t up to date on my recent activities. I replied with my reasoning (a mutual colleague also acting as a reference suggested him because of pretty specific field-relevant reasons), and he agreed to do it.

        It’s not something I would do in most cases, but this was a pretty unusual situation where it made sense. For other situations, I have gone with my most recent references.

        In other news, I recently got an offer with zero references asked for, much less checked. So, there’s that.

    3. Jenny*

      I disagree – given the message she sent you, it’s reasonable to ask again. If her concern is truly recentness, I think it’s important to tell her the position you’re in. If her concern is something else, well, it’s on her to tell you that.

  2. AK*

    I agree with Alison though, as long as there hasn’t already been a conversation about it where the mentor has put her foot down it couldn’t hurt to provide context and explain yourself. “I don’t think my reference would be considered a strength for you” and “I completely refuse” are very different “no”s, it’s not forcing her to do anything by asking her to reconsider.

    1. Sarah*

      I agree. When I was a graduate student teaching assistant, I sometimes had students ask me for references, and I would tell them that a reference from a grad student really isn’t going to be as strong as one from a tenure-track professor (many students don’t realize this). I would generally suggest they contact the professor for the course for the reference, and then I could provide details on their performance to be included in the letter, at the professor’s discretion. Occasionally, there would be some reason the student would still prefer me to write the letter and I would do it in that case — the reason wasn’t that they were a bad student, just that I was worried I wouldn’t really be the best person they could choose to be a reference. If they did have some reason they still wanted my reference, I would be happy to provide it with the student having full information.

  3. JarofBees*

    Yeah. As a hiring manager, #4 would have dropped off my list if I gave a timeline and they pushed back like that for any reason other than another offer on the table with a deadline. A lot of people interviewing seem to think filling the opening is the only task a manager is working, but we’re often busy with our actual work and have to adjust priorities as things pop up. And with an opening, I might be covering extra projects as well. I feel bad for OP, because I don’t think that’s what they meant, but it would be a no from me.

  4. Justin*

    Yeah thinking about number 4….

    I was hiring for a position at my last job. My last job was OVERLY slow about hiring, but this person came in, did a good job in her interview, and then, before the interview ended, said she had an offer for a higher salary (well, we hadn’t shared the salary yet) and so she needed to know THAT DAY.

    That was the end of her candidacy.

      1. RabbitRabbit*

        It’s cluelessness to the point of being horrifying, in that she thought she could get an offer on the spot.

      2. KellyK*

        What really strikes me as egregious is the “higher salary” part. How did she know she was offered a higher salary if they hadn’t discussed salary yet?

        Other than that, whether it was rude and presumptuous or just honest comes down to tone and phrasing.

  5. Trig*

    I’m confused about the answer for #1. OP1 said that they DO have more recent ones they’re going to use, but that they want to include the mentor AS WELL. Alison advises telling the mentor that she’s actually the most recent one? Should OP not phrase it more like “if the only problem is that you’re worried about you being less recent impacting my chances, it’s ok, I am also using more recent references too, but you’re in a unique position to offer insight on XYZ”? Or did I misread it?

      1. Trig*

        Oh good! I didn’t *think* you’d advise bending the truth like that, but wanted to make sure my reading skills hadn’t just up and vanished. :)

      2. oranges & lemons*

        Oh, that changes my read of the situation. In the OP’s position, I think I would check in with the mentor again if I didn’t have many other options, but I don’t know if I’d push if I just thought she’d be an extra-strong reference, if I knew she didn’t agree.

      3. Hiring Mgr*

        The OP says that she does have more current references but that the mentor is the most recent *supervisor* she can use, so I guess the more current references are co-workers, not managers. I don’t see what the harm is in reapproaching the mentor..

  6. stitchinthyme*

    General question: when should a reference “expire”? How long after you stop working with someone is it still appropriate to ask them to be a reference?

    1. Close Bracket*

      I try only to use references from what I am currently or was most recently doing. Currently, I am volunteering, and most recently, I was in school. I have one reference from the job I held before returning to school, and that is my former manager there. It seems like I should have a professional reference, given how long I was in the field. If my most recent activity had been a job rather than school, I would not have any references from the prior job. Just the recent job and the volunteer work.

  7. Stop That Goat*

    So, why don’t hiring managers pad their timelines with additional time if running late is so common? Genuine curiosity since I’ve only ever been an observer during an interview process.

    1. Lisa B*

      Sadly, I often DO pad my times, and it still gets blown away. “I finished first round interviews on Monday…. I’ll probably get the interview team back together by the end of the week to decide the next round candidates, so I’ll tell the candidate we’ll get back to them middle of next week. Go me, I’m so prompt!” Then one person is unexpectedly out for a few days, someone else wants to re-read their interview notes a few more times before deciding, I open my e-mail and get a landmine to deal with…. and suddenly it’s two weeks later. Or more.

    2. Where's the Le-Toose?*

      I think there is also the disconnect regarding priority levels between job applicants and hiring managers. For job applicants, the new job is their first or maybe second priority. For a hiring manager, hiring a new employee is important, but there are plenty of things more important–cash flow, budget issues, personnel issues for existing employees, etc..

      As a manager, I pad my time too. But we have a recent job posting where I was supposed to collect everyone’s materials my first week back from vacation and we were going to schedule interviews shortly after that. But then we had an issue with a promotion that required HR intervention. Then we had a major client issue that needed to be resolved immediately. Then we had a weak performer derail again and needed to meet with HR for a second time. This isn’t a sign that we are poor managers or don’t know what we’re doing. It’s a sign that sometimes things come up at the worst possible time. Had we posted the job in August, we would have scheduled interviews without any problems. But those are the breaks and sometimes these things just happen.

  8. Louise*

    Ugh #5 please don’t do that! Besides the fact that it’s unnecessary and they’re probably assuming most candidates are okay with that level of travel, what you’re thinking about saying just reinforces the idea that certain people (i.e. working mothers) shouldn’t have jobs because they have personal lives and other commitments! There’s so so so much history of women not getting opportunities because they’re not seen as committed enough (because they DARED to reproduce) and listing that as a qualification just gives further wings to that type of thinking.

    Please. Let your qualifications speak for themselves, and don’t throw people who have personal commitments under the bus in an attempt to make yourself look more attractive.

    (And while we’re here, I feel the need to say that my mom traveled an insane amount for work when I was a child. She was a full on rockstar everywhere she worked, and I turned out just fine. So I actually hope you reconsider this line of thinking entirely.)

    1. Rusty Shackelford*

      Yes. You can emphasize your own ability to travel, and tell them you’re looking forward to it, without suggesting that other women aren’t willing and able simply because they have spouses and children.

    2. Recruit-o-rama*

      Thank you for saying this. I travel a lot for work and people always say, “don’t you miss your kids?” But they NEEVR ask that of my male colleagues, most of whom also have kids. I know that my daughter in particular thinks I’m pretty cool for my high falutin job title and jet setting (as she sees it) and that’s a perception I want her to have; that women can be successful no matter what their family situation looks like.

      My husband can bake for the bake sales and get dinner on the table and drive kids to practice just as well as I can, and I HATE the implication that my family is an “obligation” that prevents me from rocking my career and that people without “obligations” or a man would be better at it than I am just because I have kids.

      1. Ginger Dalton*

        I travel for work a lot as well. My favorite is people asking me what my husband eats when I’m gone. Do I cook a lot over the weekends and he eats leftovers all week? Does he just eat out a lot? I think most people would be astonished at how many people ask questions like that. I have never heard anyone ask my male colleagues questions like that.

        1. Recruit-o-rama*

          Ha! I’m a fair chef, but my husband absolutely is a better cook than me and he does most of the cooking whether I’m home or not. I am a better baker though, my made from scratch birthday cakes are legendary. But yes, I also am frequently asked how my kids and husband eat while I travel, very annoying and sexist.

      2. Umvue*


        I’m a mom to a kindergartener and I have thought often about what a gift it was my mom gave me by being a working mom herself. I have never once questioned whether I still belonged in the workplace after having my daughter – to me, daycare is as normal for children as school is. When other people have insinuated that there’s anything the matter with working moms, I just give them a look, like, are you a time traveler from the fifties? The logistics of parenting are hard enough without throwing self-doubt into the mix. I will always be so grateful to my mom for leading by example.

        1. Recruit-o-rama*

          Being a parent is hard, and rewarding, I’m not complaining! But I think it is harder for women and sometimes I think women are our own worst enemies. Here is my list of valid choices for women:

          Stay at home parent
          Working parent
          Not a parent
          Pet parent

          When I see women tearing each other down, it hurts my heart. I have a small group of women who I am truly close to and they are in all of the categories above. I love their perspectives on life and parenting because they are not the same as mine and I learn things from them. I hope they learn things from me too.

    3. with a twist*

      My mom also traveled a lot for work. She actually had a company-comped apartment in another city because she was there at least 2-3 nights per week. She was still an amazing mother and her level of ambition inspired me to tackle my professional career without holding back once I entered the workforce. I have the utmost amount of respect for her and all that she has done, and I have learned so much for her expertise.

    4. Close Bracket*

      It’s not #5’s fault that that idea is out there! She’s not obligated to counter it. She’s stuck in a world where women’s commitment to working is questioned, and she has to deal with it in the way that is best for her career, just like we all do.

      1. Recruit-o-rama*

        I get this perspective too. Thanks for saying it.

        In my position, able to influence recruiting in a blue collar, male dominated industry, I will always keep this in mind.

      2. Sam*

        She may not be obligated to counter it, but she doesn’t need to invoke it for her own gain, either. This mentality really hurts all working women, including those of us who are single and child-free. She can express her enthusiasm for and commitment to the travel without explicitly perpetuating these ideas.

      3. MCMonkeyBean*

        But she’s not just not countering it, she is actively embracing it and seems to fully believe that not having kids *should* make her a more attractive candidate.

      4. Louise*

        I think all of us, regardless of gender, would benefit from dismantling sexist ideology in the workplace. Obviously the feminist police aren’t gunna throw OP (whose gender we actually don’t know) in feminist jail, but I genuinely believe we all have a responsibility to make the world a less hostile place for marginalized folks.

        1. Louise*

          (And that we’d all be better for it—there are plenty of studies proving the benefits of diversity of thought when problem solving.)

      5. FormerEmployee*

        To be fair, it would be an enormous challenge to have a job where a lot of travel is required if you are a single person (male or female) who has children and/or pets. I doubt that most people with those responsibilities, especially children, would even apply for such a job unless they had live in help of some sort.

  9. the future will be better*

    Ah, I’m having this problem now! I’m taking online courses to go back for a graduate degree, and none of the professors have been willing to give me a reference. I understand that it would be a very limited reference, but my last coursework in this field was nearly 10 years ago, instructor references are preferred, and I doubt that a third employer reference will help my application much. I think they figure they’re doing me a service, though I suppose they could also just not want to spend the time on it. Ah, well, I guess that’s life.

    1. the future will be better*

      To be clear – I’m taking prerequisites now, and would need a reference for graduate study. It’s different than my original field by quite a bit, so I was hoping for at least a reference of , “Yes, she can actually do this thing” but oh well, I’m sure it’ll work out!

  10. J.*

    OP #3, there’s absolutely no way that the organization didn’t know that they were hiring you to do way more work than you could do in 15-20 hours a week. They’re taking advantage of you. That’s a thing that nonprofits do, particularly ones that are strapped for cash, and it’s a one-way trip to Burnoutville.

    I agree with Allison’s advice. You should definitely sit down with the board chair and lay out what the expectations were when you were hired, what you’re currently doing in a week, and ask to clarify priorities for what they think needs to get done within the time you’re being paid for. (Also, if your work is much more than 15-20 hours a week, they should be paying you for that. They need to know you’re working more than that, and keep track of your time. You’re not salaried if you’re only part-time, and they need to deal with it.)

  11. Drama Llama*

    Honestly…it seems more likely Mentor doesn’t want to be a reference. There are some people I’ve worked with whose work is generally good but I wouldn’t recommend them for employment. It might be because they’re too gossipy, tactless, unreliable, anything. When there are personality issues we might have parted ways on a positive note but I would hesitate to vouch for them. I’m likely to offer a polite excuse like “My reference isn’t recent enough” as well.

    Allison’s script was respectful enough to communicate once (and only once). After that I would leave it and accept their “no”.

  12. Cassie*

    It’s interesting that so many commenters speculated on LW #1’s perception of her own skills or the mentor’s concerns about her own value. My gut instinct was simply that the mentor was enjoying retirement and just wanted to be left alone.

  13. minuteye*

    I once had a potential reference respond to my request with “Well, I would only be able to talk about your work in X, not Y, so I’m not sure I’m the best reference for you”. I clarified that I was looking for someone who could talk specifically about how I was at X, and I had a different reference for Y (who couldn’t talk about X at all). After that, she was quite happy to be a reference for me.

    My point is that, while sometimes that kind of rejection is a sugar-coated ‘no’, sometimes it’s just the person looking out for your best interests. I’d go ahead and explain why you thought this person would be a good reference, while being clear that you have alternatives if they’re not comfortable, just so that they understand why you asked in the first place, and don’t think you were being naive or asking as a reflex without giving it due thought.

  14. idi01*

    If someone says that they can’t or don’t want to be a reference for you (whatever the reason is) accept it and move on. Do not try to get them to change their mind.

  15. Seal*

    #1 – I’m the OP on this one from several years ago. At the time, while my mentor was retired, she was working half-time with another departmental library on campus and still in touch with many former colleagues, including me. Due to a number of factors, she truly was the only former supervisor I could use as a reference.

    I took Alison’s advice at the time and politely asked her to reconsider, citing the fact that she was the only former supervisor I could use; she still said no. But she also said that she had recently acted as a reference for a colleague who was going up for promotion because that was a “special circumstance” due to a long-ago project they had worked on together. She also suggested that I consider using one of a long list of colleagues, most of whom I had never worked with in any capacity and none of whom were in a position to speak to my work in general. The whole thing was very disappointing, particularly since she had done quite a bit for me when she was my supervisor. Others who knew her from before she retired were appalled by her behavior, because they all were under the impression that she thought very highly of me as well. I guess you never really know some people.

    1. MommyMD*

      It’s her prerogative to decline, for whatever reason. Why was anyone “appalled”? Be grateful for what she had done for you. Her declining a reference does not make her a bad person.

      1. Seal*

        I think people were appalled because prior to retiring she was very outspoken about professionalism in general and how important it was to support and mentor less experienced colleagues. To some people, her refusal to be a reference for someone she had recently mentored came off as hypocritical. That said, it was certainly her prerogative to decline, regardless of the reason.

    2. Gloucesterina*

      Thanks for the update on #1, Seal! Sorry this was the experience with your mentor, but it’s nice that your professional network was able to help you out in processing how surprising her refusal was and how it didn’t reflect on your actual work. It speaks to the value of developing a broader network of peers/colleagues who can help us parse out these types of situations and provide support!

  16. Akcipitrokulo*

    #5 – if I were hiring and got a letter specifying that – my first thought would be to reject the candidate immediately.

    Because if I have information that *could* be argued to have influenced a decision in a way that breaches equality legislation… it would have to be someone really, really special to get me to risk legal action from the mother who didn’t get the job and sues for sex discrimination. (And, to be honest, the person would have to have something extraordinary to make me overlook the error in judgement in putting me in that situation in the first place.)

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